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Why one Texas school district is offering grief training to mental health providers

ELISSA NADWORNY, HOST:

The pandemic changed a lot of things about schools. One big thing is that schools across the country now recognize they can't educate children unless they also address their mental health. Now the second largest school district in Texas is taking action. They've sent mental health professionals to a special training that focuses specifically on how to help kids cope with trauma and grief. NPR's Rhitu Chatterjee is in Dallas at the workshop, and she joins us now. Hello.

RHITU CHATTERJEE, BYLINE: Hi, Elissa.

NADWORNY: So a workshop specifically on grief and trauma.

CHATTERJEE: Yeah.

NADWORNY: Why now?

CHATTERJEE: So, you know, this is a really different time since the pandemic. So many kids have lost parents, grandparents, other loved ones, be it to COVID, gun violence, other health issues. You know, I spoke earlier with one of the social workers who's here. Her name is Dianne Bippert, and she's been with the Dallas Independent School District for nearly 15 years. And she says, you know, before the pandemic, if she'd ask preschoolers or elementary school kids if they'd experienced a death or loss, they would say things like, you know, I lost a tooth, or, I lost my puppy. But the pandemic has made these kids just all too familiar with death.

DIANNE BIPPERT: I was just recently in a second-grade classroom, and I said, has anyone else experienced any sort of death or loss? And about every child raised their hand and had a story about someone close to them that had died.

CHATTERJEE: Most of these kids in the school district are from communities that have been hit the hardest by all aspects of the pandemic. And we're not just talking about deaths. We're talking about parents losing jobs, families losing homes, kids not having regular access to food or experiencing domestic violence - so all kinds of traumas.

NADWORNY: But I would think that social workers and psychologists who work in schools have already been trained in how to recognize and respond to children who are dealing with all this trauma, right?

CHATTERJEE: Sure, many do but not all. And the school district has hired many more professionals to deal with sort of the scale of things. And many of them haven't really been trained in how trauma and grief manifests differently in kids. You know, it's not just a mini version of how that looks like in adults. Kids are unique. So, for example, often when kids are struggling emotionally, they'll act out and do things that are labeled as disruptive in classrooms, behaviors that have become much more common across the school district. Here's what psychologist Monica Munoz told me about what she's seeing.

MONICA MUNOZ: A lot of aggression and fighting, a lot of social anxiety, which is very new, school refusal even from high-functioning or high-performing children.

CHATTERJEE: And, you know, when teachers see these behaviors, they often think the kids have conduct or attention issues. They aren't interested in their classes. But if you talk to kids about what's happening in their life, you might learn that they haven't eaten for two days or Mom's sick or Dad's passed away and their whole life is turned upside down.

NADWORNY: So what's happening at the workshop that's going to be helpful to educators?

CHATTERJEE: So, you know, they've received this big manual with worksheets and exercises that they're going through, basically a set of protocols that will help them assess and treat kids dealing with traumatic experiences. And these are all techniques that research has shown is effective. And, you know, by the end of today, these 80 or so mental health staff will have more tools and be on the same page on how to better support grieving and traumatized students.

NADWORNY: NPR's Rhitu Chatterjee will have more from that workshop next week. Thanks for stopping by.

CHATTERJEE: Thanks, Elissa.

(SOUNDBITE OF KACEY MUSGRAVES SONG, "SLOW BURN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rhitu Chatterjee is a health correspondent with NPR, with a focus on mental health. In addition to writing about the latest developments in psychology and psychiatry, she reports on the prevalence of different mental illnesses and new developments in treatments.