Student Assistance Services Counselor Amanda Lopez helps Ector County Independent School District elementary students who are in crisis.
Now she’s taking a deeper dive, helping to help train counselors and teachers to help students who have experienced trauma or are experiencing it.
Being a trauma-informed school or person means being aware that children are experiencing trauma and how it affects their brain and behavior. And it involves looking at what is going on in their lives, how that impacts how the student acts at school and making them feel safe, Lopez said.
Lincoln High School in Walla Walla, Wash., tried this approach to discipline. Among the benefits are reduced suspensions, referrals and expulsions and improved academic performance, Lopez said.
“It’s looking at what’s happening with the person instead of what’s wrong with a person,” Lopez said. “Sometimes it’s simple as I’m hungry and that’s why I’m being grouchy today.”
In her training, Lopez said she hears a lot of stories like a teacher finding out their student was hungry, so they gave the student a granola bar and the student stopped having outbursts.
“Those are the easy ones,” Lopez said.
The trauma children are experiencing can be real or perceived. If they feel like their life is in danger or a loved one’s life is in danger, even if it doesn’t look that way from the outside, if that’s how I perceive it then that’s what’s real to the child.
“That’s the fascinating thing about trauma is it can be very different for different people. A lot of times kids overhearing fighting in the next room … where maybe nobody is in danger, they’re just arguing. But to the kid it doesn’t feel like everyone’s safe. That can be traumatic to them because of a perceived threat,” Lopez said.
Lopez sees about 40 students a week in grades kindergarten through fifth grade. She has been called to talk to prekindergarten students previously, though.
The issues she sees are things like homelessness, poverty, money and family concerns. “Then around testing time, there’s a lot of testing stress that we deal with,” Lopez said.
A teacher or principal can refer a student to Lopez if they notice something and want to have the child checked on.
The student may just be having a rough day, but if it’s more serious she and the other SAS counselors can refer the student to resources outside of school.
Lopez shuttles among Buddy West, Noel and Zavala elementary schools, but she can be called anywhere to tend to a crisis.
There are four elementary SAS counselors and 31 elementary campuses. The four elementary SAS counselors try to meet once a month, but that doesn’t always happen. But all the SAS counselors meet once a month, she said.
Lopez said she got into counseling from her work with Child Protective Services.
“I really loved my job and it was hard to leave, but I knew I wanted to be the person counseling the kids instead of the person taking them to their new placement or their new foster home. That’s probably when it started. (There were) a lot of different life events that led me here,” she said.
Her experiences at CPS helped her in school because she had a better idea of what some of the children were going through.
“I had more real-world experience about it than some of my classmates. It was really helpful when I went to graduate school,” Lopez said.
Lopez, who is from Odessa, graduated from the University of Texas at Arlington with a bachelor’s degree in sociology focused on cultural relations.
She then earned a master’s degree in dance movement therapy and counseling from Antioch University New England in Keene, N.H. Lopez also has undergone training from the National Institute for Trauma and Loss in Children.
Having been a dance teacher for a long time, Lopez said her master’s degree combined her loves of counseling and dance.
Dance movement therapy uses movement in therapy process, so it’s helpful for people who are unable to talk about what’s going on with them, or they prefer movement.
“The body tells you a lot,” Lopez said.
Executive Director of Guidance and Counseling Nancy Vanley said Lopez has been instrumental in training teachers and counselors who have shown an interest in trauma informed training.
In an email, Vanley said counselors have met with principals to explain the benefits of the training, but there is no specific timeline for implementation right now.
Lopez said all the counselors have been trained and she is presenting at schools to get the word out to teachers who see the students all the time.
She presented trauma informed training at ECISD’s professional development event, Teacher University, in the fall and she said it was well received.
“It’s good for everybody,” Lopez said of the training. “It’s just little things like, ‘Is the light really bright in here? Is it really loud?’”
This is similar to what people with post-traumatic stress disorder experience, but children can experience some of the same symptoms even if they don’t have PTSD.
“I was shocked when I came to the elementary level because I kind of thought would be a little light … and I was really surprised at how much is going on in a lot of their lives. … I have a lot of little fifth graders that take a lot of parental responsibility because their parents work. There’s a lot of little adults walking around.”