The Park Rapids Area School Board on Monday heard a presentation by the community’s ACEs Committee about the school’s central role in the drive to make Park Rapids a trauma-informed community.

Speaking for ACES MN, a local group started under the auspices of ACTION Park Rapids to address adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), five presenters reviewed the area’s first ACEs Summit, held Feb. 13 at the high school.

Lisa Coborn, coordinator of the Alternative Learning Center (ALC) at the high school, played video of a TV news report about the summit. In the video, a Lakeland News reporter commented, “What’s happening right now in Park Rapids is something to be admired.”

Coborn called the summit a “huge success…not only for our staff and students, but for community (members) who attended as well. We had over 400 people there.”

One concept the committee took over from the summit’s keynote presenter Jim Sporleder is the ACES Bullseye Chart, which students can use to communicate what level of stress they are under. Coborn discussed the chart with school board members, showing how the colored circles signify “I am under a great deal of stress and need time to breathe – I cannot talk right now” (red), “I am stressed but getting there – I may need to talk” (yellow) and “I am good to go” (green).

“We started to use it at conferences this year in the elementary and the middle school,” said Coborn. “Talking about emotions is never easy for any of us, but we all thought the Bullseye was a really simple tool to use. It’s a good starting point. We also feel, as a committee, that it’s something we can use in the community” – for example, at clinics and the police station.

School board members also looked at the book “Help for Billy: A Beyond Consequences Approach to Helping Children in the Classroom,” which Coborn said high school staff will be studying during the upcoming school year.

Joanna Wallenberg, a mental health professional with the school, discussed what happened during the summit at Century School. A consulting group from St. Cloud called 1,000 Petals gave a demonstration about mindful movement, she said.

Wallenberg said her thinking has shifted from “trauma informed and trauma focused” to “brain focused,” with strategies that can also benefit children with zero childhood trauma.

“It’s for everyone, not just for a few,” she said, noting that the school is purchasing equipment for teachers, including a Hoberman sphere to use with breathing exercises and a chime to mark transitions in classroom time.

Kiah Staloch, a psychologist with A Better Connection, contrasted the trauma-informed approach to classroom control with “the traditional, punitive approaches (where) the kid breaks the rules, they get punished, they get suspended for the day, they get in-school suspension, you have to think about what you did. We all know that doesn’t work. We’ve all been there.”

A trauma-informed approach is more effective in teaching the kids, she said.

“A common misconception about this approach is that we’re letting kids get away with things, and that’s just not true,” she said. “We’re trying to meet them where they’re at and get their brains on board; get them regulated, and then we can teach them. If they’re emotionally dysregulated, the learning part of their brain is offline. They literally cannot learn when they’re in that mode.

“So, it’s not going to do any good to sit there and think about what they did, because all they’re thinking about is how upset they are, and how they’re not being listened to.”

Admitting that gearing toward social-emotional learning (SEL) takes time, training and supplies, Staloch said research shows there is a $11 return on investment for every $1 spent on SEL. “It’s going to save us money in the long run,” she said, “because we’re going to spend less money on special education, less money on kids sitting in an ISS room, when it might benefit them more to have a resource room…where there is support, where they can learn these strategies to self-regulate and be able to better learn.”

Local business owner Mark Anderson said the school needs to be a leader among other local organizations to foster a trauma-informed community.

“This works,” Anderson said, stressing that the benefits of SEL are intergenerational.

Joe Johnson, with the FATHER Project and CHI St. Joseph’s Health, said it is easier to teach coping skills to children than to “rewire” the brains of adults. He said that he has gone to several schools and talked about the “Three Ls” – listening, learning and loving – which is as helpful to teachers as to students.

“We’d really like to see more mental health and medical health clinics on campus, a place where kids can resources on the spot,” said Johnson, adding that they would like to have another summit.

Wallenberg read comments school staff submitted about the February summit, including one who said, “If only we could put the rigor we put toward Benchmark toward this” (SEL).

Both students and staff do best, she said, when they feel safe and connected. “Part of all this approach … is about connecting,” she said.