Mental Health

The Evolution of a Trauma-Informed School

Two years after Edutopia filmed trauma-informed practices at a Nashville school, we check in with the principal to see what has changed.

September 13, 2019
George Lucas Educational Foundation
Mathew Portell, principal at Fall-Hamilton Elementary School in Nashville, at work with a student

There is no arrival at a perfect implementation of trauma-informed practices, and no one knows this better than Mathew Portell, principal of Fall-Hamilton Elementary in Nashville. Portell has been leading Fall-Hamilton’s journey with trauma-informed practices for the past several years, and Edutopia profiled one point in this journey in May 2017.

I recently heard Portell share this thought with a group of educators: “Trauma-informed education is a journey, not a checklist.” I wanted to know more about what that journey has looked like at Fall-Hamilton, so I contacted Portell to learn what’s happening at his school now.

ALEX VENET: Tell me about your school’s journey with trauma-informed practices since Edutopia’s visit.

MATHEW PORTELL: We had really just started. We had finished our first year of trying something different, which basically included a focus around professional learning for our staff, and then the implementation of a few practices that we felt helped with de-escalation in relational connections. Since then we have truly utilized the Multi-Tiered Systems of Support mindset, building the structures and systems of supporting kids in a multi-tiered way on an academic and social-emotional level.

VENET: You have said that trauma-informed practices require a mindset shift. What is the core of your approach?

PORTELL: The foundation of our beliefs is based on brain science. We’ve always grounded our work in understanding the effects of trauma. When the video was shot, we didn’t do this, but we do it now: Teachers, when they apply here, get a letter and it lays out our philosophical theory and mindset and practice, and why we do what we do, and even connects to resources so they can look it up. We’re excited that every candidate actually has looked at the resources, and we ask, “What did you think?” If a new teacher comes into the building, they start off knowing where we stand, and that’s really powerful.

VENET: You use the Leader in Me program—how does it support your trauma-informed work?

PORTELL: The foundation of the Leader in Me is resilience. The whole point is every kid has genius, every kid has the ability to lead, and it’s about empowerment. We now have school-wide jobs that the kids apply for. We have data collectors, we have a fourth grader who runs our daily attendance and she posts the percentages every day. We have older kids that run breakfast up to pre-K classrooms every morning. So our theory here is if it doesn’t need to be done by an adult, let the kids do it. We’ve really expanded the Leader in Me to truly mean empowerment.

VENET: One of the most popular aspects of Edutopia’s videos was your peace corners—how does Fall-Hamilton currently approach them?

PORTELL: We have redeveloped our peace corners. One of the focuses then was a reflection sheet, and we realized that peace corners aren’t about necessarily for reflection—they’re more about de-escalation. And so we’ve coupled them with mindfulness and de-escalation strategies.

I’m often asked, “How do you keep kids from playing in the peace corner?” And I say that if we’re waiting for a 100 percent success rate on anything we do in education, we’ll never start anything. There’s a risk of kids using it as a play area, but what we’ve seen here is that’s been eliminated because we have expectations because we now know our kids.

VENET: One of my favorite strategies in the videos is the support system for teachers where they can tap in and tap out. Has that changed?

PORTELL: We’ve come up with a more sophisticated app system of using GroupMe, where they’re not having to call the office, they’re not having to text random people. In the onboarding process at Fall-Hamilton, we’re very transparent that “not being OK is OK.” We have a brand-new teacher who used it on Friday. Not only did we jump in to support the class, but we had a staff member that went with her so they could talk her through the process, and then we provided a coach to be with her for the remainder of the day.

VENET: How do you currently use the student check-ins, where students meet individually with an adult at the start and end of the day?

PORTELL: We’ve actually had to make it a little bit smaller because there was no stigma, so every kid wanted to do it. It was great. So now we’ve kind of made it really a Tier 2/Tier 3 process. We’ve stopped using food and trinkets as motivation—it’s now really about connection. One thing we also learned is that some kids don’t want attention, but they still need something. So we do something called Breaks Are Better, where they actually get time by themselves if they want to take a break, if they want to just go for a walk. We’ve extended it a little bit past just meeting with an adult in the morning.

VENET: What are some challenges your school has faced as you’ve continued to grow this work?

PORTELL: One is understanding how to build those clear and safe boundaries with kids. It’s OK to have a boundary with kids, and it’s OK to reinforce it in a way that is supportive yet still has high expectations. That’s been a challenge for a lot of teachers, and even myself. Trauma-informed isn’t “kids just do whatever they want when they want”—it’s really setting a boundary and supporting kids to the boundary. When they go past that boundary, we explain to them in a safe way that that isn’t OK, but here’s how I’m going to support you. But it’s still a challenge, and I think it will always be a challenge trying to figure out that piece.

VENET: I wanted to end by bringing up your comment that trauma-informed practices are not a checklist.

PORTELL: I think it’s just apt that trauma-informed, this whole mindset, is truly a movement, and we have to be cautious in trying to find the answer because there’s a lot of people trying to build processes and protocols that are the answer, and ultimately, we are the answer. We have to be able to empower ourselves. There is no magical program that’s going to fix kids because we’re not fixing kids. We’re supporting kids in being successful. We’ve got to change our approach from what we do to kids and look at what we’re doing for kids, and that really is the basis of trauma-informed.

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  • Administration & Leadership
  • Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)
  • K-2 Primary
  • 3-5 Upper Elementary

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