LACONIA — Teachers and administrators recognize that students face traumatic experiences outside of school. Whether the trauma comes in the form of domestic issues at home, physical abuse, drug related problems, or displacement from the home; it affects a child’s personal growth and experience within the classroom. However, it is often difficult for teachers to know how to properly address these issues without training, according to McKenzie Harrington-Bacote, the program director for the district Office of Wellness.

The Laconia School District has already been working to provide services for children and families dealing with trauma, but with a new grant from the New Hampshire Department of Education, the District will have access to new resources that will allow all district faculty to be trained in how to help those students.

“We know that a lot of kids in our district are going through things out of our control,” said Harrington-Bacote. “So, the better we can understand what they are going through and reach out, the better.”

The Generating Resilience, Outcomes and Wellness grant, known as the GROW grant, has been created by the Department of Education as a way to transform schools into "trauma-sensitive" spaces. The grant aims to teach faculty effective ways to provide care, increase the sense of safety within the school environment, and in the long-term reduce the number of disciplinary actions taken by the school administration.

Laconia is one of just six schools in New Hampshire that has been awarded the GROW grant. The other five schools awarded the grant include Concord, Hopkinton, Merrimack, Bethlehem and Hampton. The $50,000 awarded with this grant will allow faculty to attend training sessions with psychologist Cassie Yackley, of Dartmouth Hitchcock Hospital. Yackley has spent 25 years addressing and understanding the impact of childhood trauma, and is currently working with the Department of Education to implement her work within New Hampshire schools.

For some of the districts, Yackley may be a new presence within the school community. However, Yackley has already established a relationship with Pleasant Street School in Laconia. The connection formed after Principal Dave Levesque and 13 members of his faculty decided that they needed to do more to support the student body. After that conversation, the school created We Connect, a mentorship program for all its students.

“We realize that everyone can use support and a positive role model,” said Levesque. “We Connect is a way to promote healthy relationships between students and faculty.”

The program was implemented this past spring and has been a huge success, according to Levesque. We Connect was implemented within the school as a once-a-week 30-minute program, where eight to 12 students meet with a member of the school faculty. The program is unique in that students from kindergarten to second grade were paired together, and students from third to fifth grade were put in another group. The mixing of students between grades and with new staff members fostered a more inclusive and supportive environment.

The program lasted nine weeks, and, after the trial run, a survey was conducted among all participants within the school. The results showed that both teachers and students found this program to be beneficial and worth repeating, according to Levesque. As the school prepares for the next year, they have decided to run the program again in 40-minute weekly segments, which will take place seven weeks during the first half the year and seven during the second.

Next year, the program aims to be even more structured, with weekly themes. The possible themes considered include a week about friendship, which will teach students to foster healthy relationships and sustainable support. Another week could cover manners, as teachers believe students should be shown appropriate manners from a young age. Additional themes will be discussed as the faculty moves forward in planning for the next year.

The GROW grant will support the efforts at Pleasant Street School, as well as schools in the district. The work that is being done presently in Laconia has not been seen at other schools, according to Yackley, but she hopes it will be modeled at other elementary schools within the Laconia district and state.

"Trauma-informed" services are being promoted actively within schools across the nation, business and community services. The Family Resource Center in Laconia provided a public workshop that gave community leaders and members an opportunity to learn more about such care this past Wednesday. During this event, Linda Douglas, a trauma-informed specialist ,spoke of her studies and experiences working in the field. Through this workshop, she informed community members of what trauma can look like and how people can best aid those who have suffered from trauma.

Businesses and organizations, such as New Beginnings, Stand Up Laconia, Navigating Recovery, Partnership for Public Health and Catholic Charities were represented at the meeting. Representatives from these organizations said they are currently implementing trauma-informed care and are actively working to use new skills and policies that promote safety and comfort for all who suffer from trauma.

Students at Pleasant Street School created hands that described what they learned from the We Connect program. The hands have been on display throughout the school since the end of the program. (Courtesy photo) 

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