Hopelessness Is An Easy Fix

The boy bounced around seven different schools before landing at Cherokee Point Elementary. At first glance, this was hardly an improvement. Most students had first-hand exposure to violence or abuse at home or in the neighborhood, 100% qualified for free lunch, and many had been expelled from other schools.

But when the boy started throwing books, the teacher didnʻt yell or call security. He simply pulled the other kids out of the classroom, for safetyʻs sake, and asked the boy, “Are you done? Are you OK now?” Then, the student and his teacher put the books back on the shelf, and life went on.

Welcome to one of the nation’s first Trauma-Informed Schools, where all teachers and staff receive training in how to recognize a studentʻs emotional health and wellbeing, and respond to disturbances with compassion and support.

“A child who comes from a home with violence, and goes to a traditional school where teachers punish or publicly humiliate him, has no place of safety. Punitive measures only re-traumatize the child,” says Godwin Higa, the retired principal of 20 years. “If teachers and administrators lead with compassion, kids will understand their school is a safe place. Then, academics will increase.”

A Paradigm Shift

When Higa took over Cherokee Point, he demanded that all students be treated with the utmost respect by his staff. When they acted out, he changed the question from, “What’s wrong with you?” to “What’s happening to you?” He recruited parent leaders to train other parents on trauma-informed care, with great success. He handed out backpacks of food on Friday afternoons, knowing that 80% of his students went home hungry to an empty fridge.

It was a paradigm shift in the mindset of teachers and parents, but over time, the children responded in kind, indicating they felt safe and loved. The students adapted into self-directed learners, a skill that Higa says is critical to becoming a lifelong learner. Teacher assessment results improved, often dramatically. Suspensions dwindled to zero – resulting in four straight years of no expulsions.

“The teachers at Cherokee Point know their students carry trauma and have no one to go to for help. School is the only place that’s stable,” he says. “They understand kids have multiple traumatic experiences and need to talk out their problems before they can learn. They’ve seen how the number of disruptions in class are directly related to the number of missed lesson plans. Today, those teachers no longer want to suspend kids. They want to lead with compassion and give them hope and love, so they can heal and be successful.”

With a proud grin, Higa adds that the campus police officer who was assigned full-time to Cherokee Point is no longer needed to provide security or break up fights. In fact, the kids love him so much that he’s been re-assigned as a supervisor to provide trauma-informed training to other police officers.

Practicing Aloha

Born and raised in Kaneohe, Higa is spending more of his retirement in his home state, which suffers from a high suicide rate for children and young adults aged 10-24.

“The common factor is a sense of hopelessness – that’s really an easy fix,” he says. “There just needs to be an administrator, teacher or counselor, someone on campus with Trauma Informed practices and Restorative Justice training, who students can go to when they’re angry, need help, when they need to talk. If these kids know there’s someone out there who they can talk to and nurture them, help them cope with terrible things, they will become much more resilient and stronger.”

Higa’s ambition is to make every adult, in all Hawaii schools, trauma informed. He envisions a future where schools address social and emotional learning first, where children want to come to school for its social aspects, where adverse incidents are addressed immediately so they don’t predict an adult life filled with unresolved trauma.

“Students want to learn, but they can’t,“ he says. “When we change our focus from academics and test scores to trauma awareness and finding solutions for injustice, we’re creating conditions for learning where all students succeed.”

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