- The district’s transportation personnel have been trained to better understand the things students on their buses might be facing and to think about ways they can connect with those students.
- The trauma-informed training addresses stresses that are affecting children and ways to reach them, as well as the importance of reinforcing appropriate behavior and reducing inappropriate behavior.
By Mike Marsee
When the school bus door swings open in the morning, it opens a window to a critical first impression for both the driver and the student.
The driver gets a glimpse into the world that student leaves behind to go to school, a view of the difficult and even dangerous situations that student might face at home. At the same time, the student gets a first look at school – the institution, not the building – through the bus drivers and monitors who are charged with safely transporting students to and from their day of learning.
“The bus drivers are an extension of the school,” said Christy Bryce, the director of intervention in the Warren County schools. “They are the first that students see of the school, and the last. There’s a lot of power in what a bus driver can do.”
Warren County’s drivers and monitors have been trained in trauma-informed practices to better understand the things students on their buses might be facing and to think about ways they can connect with those students.
“They know where their kids live; they just need to know what their kids are dealing with,” said John Odom, the district’s director of transportation.
The program is part of a districtwide initiative to include classified staff in training on trauma-informed practices for all adults who interact with students. It is part of a federal grant initiative implemented by the Kentucky Department of Education’s (KDE) Division of Student Success to train staff members on trauma-informed practices.
Christina Weeter, director of the Division of Student Success, said KDE has been supporting schools and districts in the implementation of trauma-informed practices, which are based in research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). These ACEs – which are types of family and personal trauma that are associated with risk for serious physical and social-emotional problems – include such things as living with a person who has a mental illness, having a parent or guardian incarcerated and experiencing physical or sexual abuse.
“Unfortunately, Kentucky ranks higher than the national average for children who have experienced multiple ACEs,” Weeter said.
Weeter said KDE’s Safe Schools Annual Statistical Report has shown for the past several years that buses are one of the top locations for behavior incidents.
“We need to make sure the district staff members working outside of the classrooms, like bus drivers, are getting the same kinds of professional supports as the teachers,” she said. “Some districts have also trained their bus drivers, janitors and cafeteria workers on Youth Mental Health First Aid, knowing that they can sometimes see the things that are troubling students that may not be evident to teachers and administrators.”
The training for Warren County bus personnel is part of a movement by the district’s transportation department to reduce disciplinary problems and improve the climate on its buses by showing that drivers and monitors care about their students’ well-being as well as their safety.
“We’re always on the lookout for new ideas to bring to our drivers. We always want to give our drivers tools to succeed in what they do,” said Kathie Belcher, the training and safety manager in the Warren County transportation department.
The trauma-informed training addresses stresses that are affecting children and ways to reach them.
“Think about the power you have when you see these kids every day,” Bryce told a group of bus drivers and monitors during a recent training at the district’s transportation center.
Bryce spoke about the importance of reinforcing appropriate behavior and reducing inappropriate behavior, as well as ways to do both.
“Every behavior is a form of communication, so they’re going to communicate these things to you in a way we don’t understand or interpret. We need to recognize those things they’re saying to us with their behavior,” Bryce told the drivers.
That’s especially true in a district such as Warren County, which has one of the largest transportation departments in the state, with almost 200 drivers and substitutes covering about 2.5 million miles per year. Drivers and monitors often face a language barrier between them and students who are part of a growing refugee population. Warren County is home to a large population of refugees from Bosnia, as well as groups of refugees from several countries in Africa and Asia.
“We’re dealing with students from all over the world, and those kids coming from other countries have seen things that our kids will never see,” Odom said. “We have to do better to understand what they’re coming from to us, and I feel we have to get away from that old mindset of yelling, ‘Sit down!’ at them and understand that they’re learning – just like we are.”
Belcher said any district can help its drivers and monitors better understand the students they work with.
“Bring your people the tools they need to succeed,” she said. “Educate them on the population they’re dealing with and how to handle situations with children and parents.
“It’s important for our drivers to have a relationship with the school as well. That’s one of the places the driver can reach out to for assistance with what’s happening on that bus.”
Bryce said Warren County benefits from a strong partnership between the transportation department and other district and school administrators.
“A transportation department could function completely in isolation, and instead Mr. Odom leads a department that says, ‘I want to connect with other areas of specialty in our district,’ and that way he can provide a better service to kids and families,” Bryce said.
Odom said the Warren County transportation department implemented Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports (PBIS) about 10 years ago – even before some of the district’s schools did – and at the same time implemented The Leader in Me improvement model.
“We made our own program out of the two programs, and we had our drivers actually teach it to their peers. For us, that was a huge help to our disciplinary problems, and I think the biggest thing was the kids saw drivers as someone who cared about them,” he said.
Odom said PBIS-trained coaches from within the transportation department teach their fellow drivers through ride-alongs or by viewing videos of the drivers.
Bryce said she has gotten a great deal of positive feedback from drivers following her trainings, with some drivers moved to tears during some of the sessions.
“It hits home,” she said. “They’re seeing things children deal with at home that we’re not aware of.
“The trauma-informed work is spreading across the state, so this is just another group of educators that also need this information. They’re more ready today to hear these conversations because of the previous PBIS and trauma-informed trainings we’ve done over this past year. I can push them a little farther today because of those conversations.”
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