Genesis Gregor, Ahmad Jobir Ahmad-Gol and Tameya Pruitt

Normandy High School students Genesis Gregory, Ahmad Jobir Ahmad-Gol and Tameya Pruitt brainstorm during a near-peer trauma training exercise at Washington University in St. Louis.

“How do we identify trauma, and what are some ways to mitigate its effects?”

This was the question posed to Normandy High School students during a recent Near Peer Trauma Training at Washington University in St. Louis.

To better understand trauma and its impact, six freshmen and sophomores were selected out of more than 80 applicants to serve on advisories as near-peer trauma trainers. Advisors consisting of two near-peer trauma trainers and an adult will lead 45-minute trauma-awareness sessions for at least 100 students this spring. Near-peer trauma trainers will earn a stipend for their work.

“As we’ve embarked on this path of trauma-informed awareness as a district, it makes sense for students to support students,” said Pablo Flinn, principal at Normandy High School. “It’s a natural extension of the work the district has done to grow the social and emotional capacity of young people.”

The students recently wrapped up a series of trainings to prepare for their new roles. During a training session at Washington University in St. Louis, Roxy Isaguirre, a research assistant with Washington University Social Systems Design Lab, defined the word “resilience.”

“Bouncing back from difficult experiences,” Isaguirre said. “[These are] behaviors, thoughts and actions that can be learned and developed in anyone.”

Variables that might increase and decrease resilience were written on construction paper behind her, strategically positioned on the chalkboard to demonstrate the interconnectedness of each variable.

“Can we add anxiety?” a student asked. 

“Anxiety is an after effect of stress,” a student chimed in.

“Stressing-out can lead to self-harm,” another student said.

Journaling, listening to music, and talking to trusted adults were methods students said would decrease stress.

Sophomore Rakaya Hilliard, 16, said the trainings have been therapeutic. She also identified Juan Tabb, a clinical social worker with the Boys and Girls Club of Greater St. Louis, as a trusted mentor she can talk to in times of stress.

All near-peer trauma trainers are members of the Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater St. Louis, which is among a list of Normandy wraparound service providers managed by Wyman Center. The Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater St. Louis provides tutoring, case management, and after-school programs at the high school.

Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater St. Louis assisted with screening candidates to serve as near-peer trauma trainers and transported students to the university. Wyman secured funds through a grant from the Annie E. Casey Foundation to provide the training and brought in additional partners to help launch the initiative. Washington University Social Systems Design Lab assisted with the training format, and Behavioral Health Response compiled the content.

“I felt like I needed the program because I wasn’t where I needed to be emotionally,” Hilliard said.

Since beginning the training, Hilliard said her outlook has changed for the better after discovering how the brain processes stress and how that can lead to issues in the classroom.

“You’re not comprehending the work that the teacher’s giving you,” she said.

Tim Kjellesvik, director of wraparound services at Normandy High, said providing trauma-awareness sessions at the high school is another strategy to help improve academics.

“If they can regulate themselves, they can pay attention in class. They’re less likely to have outbursts that result in in-school suspension,” Kjellesvik said. “That’s why we do trauma trainings. It helps students understand how and why they respond the way that they do.”

Yet, he added, trauma training via high school students is a unique initiative. “We can’t find anyone in the country doing trauma training via high school students,” he said.  

Kjellesvik emphasized that near-peer trauma trainers will not conduct one-on-one counseling with their peers but simply give students hope. “You’re not your circumstances,” he said.

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