In Partnership with 74

LA teachers step up interventions as students’ fears increasingly impede their ability to learn

Esmeralda Fabián Romero | January 16, 2018

Your donation will help us produce journalism like this. Please give today.

KIPP Promesa teacher Brenda García with her kindergarten class.

*Updated Jan. 17

Throughout Los Angeles, the scope and intensity of students’ fears are greater this school year than ever before, teachers say. 

The possibility of their parents being deported, domestic violence, homelessness, racial tensions, and even fears of terrorist attacks are affecting children more than ever, according to administrators and teachers at both LA Unified district schools and independent charter schools.

At KIPP LA, teachers saw that those fears were impeding so many students’ ability to learn, and school counselors could not keep up, that they asked for the tools so they could respond directly to their students’ increasing needs for social-emotional support.

So starting this school year, teachers at 12 of the 14 KIPP charter schools in Los Angeles have been getting extra training in how to help their students cope with trauma.

“We are in communities where students are exposed to violence and other issues that they know. It’s hard to hide from them when a whole community is talking about it. That higher exposure is almost a predisposition to trauma,” said Lauren Krauss, mental health program manager for KIPP LA Schools.

Jasmine Tarver, associate director of mental health, said KIPP LA’s teachers wanted to do more for their students, as the capacity of counselors to provide that support is proving not enough.

“We are hearing a lot from our counselors having students coming to school crying or having anxiety, worrying about coming home and their family is not there, so teachers said they needed to teach their students to identify those feelings and express them to prevent negative outcomes,” she said.

Studies have demonstrated a link between exposure to community violence and other traumatic events that trigger developmental challenges including decreased IQ and reading ability, lower grade-point averages and graduation rates, higher school absenteeism, increased expulsions and suspensions, and difficulty concentrating.

“Some kids as young as our students in kindergarten come to school with high levels of stress and anxiety from home,” Tarver said.


Teachers at KIPP LA are being trained to identify and respond to trauma-related symptoms through the trauma-informed schools approach, which prepares them to recognize a child’s past experiences that can lead to disruptive behavior, difficulty engaging, or trouble learning.

One of the newest programs they have been incorporating is called Calm Classroom, created by the non-profit organization Luster Learning Institute. Students from kindergarten to middle school are led each day by their teachers to breathe and relax two to three times during the school day for about 15 minutes, such as before starting a school period, after lunch, and before dismissal time.

One kindergarten class at East Los Angeles’ KIPP Promesa elementary finishes their school day with a deep breathing technique. Teacher Brenda García demonstrated recently how she practices with them, simulating smelling a flower and blowing out a candle while some of the 5-year-olds closed their eyes.

“They look forward to this very important moment. They enjoy it, and that helps them get on task easier,” García said. “One of my students says she prefers to open up her arms instead of blowing a candle, but that’s OK because the purpose is to teach them to create their own ways to remain relaxed and calmed.”

The kindergarten class of about 25 students sits in a circle on a mat, and before they finish their relaxation time, they pair up to ask each other how they’re feeling.

Tarver said that although is too soon to measure the technique’s outcomes at KIPP, “Hundreds of schools in other parts of the country that have been implementing the trauma-informed teaching practice have seen an increase in attendance and even test scores.”

Tarver added, “A calmed, healthy, happy culture and climate for our students is the goal. We’re giving our teachers the tools they think they need to prevent mental intervention for their students.”

KIPP LA teachers during a professional development session at KIPP Promesa learn about the calm classroom program.

KIPP LA is the first KIPP region to start using these practices. “We haven’t gotten that far to share this resource with other regions yet. Maybe in the future,” Tarver said.

How these “mindfulness practices” can be used in the classroom is the subject an essay by KIPP Raíces’ teacher Joshua Martínez, who won the 2017 Fishman Prize.

“As the class lines up for recess, I crouch next to Noemi’s desk,” he wrote. “She’s waiting for her mother to take her out of class. They’re going to an attorney this afternoon to sign documents that transfer legal custody of Noemi and her little sister to a family friend if immigration officials detain her parents. Sometimes learning can be the last thing on a student’s mind.”


Pia Escudero, director of School Mental Health at LA Unified, said the level of social and emotional issues that families are facing is greater than ever before.

Escudero said it goes beyond the fraught political climate around immigration. “There’s also the economic instability, what they see in the news, the political situation. The need for our children to dialogue and talk about their issues in a healthy way for coping is absolutely a priority in our schools.”

LA Unified’s own survey of students’ mental health two years ago showed that 98 percent of its students reported experiencing one or more stressful or traumatic life events in the previous 12 months and at least half suffered from moderate to severe symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

The trauma-informed approach has been in place in LA Unified for almost 20 years, but the district is also starting to use the “calm classroom” program at some elementary schools, which Escudero says looks something like yoga sessions. She also said it will also be introduced in middle schools and high schools. A handful have started to pilot the practice this year, including Gage Middle School, which has added a meditation time for students.

She also noted an increase in suicidal behavior among students both locally and nationally. This month, LA Unified began an online mandatory suicide prevention training for all employees. Additionally, on-site training will be conducted throughout the year, going beyond the new requirements established last year for schools statewide under AB 2246.

“The law says that all 7 and 12 (grade) teachers should receive suicide prevention training, but our superintendent has decided to train every certified and classified district staff member on suicide prevention awareness. Everybody in contact with students will take an online training in January, where they will learn to identify resources in the district to help students,” she said.

“There’s a lot going on throughout LA Unified as it relates to social-emotional learning for our students, and new science tells us how trauma or stress itself can impact children’s development and learning. So having this kind of program is part of our strategic goal as a district.”

Escudero said LA Unified has also seen positive outcomes from using trauma support-related practices and is planning to expand their use at some targeted schools with higher needs of social-emotional support for their students. Students learn about resiliency, anger management, empathy, and problem-solving.

She also said that last semester about 4,000 students across the district were screened for symptoms like having trouble sleeping or concentrating. In 2015, about 1,000 students were screened through a district survey, which started in 2005 on a smaller scale for students in sixth- and ninth-grades.

“We created a report for teachers and staff because we think every adult should be trauma-informed and know what these students are facing and know how to help them, not only social workers,” she said.

Escudero said parents who think their children need mental health assistance should request services directly from their school. They can also go to LA Unified’s web page on trauma-informed schools and this list of further resources.

*This article has been updated to correct Jasmine Tarver’s name, the number of  KIPP LA schools, the word program when referring to the Calm Classroom, and that teacher Joshua Martínez’s essay is not why he was selected as a Fishman Prize winner.  

Read Next