Trauma and Triggers: Students’ Perspectives onEnhancing the Classroom Experiences at an
Alternative Residential Treatment-Based SchoolAngelique Gabrielle Day, Beverly Baroni, Cheryl Somers, Jenna Shier, Meredith Zammit,
Shantel Crosby, Jina Yoon, Megan Pennefather, and Jun Sung Hong
Youths in residential treatment (RT) are often burdened with histories of trauma exposureand experience a multitude of unique challenges for both daily functioning and develop-mental trajectories. Youths spend a large portion of their day in school; these educationalexperiences affect long-term well-being. This study uses qualitative focus group methodol-ogy to better understand the school experiences of youths placed in an RT educationalenvironment. The sample consisted of 45 female residents placed in out-of-home care dueto a child welfare or delinquency petition. Several key themes emerged that illustrate youth per-ceptions of the climate of RT, how strict discipline schools can affect mood, and what factorspromote or hinder school engagement and disengagement. These themes included issues relatedto interactions with residential and school staff, teachers, classmates, and other staff; their owninabilities to interpersonally cope; and mismatches between their educational needs and servicesprovided. The article concludes with a discussion of implications for policy and practice.
KEYWORDS: education well-being; foster care; juvenile delinquency; youth voice
Youths in residential treatment (RT) facili-ties are often burdened with traumahistories and experience academic, behav-
ioral, and emotional problems (Abram et al., 2004;Ford, Chapman, Connor, & Cruise, 2012), whichlimit opportunities for a healthy, successful future(Wolpow, Johnson, Hertel, & Kincaid, 2009). Thenumber of children and adolescents admitted toRT programs has increased significantly since 1980(Doerfler, Toscano, Volungis, & Steingard, 2004;Zelechoski et al., 2013). Zelechoski et al. (2013)reported that 65,949 youths were in residential care in2003; 75 percent were between the ages of 13 and 17(Warner & Pottick, 2003), and 66 percent of youthsin RT programs are female (Briggs et al., 2012).Trauma exposure among adolescents placed in RTprograms ranges from 50 percent to over 70 percent(Bettmann, Lundahl,Wright, Jasperson, &McRoberts,2011; Warner & Pottick, 2003; Zelechoski et al.,2013). RT programs offer services that includedrug and alcohol treatment, confidence building,military-style discipline, and psychological counselingfor a variety of addiction, behavioral, and emotionalproblems. Many of these programs are intended toprovide a less restrictive alternative to incarceration or
hospitalization (Federal Trade Commission, 2008).Adolescents who are placed in an RT facility typicallyhave experienced a wide range of psychiatric disor-ders, particularly traumatic stress. Traumatic stress canstem from physical, sexual, or emotional abuse;neglect; accidents; exposure to domestic andcommunity violence; natural disasters; and otheradverse events (Griffin et al., 2011). Studies sug-gest that early traumatic stress is linked to futurepsychiatric care, poor mental and physical healththroughout life, low educational attainment, home-lessness, early pregnancy, poverty, unemployment,reliance on public assistance, impulsivity, dissociation,aggressive behavior, and relationship difficulties(Price, Higa-McMillan, Kim, & Frueh, 2013;Zelechoski et al., 2013).
Educational opportunities vary greatly in RTsettings, from off-campus, public school partner-ships in the local community to educational ser-vices offered on-site at the RT facility. Althoughtraumatic experiences can affect students in publicschool environments (Overstreet & Mathews, 2011;Smithgall, Cusick, & Griffin, 2013; Vidourek, King, &Merianos, 2016), youths in RT school settings mayhave unique trauma-related issues (Crosby, Day,
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Baroni, & Somers, 2015; Day et al., 2015). This arti-cle is restricted to understanding the educational ex-periences of RT youths in educational programsoffered on-site at an RT facility. Effective schoolingfor foster and other adjudicated youths can lead tomore positive outcomes (Mathur & Schoenfeld,2010); however, traumatic stressmay affect adolescents’perceptions, interactions, and learning (Hoagwood &Cunningham, 1992). The current study was designedto address the paucity of research that has been con-ducted to explore the role of RT schools in the heal-ing and treatment of traumatized, court-involvedyouths who are placed in RT programs.
At school, students are expected to concentrateon their schoolwork, actively listen, participate inclass discussions, and respond to corrections and dis-cipline (Wolpow et al., 2009). For adolescents inan RT facility, school expectations may be compro-mised by trauma, which can undermine cognitiveabilities and skills acquisition key to school success(Smithgall et al., 2013; Snowman & McCown,2012). Trauma exposure may also lead to social andbehavioral difficulties in the classroom; studentswho have experienced traumatic events exhibitmore externalizing behaviors in school, such asaggressiveness, impulsivity, and fighting (Shonk &Cicchetti, 2001; Smithgall et al., 2013). As a result,these behavioral difficulties often lead to harshschool discipline (for example, suspension or expul-sion), involvement in the juvenile justice system, orschool dropout (Baroni, Day, Somers, Crosby, &Pennefather, 2016; Smithgall et al., 2013).
RTs must include an emphasis on academics inaddition to custodial care. Successful implementa-tion of quality academic programs in RT facilitiesis complicated by the characteristics of strugglingyouths and the design of RT facilities. Indeed,court-involved youths bring skill deficits, severebehavioral issues, and mental health challengesinto the classroom; moreover, RT facilities areheld accountable to security and safety considera-tions that largely supersede any educational efforts(Mathur & Schoenfeld, 2010). Specific, attainable,program-based changes with buy-in from studentshave the potential to make a genuine difference inthe educational outcomes of court-involved youths.From a social–emotional perspective, effective RTschools must increase school engagement by creatinga climate that promotes (a) positive teacher–studentrelationships, (b) positive peer relationships, (c) apersonal sense of self, and (d) an ability to manage
emotions (Becker & Luthar, 2002). Identifyinginterpersonal cognitive problem solving as part ofsoft skill development, including social competence,is often a goal for education-based RT programs toaddress student engagement and disengagement(Small & Schinike, 1983).
To address the gap in understanding how schoolsin RT facilities meet the educational needs of court-involved youths, this study seeks to apply phenome-nology (Palmer, Larkin, de Visser, & Fadden, 2010)to explore traumatized RT students’ often hiddenperspectives and lived experiences in their educationenvironment. Recent research has illustrated the con-nection between students’ moods and emotionalstates and their ability to engage effectively in theclassroom (Crosby et al., 2015; West, Day, Somers, &Baroni, 2014; Wolpow et al., 2009). In the currentstudy, we explore the following research question:What factors trigger negative moods (school dis-engagement) or enhance positive moods (schoolengagement) among court-involved youths enrolledin an RT facility school, and how do students per-ceive how RT staff, teachers, and other school offi-cials respond to behaviors manifested in the academicsetting?
METHODDescription of Curriculum and InterventionThe school where the study took place implementeda modified version of the curriculum describedin The Heart of Teaching and Learning: Compassion,Resiliency, and Academic Success (HTL) as the pri-mary intervention (Wolpow et al., 2009). HTL isan integrated, manualized curriculum founded onresearch, theory, and clinical practice and is groundedin ecological and attachment theories applied usingpsychoeducational, cognitive–behavioral, and rela-tional approaches. Additional information on the cur-riculum intervention is described in Day et al. (2015).
In addition to the curriculum intervention, theschool implemented the Monarch Room (MR) as analternative to traditional school discipline practices, toincrease classroom seat time and maximize schoolengagement. When students become too escalated toremain in the classroom setting, they are sent to theMR for redirection and de-escalation or choose to goto the MR on their own. Once students are in theMR, a trauma-trained paraprofessional helps them de-escalate, refocus, and return to class. Various interven-tion strategies are used in the MR, including problemsolving, talk therapy, and sensorimotor activities. The
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MR is available throughout the school day, with eachspecific MR episode lasting approximately 10 min-utes. Additional details describing the MR interven-tion are published in Baroni et al. (2016).
Participants and Study SiteParticipants included 45 randomly selected femalestudents currently or previously involved in juve-nile court. All study participants were enrolledbetween September 2013 and June 2014 in a pub-lic, chartered, strict discipline academy colocated ata large child welfare placement agency for girls in amidwestern state. Eighty-six percent were currentresidents in the facility, and 14 percent had re-turned to the community but continued attendingthe school. Participants were ages 13 to 19 years.Similar to the rates of foster care youths in theMidwest, over 60 percent of the study partici-pants were African American (U.S. Departmentof Health and Human Services, Administration forChildren and Families, 2012). The racial and eth-nic composition and age of the study participantsis representative of the school enrollment as awhole and is consistent with the national preva-lence rates of juvenile justice–involved youths ofcolor who experience placement in RT facilities(Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Preven-tion, 2013) (see Table 1). Individual-level demographicdata (student race and age) were obtained from theschool’s administrative database and de-identifiedbefore they were provided to the research teamfor analysis.
The study site is a school that provides educa-tional services exclusively to female students whoare or have been in an RT facility, and all haveexperienced exposure to child abuse and neglect.Due to these traumatic histories, the majority ofenrolled students are three to four years belowstandard grade level. Also, average length of stay inthe RT facility is four to six months. Despite theselimitations, the school aims to assist these studentsby adhering to a school discipline system thatfocuses primarily on treatment. The goal is to pro-vide an effective social–emotional learning envi-ronment to teach students emotion self-regulationand positive social skills, including how to makemore responsible choices.
Procedures and Data CollectionThe study was approved by the institutional reviewboard atWayne State University. Information aboutthe study was distributed to participants and theirlegal guardians during school registration. An assumedconsent process was used, whereby students, theircaregivers, or both could opt out of participationat any time. The phenomenological approachprovides the opportunity to uncover hidden pro-cesses and phenomena (Palmer et al., 2010), whichis critical to understanding the unique needs andexperiences of this vulnerable population. Sixfocus groups were conducted by independent re-searchers and were held at the school buildingwhere the intervention was targeted. Although notcommonly used in phenomenology, focus group
Table 1: Characteristics of Student Focus Group Participants versus Total SchoolPopulation
Study Participants(n = 45)
Total School Population(N = 124)
n % n %
Race or ethnicityWhite 3 7.0 26 21.0African American 29 64.0 66 53.2Other 4 9.0 8 6.4Multiracial 9 20.0 24 19.4
Age (years)13 1 2.0 8 6.014 2 4.5 17 14.015 8 18.0 21 17.016 22 49.0 43 35.017 10 22.0 28 23.018 2 4.5 6 5.019 0 0.0 1 <1
Note: For race or ethnicity, χ2(5) = 5.836, p = .32; for age, χ2(6) = 4.538, p = .60.
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methodology was selected because the data canuncover specific shared lived experiences; elicit newperspectives as group members confirm or denyeach other’s experiences; and provide rich, inter-group interpretation (Bradbury-Jones, Sambrook, &Irvine, 2009). Each focus group participant wasassigned a number; these ID numbers and theircorresponding responses were documented in thetranscripts to ensure that the researchers could offeran account of each individual participant’s claimsand concerns and capture commonalities of experi-ence to account for context. Prevalence rates ofidentified themes were captured by frequency andparticipant. In addition, middle and high schoolgirls participated in separate focus groups to ensurethat younger student voices were not compro-mised. Students were asked five open-ended ques-tions: (1) If your mood changes throughout theday, what makes it change? (2) When I am havinga bad moment at school, what helps is . . . ; (3)When I am having a bad moment at school, whatmakes it worse is . . . ; (4) How do your teachersand the school staff react to you when you are havinga bad moment at school? and (5) If you were princi-pal for a day, what advice would you give to teachersto work with students like yourself ?
Three focus groups each were held in Septem-ber 2013 and June 2014. Each group consisted ofsix to eight students and lasted for approximatelyone hour. Students were randomly selected to par-ticipate in focus groups and were informed thatparticipation was strictly voluntary. All selectedparticipants agreed to and participated in the focusgroups. Two participants who preferred not toverbalize their comments during the focus groupswere provided blank sheets of paper and were askedto share their responses in writing. These writtencomments were collected and added to the end ofthe focus group transcript before analysis was con-ducted. Focus groups were audio-recorded and tran-scribed verbatim.
Data AnalysisTranscripts were analyzed for themes using a criti-cal hermeneutics process (a line-by-line coding ofthe experiential claims, perspectives, and under-standings of each participant) (Kinsella, 2006).Three researchers coded the transcripts indepen-dently; these researchers then came together as agroup using constant comparison methods toexplore commonalities, differences, and main ideas
derived from the experiential material (Dye, Schatz,Rosenberg, & Coleman, 2000). Final themes andsubthemes were derived through group dialogue,which developed a more interpretive account of thedata. Focus group transcripts were uploaded intoNVivo (version 10) (QSR International, 2010), andreports were run to assess prevalence rates by themeacross all transcripts.
FINDINGSSeven major themes and subthemes, along withtheir prevalence rates, are all displayed in Table 2.
Theme 1: ClassroomDynamicsStudents identified several classroom dynamicsthat impeded learning progress: boredom, non-challenging assignments, constant classroom dis-ruptions, and teachers’ inability to respond timelyto questions about the curriculum, as reflected inthe following quotes:
I think school is too easy, like, there is no chal-lenge. I think that is why you get bored soquick, ’cause in real school you have challenges,this school they just give you kindergartenwork.
***Deal with they [student] attitudes even if youfeel like they being wild and obnoxious… youhave 10 or 15 other students in the class thathave attitudes and you hear them say, oh mygosh, can you go head on with the, uh,lesson ’cause they feel like they really tryin’ tolearn work.
***I had a test to do, and I was, like, I need helpon this, kept asking them. Five minutes go byand I asked her and she assumes I’m being sar-castic about the help. But I asked her for help,then when the test came around and I’m like, Idon’t know this stuff, she want to get mad atme ’cause. . . I asked you five days ago to helpme, now you sitting here cutting me up.
Theme 2: Family Issues External to theSchool Environment Affect LearningStudents described how personal family issuesaffected classroom learning. Specifically, studentsdescribed their family environments prior to place-ment in residential treatment.
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Table 2: Major Themes of the Study Findings
Focus Group’sTheme Appeared
1. Classroom dynamicsBoredom: “I hate being bored. I get real irritated and I’ll just gooff on a teacher, I probably get sent back to the building.”
33 3 14
Classroom disruptions: “Everybody tryna do they work . . . ; it’speople talking, and then the teachers gotta stop and they losefocus on what’s going on.”
38 4 24
Lack of challenging work: “In real school you have challenges;this school . . . , kindergarten work.”
19 3 9
Slow response rates on teacher feedback and assistance withclasswork: “I was, like, I need help on this, kept asking them.Five minutes go by and I asked her, and she gonna say I’mbeing sarcastic about the help.”
56 6 28
Total 146 752. Family issues external to school 27 6 24
“You dealin’ with so much that’s goin’ on at home. Your familydon’t think about you when you be here. They (teachers)don’t think about how it’s goin’ to affect you.”
Total 27 243. Interpersonal behaviors and challenges
Avoidance: “I just ignore ’em. I leave it alone because it’s notworth it.”
29 6 23
Peer conflict: “If you hit me then I’m gonna hit back, but it’sgonna be ten times harder ’cause when I get mad, I just blankout, I just see red and black.”
50 6 31
Problem-solving skills: “I be trying to problem solve like, I thinkbefore I act now, you know, rather than just hit before I think.”
32 5 23
Thinking about positive things, future: “So I think to myself,you’re about home soon, you about to see your dad again, seeyour mom again, you have to do a lot of stuff—you about tolet that ruin everything?”
24 3 17
Verbal reactions: “I get real angry and I say bad things, but I wouldn’twanna fight. ’Cause I’mnot a fighter, but I just talk stuff.”
50 4 28
Total 185 1224. Recommendations to improve school climate
Extracurriculars: “I think y’all should come up with moreactivities, like sports after school.”
21 2 15
Food: “We got processed food. This food don’t ever get cooked;it’s just warmed up.”
52 5 18
Living arrangements: “They’re grown but they still don’t cleanup after they self. It be vicious everywhere, the floor, in thekitchen. It’s just nasty.”
19 3 12
Monarch Room: “I think we should have more peer counseling. Sayfor instance, I’m in theMonarch Room and I ask, can they callone of my peers outta class so I can talk to this person because Ican’t talk to the staff about what I really wanna talk about.”
54 5 26
Total 146 715. Peers
Creating drama: “It’s so much drama, like all you hear all day isgossiping.”
73 5 18
Disrespectful actions: “People put themselves in the category of ayoung lady, but that’s not what young ladies do—act catty allthe time, cuss all the time.”
105 6 35
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Every day the things besides just school affectsthem every day, and that can also have a drasticchange ’cause it can take over their mind, andwhen they are actually in the classroom andthey are exacted to do one thing, they’ve got amillion other things running through theirmind and it’s hard for them, it is.
***For one, my momma call me bitches and hoesall day every day at home; I get that enoughfrom my momma, so to come in here and getlocked up with a bunch of females I don’tknow calling out my name and I don’t evenrespect my sister; well, I respect them, I don’tget along with them.
Theme 3: Interpersonal Behaviors andChallengesSix interpersonal dynamics impeded or facilitated class-room learning: peer conflict, perceived mistreatment,
avoidance, desire for problem-solving skills, positiverelationships, and understanding the benefits of educa-tional attainment. Interpersonal factors that impededclassroom learning were conflicts with peers and per-ceived mistreatment by residential facility staff andschool faculty. Avoidance both inhibited and pro-moted positive classroom learning. These behaviorsincluded avoiding physical and verbal altercationswhen these situations presented themselves, as well aschoosing to avoid friendships and connections withteachers and residential treatment staff. Interpersonalstrategies that fostered a positive learning environmentwere the desire to learn problem-solving skills, developrelationships with “positive” people, and understandconnections between educational attainment andemployment opportunities.
You come in an environment or on a campuswith lots of kids that have problems or issuesthat they can’t solve, and they need someone
Table 2: Major Themes of the Study Findings (Continued)
Focus Group’sTheme Appeared
Positive influences: “I hang around mostly leaders in this school,positive people, and that just helps me.”
17 4 18
Total 195 716. Residential treatment staff
Helping behaviors: “They give you good advice and make youfeel up when you down.”
35 6 27
Lack of training, unprofessional behavior: “Half of these staffs besitting here talking about other students; students be goingback and tell students what the staff said.”
104 6 27
Overly restrictive behaviors: “When you actually sit there and seethat a kid don’t do nothing but obey and just be consistent indoing what they have to do to out they treatment, they stillbeing locked up. They don’t have leeway; they can’t go out tothe mall with open placements.”
93 6 29
Total 232 837. Teachers
Intrusive communication: “They don’t care if you havin’ a badday, they just wanna keep askin’ you what’s wrong—I don’twanna talk about it.”
73 6 28
Negative behaviors: “The teacher don’t be even trying to be teaching;they just be letting the kids do whatever they wanna do.”
82 6 33
Positive behaviors: “She always support me, like when she wouldsee that I’m down, she come see me if I didn’t even ask her.Like, she helped me if I needed any question or any extra helpin our classes.”
42 5 25
Supportive communication: “Every time she see me cry she give mea hug and ask me do I need to go somewhere to talk about it.”
26 6 24
Total 223 110
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to talk to. It be kinda frustrating for a minuteand then it’s like, people blow it out of propor-tion to keep nagging or keep you frustratedover the same thing.
***What helps me is probably being around positivepeople, ’cause I try to hang around positivepeople ’cause I’ve had so many negative thingsin my life that I don’t need any more negativity.
Theme 4: Recommendations for ImprovingSchool ClimateStudents offered the following suggestions forimproving school climate and culture: access toextracurricular activities, provision of electivecourses, tutoring opportunities, and access to highschool traditions (for example, yearbooks, dances,field trips). Students also discussed how food canaffect their ability to learn. They were providedwith three meals a day; however, students statedthat they needed access to additional meals. Stu-dents said they would have a more positive attitudeif they felt full.
[I think y’all should] come up with more activ-ities, like sports after school . . . yeah, volley-ball, basketball, I like volleyball . . . track.
***I feel like they should have, like, parentingclasses or something, like, that will help themget out of here when they leave here and theycan be a better parent for their child or justknow what to do, instead of be like, “Oh,when I go home I’m gonna see my baby, thenI’m gonna leave for a couples of hours and goget high.”
***They say we might not be able to get yearbooksbecause some of the people that’s graduating arefrom residential, and I feel that’s not fair.
***You know you be cranky if you don’t eat; Igotta eat at least six times a day.
Theme 5: Peer DynamicsStudents described how classmates instigated “unnec-essary drama,” such as engaging in physical and verbalaltercations and gossip. Classmates were described asbeing disrespectful to one another and residential and
school staff. Still, students expressed wanting friend-ships and positive interactions with their peers.
It’s so much drama, like [name of residentialunit] all you hear is gossiping, ’cause that’s allgirls, who they don’t like, you can’t like a per-son when they first got there; you don’t evenknow me. That’s how I feel.
***I was close to going home and I was tellingpeople, yeah, I’m going home, and I was tell-ing people this and then they start bringingyou down with them so you can stay herelonger.
Theme 6: Dynamics Involving RT Care StaffStudents described how RT staff implementedoverly restrictive rules and regulations and dis-played unprofessional behaviors. On the otherhand, they also described how RT staff helped inthe treatment process, and perceived them as posi-tive role models. In addition, students providedrecommendations for training of residential staff toimprove student–staff relationships.
What makes me more mad is when I’m in a sit-uation and then every staff worker from [nameof residential unit] just come out, then they saystep out the classroom . . . they have you repeatthe same story over and over again.
***Give them, give the kids respect; we all goingthrough something.
Theme 7: Dynamics with School Facultyand Other School StaffLast, students discussed interactions with facultyand other school employees. Specifically, they dis-cussed how teachers remove misbehaving studentsfrom classrooms and how students and other schoolpersonnel sometimes disregard their opinions. Stu-dents also expressed concerns about how teacherturnover might affect learning. They also discussedhow some teachers were supportive of studentinterests.
Before he left, he [math teacher] was teaching usa different thing in math, but then when anotherteacher came in; she teaches it in a totally differ-ent way than he did. So it got some of the kids
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in that class so frustrated, then we just don’t dothe work no more.
Please don’t disregard these kids’ opinionsbecause, um, you know, we some, some of [us]are some smart kids. We some smart children.
DISCUSSIONThis study found several prevalent themes relatedto student social, emotional, and academic function-ing that both promote and hinder school engage-ment and disengagement in a residential schoolenvironment, including classroom dynamics; exter-nal trauma triggers; interpersonal and other factors;and issues with peers, residential staff, and school fac-ulty. When discussing classroom dynamics, studentsreported feeling bored, explained that their workwas not challenging, and also felt that teachers didnot respond to questions efficiently. This may havebeen due, in part, to the high prevalence of court-involved students who test below their academicgrade level (Courtney, Terao, & Bost, 2004) and thedifficulty of arranging classrooms to accommodateneeds due to limited physical space and student andstaff turnover. In addition, due to high student turn-over and lack of timely access to school records forincoming transfers, students’ academic abilities maybe unknown. Therefore, teachers must juggle cover-ing lessons to accommodate academically challengedstudents with addressing the academic needs of thosewho are more advanced. In addition, studentspointed out that teachers do not always manage stu-dent behavior with trauma sensitivity. School facultyneed to be mindful of students’ traumatic historiesand how trauma can manifest in the academic set-ting. This demonstrates a need for deeper traumatraining, as well as efficient methods of training newteaching staff to get them up to speed quickly,including the need for implementation of classroomobservations and coaching to ensure that teachers areable to appropriately translate trauma theory intoclassroom practice. Some teachers have personaltrauma histories that can be retriggered through stu-dent interaction. Teachers with personal traumabackgrounds need to ensure that they get therapeu-tic interventions before entering the classroom.
Another major finding is external problems thathinder ability to thrive. Similar to other studiesfocusing on students in both public (Overstreet &Mathews, 2011; Smithgall et al., 2013; Vidourek
et al., 2016) and RT school settings (Crosbyet al., 2015; Day et al., 2015), students reportedexperiencing stress before entering the classroomdue to overwhelming socioemotional histories andpeer or familial concerns. Students may becomeconsumed by personal dilemmas that may prohibitschool performance and attendance, and they areunable to focus on lessons when they are truant.Furthermore, the girls explained that interpersonalissues that manifest in the classroom can be distract-ing. These classrooms are filled with studentswhose emotional, psychological, and physicalneeds are unmet. Therefore, it is difficult to havestudents focus on education-related tasks. To pre-pare them to better manage educational demands,students desire better problem-solving skills to helpthem cope in the classroom and understand howthose skills can translate to future environments.
Students reported that some RT facility staff havehad a strong, positive influence on school engage-ment and socioemotional well-being. However,students also described the negative attitudes andbehaviors of RT staff, which negatively affect stu-dent learning and engagement in the school envi-ronment. Moreover, they explained that when theyfelt upset and disengaged in the classroom (that is,putting their heads down and not attending to classmaterial), RT staff resorted to the use of punitivemeasures (that is, taking away a home pass) ratherthan trying to understand the reason for classroomdisengagement. RT and school staff should workcollectively to identify and implement interventionsthat are consistently applied across both systems.The restriction of access to biological parents andsiblings does little to support general health or edu-cation well-being. These issues highlight howcross-system dynamics can both impede and sup-port education well-being for students in RT set-tings. When interacting on school grounds, RTstaff need to respond to behaviors in a consistentmanner aligned with the school’s philosophy. Pre-vious studies asserted that well-qualified, trainedRT staff members help reduce recidivism rates,and emphasis on education in the treatment processis the most impactful way to influence behavior(Lowenkamp, Flores, Holsinger, Makarios, & La-tessa, 2010; Mathur & Schoenfeld, 2010).
Several students verbalized the importance offood in mood stabilization and school engagement.Attention must be paid to students’ physical healthand how the amounts and the types of foods offered
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may affect student learning. For example, some stu-dents may be struggling with blood sugar issues thatnecessitate the need for more frequent, smaller mealsthroughout the day. In addition, pregnant students,who are often overrepresented in alternative schools,may also have different nutritional needs. The three-square-meals-per-day general state guidelines offeredby public health officials for implementation inschools may not apply to adolescents enrolled inresidential-based, alternative school environments,such as those attending strict discipline academies.Challenges to implementing changes in food con-sumption and delivery include the fact that schoolsand RT facilities do not have all-day cafeterias. Inaddition, students may need nutritional educationtraining to ensure that they make healthy foodchoices for themselves (and any unborn children).
Finally, students suggested that extracurricularactivities, tutoring, access to various school tradi-tions (that is, school yearbooks, dances, field trips),and for pregnant and parenting students access toparenting classes would enhance overall school experi-ence and promote school engagement. Challenges tothe implementation of extracurriculars include the factthat RT facility schools and other alternative highschool settings tend to have small enrollment, whichlimits the resources schools have to implement after-school programs, including the ability to hire additionalteachers needed to offer tutoring during and afterschool hours. In addition, system-level policies make itdifficult to offer such opportunities to students, as com-petitive sporting events may pose a threat to safety andyearbook photographs can jeopardize confidentiality.In general, RT and traditional education systems havecompeting and sometimes conflicting goals; for theRT agency, safety, confidentiality, and permanencygoals are paramount and will often supersede educa-tional goals.
Implications for Policy and PracticeSchools serving students with trauma histories inresidential placement cannot be expected to pro-vide mental health treatment, but should engage instrong cross-system communication and data shar-ing to work effectively with professionals acrossthe mental health, child welfare, and juvenile jus-tice service systems. These partnerships, when effec-tively working together for the common goal ofeducational success, can assist teachers with difficultiesin the classroom more effectively, and reduce highteacher turnover, which for this population can be a
trauma trigger in and of itself. RT facilities and partner-ing schools that enroll high populations of residential-placed youths should offer employee incentives thatreduce teacher and staff turnover and support self-carestrategies. Also, schools and RT facilities should imple-ment consistent instructional and disciplinary policiesand procedures supported by evidence to improveeducation outcomes. This can ensure that student issuesare managed effectively, and can provide school staffwithmore educational tools. Finally, residential facilitiesand their school partners should review existing systempolicies for ways to incorporate normalcy program-ming into school and treatment plans that fosterengagement in healthy activities, such as sports, tutor-ing, and extracurricular events that do not compromisesafety.
For staff practicing in residential schools, it isimportant to encourage a culture of trauma sensi-tivity, supported by ongoing training that includesinformation about childhood trauma, how traumaaffects brain development, and its impact on youthfunctioning (that is, behavior and learning). Stu-dents in RT settings may not demonstrate the so-cioemotional skills necessary to be successful inclass. Therefore, school and residential staff alikecan engage students in learning academic materialand model appropriate ways to socially respond totheir environment. The need for development oftrauma-sensitive schools is a theme that has sur-faced in prior studies (for example, Alisic, 2012;Crosby et al., 2015). Students should be given op-portunities to engage in social skills and other softskills development (that is, dealing with tasks that pres-ent frustrations, accountability, empathy, problem solv-ing, and delayed gratification). Schools that enroll highnumbers of youths from at-risk backgrounds, such asthose who are or have been served in RT facilities,should be evaluated not only on strict academic testscores, but also on gains related to attendance and softskills development.
Strengths and Limitations of the StudyOne strength of the present study was that it usedrandom selection and focus group methodologythat allow for a deeper understanding of ways inwhich adolescents in RT facilities struggle withtheir academic and interpersonal relations—whichcan potentially contribute to effective interventionand prevention strategies—and ensure that the re-ported themes are representative of the youths whoattended the observed school as a whole. Limitations
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also need to be acknowledged. Study participantswere female and predominantly African Americanstudents. Their experiences may not reflect the ex-periences of male students served in RT facilities orthe opinions of those who identify with other racialand ethnic groups. Finally, the perception of stu-dents on school environment is inclusionary of oneimportant voice in the development of school poli-cies and practice. The voices of faculty and staffshould be considered to capture a more completepicture of these facilities.
CONCLUSIONIn sum, this study both confirms what is knownabout and sheds new light on the factors that eitherpromote or impede school engagement and dis-engagement and other factors that promote the edu-cational well-being of traumatized, court-involvedyouths. A comprehensive understanding of thesethemes is essential if we are to improve school cli-mate and, ultimately, the high school retention andgraduation rates among this population. This, inturn, requires the perspectives of all stakeholders,including youths themselves. “Nothing about uswithout us” best encapsulates this need to engageyouths as leaders in the development of strategies in-tended to help them overcome the many educa-tional challenges they face. CS
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Angelique Gabrielle Day, PhD, MSW, is assistant professor,School of Social Work, University of Washington, 4101 15thAvenue NE, Seattle, WA 98105; e-mail: email@example.com.Beverly Baroni, PhD, LMSW, is principal, Clara B. FordAcademy, Dearborn, MI. Cheryl Somers, PhD, is associatedean for research and Jenna Shier and Meredith Zammit aregraduate students, College of Education, Wayne State Univer-sity, Detroit. Shantel Crosby, PhD, LMSW, is assistantprofessor, Kent School of Social Work, University of Louisville,
Louisville, KY. Jina Yoon, PhD, is professor, Disability &Psychoeducational Studies, College of Education, University ofArizona, Tucson. Megan Pennefather, MSW, LMSW, isa research assistant and Jun Sung Hong, PhD, is assistantprofessor, School of Social Work, Wayne State University,Detroit.
Original manuscript received September 4, 2016Final revision received April 10, 2017Editorial decision May 22, 2017Accepted May 22, 2017Advance Access Publication August 31, 2017
237Day et al. / Trauma and Triggers: Students’ Perspectives on Enhancing Classroom ExperiencesDownloaded from https://academic.oup.com/cs/article-abstract/39/4/227/4100182/Trauma-and-Triggers-Students-Perspectives-onby Adam Ellsworth, Adam Ellsworthon 29 September 2017
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