MORRISVILLE, Pa. / Zoom — Every morning at Valley Day School starts off the same way.
After the kids have arrived at school, passed through the metal detectors with their see-through bags and backpacks in tow, and received their morning greetings from up to a dozen staff members, they head into homeroom and begin what’s known as a “community meeting.”
During a community meeting, the kids go around and, with their teachers’ coaxing, answer several questions: How are you feeling? What is your goal for today? Who can help you with that goal?
The ritual creates consistency and establishes a daily connection between teacher and pupil, which for Valley Day’s approximately 90 students—all of whom have special needs—is important for building trust and communicating to the staff what kind of mental and emotional state the student is in that day.
In late February, as the coronavirus was silently beginning to spread through the United States, I observed a community meeting in Sean Matthews’ high school classroom.
As Matthews, a special education teacher, went around the room and posed the questions to each of his students, one answered that he was feeling energetic. Another said rushed. A third responded that he was in despair. Each interaction cued to Matthews where his students were internally and what they needed from him to have a successful day. From there, they were able to dive into their school work, which, on that day, involved a discussion of the final chapters of Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
He didn’t know it at the time, but that was one of the last community meetings Matthews would have face-to-face with his students this school year.
Two weeks later, the extent of the COVID-19 outbreak was crystalizing nationwide, and schools shut down en masse. In Pennsylvania, as in many other states, the closures were expected to last a couple of weeks. Then a couple more. Until suddenly schools were closed for the remainder of the spring, and a return to the physical building, as well as to anything in striking distance of “normal,” was called into question.
Ever since mid-March, Matthews and his colleagues at Valley Day School have met with students for about an hour every day during live video sessions. The majority of instruction and school work is done asynchronously. The live sessions, instead, prioritize student check-ins, starting with virtual community meetings. It’s not ideal, but staff at Valley Day have tried to make the most of the tools available to transfer elements of the school’s trauma-informed approach to a virtual environment.
Valley Day School, located a couple miles from the New Jersey state line in Morrisville, Pa., is classified as an Approved Private School, a special designation for schools in Pennsylvania that serve children whose needs, due to severe or complex disabilities, cannot be adequately met in a traditional public school’s special education program.
Pennsylvania’s approximately 30 Approved Private Schools (APS) serve students who qualify under one or more of the 13 disability categories identified under federal IDEA regulations. Ron Hall, Valley Day’s executive director, says the school specializes in serving learners who have an emotional disturbance or have been diagnosed with autism and are experiencing social, emotional or behavioral challenges.
Students enroll at Valley Day after their home districts have determined that they need more specialized staff, resources and targeted support than the district is able to provide.
“It was such that these students couldn't make it in a regular school,” Hall explains.
At Valley Day, the goal is for students to return to their home districts after some time—and most do, after a year or two. But a few stay long-term. (The ultimate goal at Valley Day, according to its mission, is to “teach students the tools to lead a healthy life.”)
The population fluctuates between 85 and 100 students from kindergarten through grade 12. Classes are small, with fewer than 12 students in each. The staff hovers around 50 people total. Each classroom has a teacher and a paraprofessional, and many classes have additional adults (Personal Care Assistants) present to work with individual students on specific needs, as outlined in their Individualized Education Programs (IEP).
Jessica Milton, the principal and education director at Valley Day, highlights the school's behavior expectations matrix in the main hallway of the building. (Emily Tate / EdSurge)
Many students at Valley day exhibit behavioral challenges or aggression, experience depression and anxiety, and struggle with social interactions. Some have been diagnosed with ADD or ADHD. These challenges can lead to students “eloping”—walking out of or refusing to attend class—crying, and threatening or using physical violence.
When Hall, the executive director, joined the school eight years ago, the behavioral approach used with students was primarily punitive. In some cases, students were expelled. In others, the police liaison down the hall would file disorderly conduct charges. Students were increasingly becoming involved in the criminal justice system.
Ron Hall, executive director of Valley Day, introduced the Sanctuary Model and other trauma-informed practices after joining the school eight years ago. (Emily Tate / EdSurge)
Hall was not a proponent of that approach, and as far as he could tell, the students weren’t responding to it.
“That's when we started bringing in the trauma-informed care,” Hall says. “We were listening to students, taking into consideration their pasts, understanding their pasts, asking ‘Why?’”
Soon after Hall arrived, the police liaison position was phased out, and two therapists were hired to support the existing clinical team, which at that point consisted of two school psychologists and a guidance counselor.
“We had to expand our mental health footprint big time,” Hall says. Today, students participate in private, one-on-one therapy sessions with an in-house licensed therapist at least once a week, focusing on concepts such as self-regulation and developing social skills. The therapists also frequently communicate with students’ outside mental health providers.
Hall also introduced Valley Day to the Sanctuary Model, a trauma-informed, evidence-based approach to organizational culture that has been adapted for schools. Valley Day eventually became a certified “Sanctuary school.”
Through its affiliation with the Sanctuary Model, all staff at Valley Day were trained to understand how trauma impacts an individual—not just how it affects their students, but how it affects themselves as well—and to learn the neurological processes that trauma catalyzes. The training allowed staff to get on the same page about the framework and foundation they’d use with their students going forward.
In practice, that looks like building up protective factors—skills and attributes that allow a person to better respond to a high-stress or high-risk situation—by working with students to build literacy skills, develop a sense of humor, and plan for short-term and long-term scenarios, Hall says.
For the student population at Valley Day, it also means trying to create a predictable, stable environment. For students who have an emotional disturbance or have been diagnosed with autism, external stimuli and sensory elements can be triggering. Maybe the room is too hot, or the consistency of the chocolate milk isn’t quite right. “It all becomes a safety issue,” Hall says. “So we really try to focus on structures and routines and rhythm, and try not to deviate.”
Within the thoughtfully designed and well-controlled walls of the Valley Day School building, such structures may be feasible. But when schools shuttered in March with hardly a day’s notice, all of the carefully calibrated routines that staff had established suddenly disappeared.
Not only were school days severely disrupted, but the therapeutic tools that had been put in place in the school building to de-escalate student outbursts also became unavailable. No more “Reset Room,” where, during periods of stress or anger, students could choose to ride a stationary exercise bike, or breathe in the meditation booth, or journal in the writing booth, or doodle in the drawing booth, and work through their emotions.
Left: The Reset Room at Valley Day School includes two stationary exercise bikes. Right: The Fidget Booth and College Booth inside the Reset Room. (Emily Tate / EdSurge)
The Sensory Trail, designed by occupational therapists for students to hop, skip and tap their way through calming techniques in the hallway, became out of reach, too. Jessica Milton, principal and education director of Valley Day, says these spaces provided a way for students to “release frustration and get to a point where they’re able to start to talk about and identify what’s going on.”
The Sensory Trail at Valley Day, created by occupational therapists, provides students a safe outlet to release tension when emotions are running high. (Emily Tate / EdSurge)
When Pennsylvania schools were first ordered to close because of COVID-19, Valley Day staff sent students home with two weeks’ worth of paper packets. When the closures were extended, they mailed out more school work. When the closures were extended a second time, they had to face the facts: They may not reconvene in person again this school year, and paper packets weren’t going to be sufficient for three more months of learning.
“We cranked everything into high gear,” Hall recalled during a recent Zoom call. “We had to retool our alternative school into a working, functioning cyber school.”
One of the first steps was providing laptops and mobile hotspots to the many students who didn’t have access at home. Valley Day staff shipped out the items and then launched a help desk, anticipating (correctly) that many students and parents would run into technical challenges early on.
Another important component of the transition to virtual learning, Hall reflects, was showing support for parents. The five-person clinical team and the behavioralists on staff have made themselves available to parents throughout the closures, and staff members are in touch with families at least once every two weeks—and often more frequently—to ensure things are still running smoothly at home. This is critical, Hall notes, because students have lost or experienced interruptions in the support services they’d grown accustomed to receiving at school.
The staff also had to reimagine what a trauma-informed environment could look like during distance learning. How could they create routines and consistency, which their students so desperately need, in a virtual classroom? How could they mitigate stressors from afar?
A student speaks during a virtual meeting of teacher Lisa Solheim's 5-8 grade class. VDS students attend about an hour each day of live video lessons through Google Classroom. (Courtesy of VDS)
“One of the really important things was making sure that the classes have a level of flexibility to them,” Milton, the principal, said on a Zoom call.
If students aren’t feeling up for school work during traditional hours, they’re encouraged to try again in the evening. Some of the older kids have been completing their work around 2 a.m., Hall adds.
The entire staff has contributed to the transition, says Hall, noting: “Some things we had to have: sense of safety, connections, relationships, giving folks a sense of hope for the future. Those are the tenets and hallmarks of trauma-informed intervention.”
Academic learning has continued, but teachers are introducing fewer new concepts to students, focusing more on building proficiency in foundational skills.
The virtual community meetings have been one of the ways for staff to see how the pandemic and extended school closures are affecting students’ socially and emotionally.
“When we ask, 'Who can help?' the students are much more inclined to report that they need to rely on themselves.”
Though Matthews says his students are typically reporting the same feelings in their live video sessions as they did face-to-face, he does notice more anxiety, frustration and stress among them. But it’s the answer to the last of the questions that has changed the most.
“When we ask, 'Who can help?' the students are much more inclined to report that they need to rely on themselves,” Matthews said in an email. “Of course our goal is for the students to become self-reliant, but we are moving them to self-reliance much faster than we should because we are not able to support them as well as we can in the classroom.”
Matthews says his students realize that their normal support systems—teachers, clinicians, other school staff—are still there to help them, but not with the same immediacy or intimacy as before. This, coupled with feelings of loneliness, anxiety and uncertainty brought on by the global crisis, has weighed on students.
“It has made our learning much more challenging and has helped us to see the emotional learning needs of our students more clearly,” Matthews said. “The students are showing that they feel the isolation and anxiety more, and I am concerned because I am not able to support my students in the way that they truly deserve.”
The clinical team continues to conduct private therapy sessions with students through Google Classroom, meeting weekly with students who have acute needs. And someone from the clinical team sits in on each live instructional session with students, as an additional support.
“We’re accessible, we’re here and they’re using us,” said Stacy Maurer, one of the school therapists, during a Zoom call in May.
Maurer added: “In times like these, your first instinct is to say, ‘What’s wrong?’ when everyone is frantic. But we have to go back to our tools and our mantra: ‘It’s not what’s wrong with you, it’s what happened to you.’ We’re bringing what we’ve always done into the virtual world.”
And, in spite of the challenges, the staff is proud of how they’ve been able to come together and provide a trauma-informed virtual environment to their students—especially with such little warning and under such unusual circumstances.
“The teamwork has been really awesome and the level of flexibility has been amazing,” said Milton, the principal. “In some ways, I think this brought the community closer.”