GCU event helps teachers support students in crisis
By Lana Sweeten-Shults
GCU News Bureau
Moon Valley High School senior Kaity Sudberry beamed about starting her first semester at Northern Arizona University, where she planned to study wildlife science.
But that future was not to be.
It was January 2008, and Kaity was walking home from school when her ex-boyfriend, Daniel Byrd, confronted her just a block from her house. She sprinted to a neighbor’s side yard, and that’s where he shot and killed her and then himself — something he had been threatening to do and succeeded in doing despite Kaity’s and her family’s efforts.
Bobbi Sudberry told her daughter’s story Friday at the Making T.I.E.S. (Trauma-Informed Educational Support) Conference at Grand Canyon University Arena, where 450 educators could choose from almost 20 breakout sessions to attend and could visit with exhibitors with the same goal — to help students who are dealing with traumatic experiences in their lives, everything from relationship crises, like Kaity experienced, to homelessness, domestic abuse, bullying and the death of a loved one, to name just a few.
GCU organized the conference and brought in top researchers in the field, many from GCU, who study the effects of trauma on children and students’ ability to “get a fair shake at education,” said Corinne Araza, Director of K12 STEM Outreach.
Araza said teachers are required to take only one educational psychology course as part of their requisites.
“This is the first time GCU has created a conference like this, and we did so at the request of many principals, superintendents, counselors and teachers in our alliance networks,” Araza said of the event, organized by K-12 Development, led by department Senior Vice President Dr. Tacy Ashby, and Canyon Professional Development, led by Carol Lippert.
Sudberry, now the Executive Director of the nonprofit Kaity’s Way, which helps teens cultivate healthy relationships, spoke to educators at the conference about “Putting an End to Teen Dating Violence.”
“We heard from several (school) districts that this doesn’t happen in their schools,” Sudberry said. But she relayed that millions of people in the United States report being stalked — according to the Stalking Resource Center, 7.5 million people were stalked in one year — and that teen girls experience three times the national average of relationship violence.
In Kaity’s case, the sign of an abusive relationship were there: Byrd constantly calling Kaity and demanding to know where she was at all times — a situation that worsened after their breakup. Byrd continued to harass her, even though she changed her phone number, and assaulted her at school. Even after he was suspended, and even though her parents got an Injunction Against Harassment (the police suggested a protective order, but Arizona law at the time only extended that protection to married couples), Byrd was able to do the unthinkable.
Sudberry told educators, “It’s not just teen drama,” and one of the goals of Kaity’s Way is to develop trusted adults with whom teens can speak. She cued educators into some red flags, such as students whose grades suddenly drop, a change in their demeanor and isolation.
“How can you help? First of all, don’t take this lightly,” Sudberry said, advising teachers to address inappropriate behavior immediately, speak to victims and abusers separately, and walk them to the counselor’s office or to a social worker.
Another conference speaker, GCU College of Humanities and Social Sciences Assistant Dean Noe Vargas, spoke about “Understanding Psychological Trauma.” He detailed the different types of trauma and relayed the impact of trauma on brain development. He also told attendees about a person’s response to trauma.
It’s vital, Vargas said, to develop a community that supports students who are experiencing some sort of crisis in their lives.
“Connecting the family, too, is so important,” he said, adding how “the first step to healing trauma is to understand that there is trauma.”
He spoke about the experiences of foster children, for example, who re-experience trauma after visiting their biological families and how that affects their lives and might disrupt their learning.
One teacher, who teaches near the Gila River Indian Community, said with some of her students she feels like “we go back to square one” after they return to trauma situations over the weekend.
Vargas asked those in the audience, “Do you think there’s something you can do as teachers?”
“Just listen to what the behaviors are trying to tell you,” one said.
Another educator said that, unfortunately, “We don’t take on the underlying factors of trauma” and declared that there’s a big disconnect in the systems of support that should be surrounding a student.
Some other sessions educators delved into: attachment styles in children, culturally relevant practices, and understanding classroom trauma on the teacher and how they can calm their own stresses.
One of the conference exhibitors was Skye Mendes, a developmental psychology doctoral student at Arizona State University who represented ASU’s Courage Lab. She said ASU offers a program called Compass for Courage.
“It’s to help anxious students with their mental health,” Mendes said.
One in five students, according to the Courage Lab, struggles with anxiety that prevents them from achieving their goals, making friends or succeeding in school.
One of the tools used in Compass for Courage is a board game called Worryheads. A student might pull a card that gives the following situation: “Your class is starting a new unit in math. The last one was really hard.” The worry thought is, “I am going to have trouble with this unit, too.” The game asks the student to come up with two action thoughts.
Another exhibitor was GCU’s Best Buddies Club, which supports those with intellectual disabilities.
GCU Best Buddies Activities Coordinator Rebecca Nelson said the group partners with ACCEL, which serves children and adults with developmental disabilities.
“We have peer buddies matched up with somebody that fits with your personality. You can go to ACCEL and do crafts with your buddy,” Nelson said of peer buddies, who visit their buddy twice a month.
Another resource at the conference was two intervention programs offered by Arizona State University’s Department of Psychology: the Positive Family Support program and the Family Check-Up intervention.
“In the school system, parents are referred when their students are struggling,” ASU REACH Institute Implementation Coordinator Marianne Fillhouer said about one of those programs, Positive Family Support.
The goal of the program is to build positive home-school connections and increase the positive working relationships between caregivers and schools.
Reginna Lewis, a teacher at Ironwood High School, attended the conference with six other educators from her school.
“We’re just trying to be preventative and proactive,” she said, noting how teachers are aware when students are “going through something.” She said what she took away from Making T.I.E.S. is that it’s important for educators to be restorative: “It’s about restoring relationships and educating instead of punitive actions.”
Amanda Cowley, a school psychologist at Tempe Elementary School, said she was able to connect with a number of resources for her students and was cued into the importance of educators, families and community members collaborating with one another.
“We learned a lot of strategies to best support our kids,” she said.
“So many kids experience many types of trauma every day and then come to school,” Araza said. “We want school to be a safe space for them, but it’s often difficult for them to learn because they are experiencing repercussions from the social challenges they experience — from depression to abuse. Depression has been on the rise lately, and schools are seeing a tremendous need to be informed and ready to help kids of trauma as they enter the classroom. Today’s effort was to make sure educators are better prepared to take care of themselves and their students.”
GCU senior writer Lana Sweeten-Shults can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 602-639-7901.