“I about cried last night when you showed up at our house. This was the nicest thing I have ever seen.”
“My boy is so proud! Thank you so much! You made his day as well as mine. That was very sweet of the school!”
These words are from parents of West County Elementary (WCE) students after staff members recently visited their homes.
It all started after WCE Counselor Becky Yount became interested in becoming a Trauma-Informed School about three years ago after she attended a school counselor conference. From there, she started doing her own research and discovered a podcast on the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study.
“The information I gained from this was alarming,” she said.
Yount said this study is one of the largest investigations of childhood abuse and neglect, household challenges, and later-life health and well-being.
“By educating ourselves on this study, I found we, as a school, can do more to work with families,” said Yount, “so we are not only teaching kids reading and math but we can help create neighborhoods, communities and a world in which every child can thrive.”
Yount said she encourages the staff to learn more about preventing ACEs in the community by assuring safe, stable, nurturing relationships and environments.
Finding these high statistics of children who experience various types of adverse experience was staggering. She talked to then-West County Elementary Principal Todd Watson and Laura Basler, who is now principal.
“We agreed this was important for our teachers to know,” said Yount.
The following year, they began their “trauma-informed journey” by doing a building-wide book study on “Fostering the Resilient Learner.” Staff became familiar with the ACEs and how important it is for a student’s basic need of feeling safe plays a role in the classroom.
So the goal has been to find ways to better serve the students and families of the West County School District.
Mailings, automated phone calls and incentives for family participation in education have been a focus. Starting this year, WCE has pushed even further to reach the school’s families.
“West County Elementary plans to continue to go above and beyond to reach our families to better serve our students and families of the district,” said Yount. “We realize a student’s home serves as the foundation for learning and it is our responsibility to recognize this when educating our students.”
She said the staff hopes to “continue the building of mutual respect and trust between the school and our families so our students will excel to their true potential.”
West County staff have stepped up to make this happen. Recently they started making home visits to some of their students. The group’s first trip was when the staff piled into one of the district’s school buses to deliver “bags of sunshine.”
WCE Principal Laura Basler said it was wonderful to try something new.
“There is no doubt that it made an impact on the students who received a visit and bag of sunshine,” she said. “They will remember that for a long time to come!”
At a West County School Board meeting, Basler shared photos and stories of what elementary staff members had accomplished. She said board members were very pleased to see teachers reaching out to students and families outside of the regular school day.
Yount said no specific families are targeted during these home visits.
“We visited and will continue to visit a cross section of all students,” she said. “Our ultimate goal is to visit every family home in our school district. We want to express our gratitude to our families and we appreciate their support of their child and our school!”
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WCE teachers have been meeting the state mandates to become a Trauma-Informed School over the last two years. They participate in monthly after-school professional development and have learned what it means to teach the “whole” child.
“A student’s social and emotional needs have to be met before meaningful learning can take place,” said Yount. “This is not a separate curriculum or an add-on to what we already do. It is part of how we teach and how we treat the classroom and beyond.”
She said, “We know that children learn best when their teacher understands them beyond the school walls. In doing this, this school year our focus is mindfulness and building connections beyond the classroom.”
She said WCE staff loaded the big yellow bus after school in October just as many of their students do every day. A predetermined schedule of stops in varying areas of the rural school district was completed with the idea to gain insight on the neighborhoods in which the students live. They also wanted to let parents know they care about their school, students and families.
Staff delivered “bags of sunshine” – yellow bags with a family card game, coloring books, crayons and yellow snacks – to build mutual trust and respect among each other.
Six stops were made during the first outing. Three teachers’ names were chosen to exit the bus and deliver the gifts.
According to Yount, this was something most of the teachers had never done and were somewhat apprehensive at first.
“Unfortunately, for some families this may be the same feeling they have when they walk into a school,” said Yount. “We know that there are feelings of mistrust and negative feelings for some and our goal is to break this barrier so true, meaningful family engagement can take place.”
After the first stop, the apprehensiveness melted away. Parents and students were overjoyed with the surprise visits and treats.
“Many of the parents were so overjoyed they cried,” said Yount, “and the students thought it was the coolest thing ever!”
Staff heard some students bragging to their classmates the next day at school that their teachers came to their house.
That was when Basler and Yount decided this part of the WCE’s journey needed to continue.
The WCE staff did another visit in November with “Blessing Baskets” – complete with a turkey and additional food items.
Donette Anderson, who has been a teacher at WCE for 19 years, said she thought the visits were a great way to reach out to their West County families.
“The families seemed very surprised and appreciative,” she said. “I really enjoyed it and it was a great blessing to me.”
Teacher Lindsay Jackson said she wanted to repeat what they did on their first trip because she had a wonderful time.
Angie Stone, the district’s speech pathologist, said it was a great experience.
“I was nervous at first to go up to the houses, but everyone was great and very appreciative,” she said. “The kids were really surprised to see their teachers at their houses bearing gifts!”
Fourth-grade teacher Laura Becker even involved her young sons Emery, 7, and Elliot, 4, in the preparation before the trips. The boys helped organize and pick out items to be delivered to families.
“It was a great learning experience for them in giving, and wants vs. needs,” she said.
They wrote down some gift ideas, they went to the store with money and the boys had to get as many items as possible to fit within the budget.
“It was very humbling for them,” said Becker. “My oldest said it warmed his heart knowing a 2-year-old boy was getting these things.”