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How schools tackle the "crisis" of childhood trauma

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By Elizabeth Chuck and Marshall Crook

YAKIMA, Wash. – Instead of fifth-grader Thomas Stevenson went on a Friday in the break and entered a dimly lit room.

Inside, lavender aromatherapy filled the air, spa-like music played and a projector sent clouds onto a screen. Thomas walked past beanbags on the floor and playing chess on tables, took a few Legos and began building an ornate building.

Eleventh Thomas spent his break in this converted classroom, the so-called relaxation room. In his previous school he often got into a fight on the playground. His first school suspension was in kindergarten, the year his parents divorced. Both parents were drug addicted and his father was briefly detained.

The problems at home led to problems at school. In the fourth grade, he was suspended five times.

Since his move to Ridgeview in the fall, he has not been suspended at all – not even because of the work he has done in the rest room.

"People talk about my mother – that's what I've always argued about," said Thomas, whose mother has been clean since 2009 and is now a drug and alcohol counselor. "It's nice to be a kid who's not in quarrels anymore."

Jeff Clark, a school counselor at Ridgeview, created the rest room in January 2018 where students can get help dealing with heightened emotions, including by talking to an adult, if they want.

"Some kids want to focus on fixing the problem. Some kids just need a safe place to reset, "Clark said.

The room is open to all students, but is particularly aimed at those who deal with problems at home such as abuse, neglect or divorce – these are stressors among those referred to by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as adverse childhood experiences or ACEs are classified.

Across the country, with a better understanding of how a childhood trauma affects everything, from a teenager's ability to focus on his or her health in the classroom, a growing number of schools are moving away from traditional forms of discipline, such as Suspension or Expulsion, and experiment with new ways to tackle behavioral issues. This includes encouraging educators to consider why students are behaving. Creating spaces where students can do yoga or play with sensory toys such as stress balls or glitter-filled bottles to calm down; and the implementation of positive reinforcement systems, such as offering rewards such as ice cream for good behavior.