The kids at Plaza Towers Elementary School in Moore changed Kristin Atchley as an education professional. Tragedy there changed her as a person.
Today, Atchley uses what she learned and lived through to teach others about the impact of chronic stressors on growing kids and how trauma rewires our brains.
“I had a fully-developed brain as a 30-year-old. I knew I could get help and get through. Kids don’t always understand that,” she said.
Atchley didn’t have the personal or professional experience to understand the struggles and obstacles so many Oklahoma school children come to school with each day before she went to work as the school counselor at Plaza Towers, which serves a high concentration of students living in poverty.
“I had traumatic events happen in my life, but I didn’t have chronic trauma,” she said.
Then, shortly before afternoon dismissal time May 20, 2013, an EF-5 tornado razed the school full of children and faculty.
Seven of her students died.
In the weeks after the tornado, Atchley found herself one evening paralyzed to leave her house to buy milk for her small children. And she cringes as she tells the story of an emotional meltdown she had when she tried to replace her favorite sandals — the ones she wore and had destroyed on the day of the tornado — only to learn that the manufacturer had stopped making them.
“I struggled with anxiety from the loss of control I had experienced. I would get tingly; my heart and mind would be racing,” Atchley said.
Even after extensive therapy, Atchley still has disturbing gaps in her memory from the hours after the tornado. And all of these years later, images of tornadoes and the sound of a helicopter passing overhead like so many news helicopters at the time can still trigger sudden, emotional responses of fear and anxiety within her.
It crystallized her understanding of how high levels of chronic stress from experiencing or witnessing abuse, growing up with a parent with mental illness, suffering significant losses and other breakdowns in family life, can literally change a person’s brain chemistry and leave emotional scars for life.
“When you are in the middle of trauma, you don’t think through consequences. Kids in chronic stress are often just reacting out of adrenaline,” she said. “My trauma was out there for the whole world to see on the news. The majority of our kids, their trauma happens behind closed doors. But even the things we don’t know affect a kid’s life.”
She sought help and quietly tried to move on with her career, accepting a newly created counseling position at Norman High School to work even more closely with students in trauma or with other extraordinary challenges and needs.
Her charge by Norman’s then-Superintendent Joe Siano was this: “I don’t want you to do what’s right for this school. I want you to make sure the school is doing what’s right for the kid in front of you.”
She said his expectation for her and the other newly hired “student advocacy counselor” in the district included doing uncomfortable things, such as standing up to principals on behalf of kids needing special accommodations and creating channels for victims of sexual assault or harassment to get the help they need from law enforcement and mental health care.
“We had to push ourselves,” she said. “What I found worked best was ask more questions when you talk — instead of telling kids what to do. Some schools don’t want you to go down that road and find out what might be going on with a kid. Norman allowed us to ask those questions.”
In response to so many students suffering the effects on their well-being and behavior from adverse childhood experiences, such as abuse, neglect and other forms of household dysfunction, Norman set up a framework in all schools to better identify and serve those in need. It trained every teacher, counselor and school administrator in “trauma-informed” instruction.
Then, two years ago, Atchley was tapped by State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister to share with educators and parents all over the state what she had learned about the brain science behind the trauma-informed school model and how trauma-informed schools can provide kids with new coping tools to better manage behavior, improve overall school safety and educational outcomes.
“You don’t have to know how many kids in your building have a four-plus ACE score. All you have to do is look at the local, state and national data for the 10 (categories of) ACEs,” Atchley said.
The role she was cast into was not unlike that of a traveling preacher.
And to carry the message, Atchley decided to share her story to help other adults understand what she witnessed among the students she served at Plaza Towers and at Norman High and what she lived after the most traumatic experience of her life.
You could hear a pin drop in classrooms holding three times their capacity in teachers and school leaders attending annual conferences for educators and in ballrooms full of people at two statewide summits on trauma-informed instruction.
“There is a difference between acute trauma and chronic trauma, but one common thread is the loss of power and control in your life,” Atchley said. “And every day, waking up was miserable because I was waking up to reality. It taught me that mornings can be the hardest time for some of our kids.”
Today, Atchley still laments the impact of her experience on her two children.
“The mom they had on May 19 is not the mom they had on May 20 and the rest of their lives,” she said.
Atchley and her husband are expecting their third child, so she recently took a new position with the Mid-Del School District in the Oklahoma City area that will still allow her to engage in work she’s passionate about without having to travel away from home.
As director of student services, Atchley is overseeing an initiative to train employees districtwide in becoming trauma-informed.
“Teachers — more than anything else — want to be able to do their jobs,” said Rick Cobb, superintendent at Mid-Del. “They’re hungry for strategies to help students and not send them away from the learning environment and make them feel unwanted. There have always been those stories, but we may not have paid much attention to them because they were outliers. We saw them as a disruption. Now, we have higher concentrations of poverty and social problems in general. Also, we have more teachers from a relatable background.”
Cobb said Atchley’s message is so effective because it’s relatable — she’s done the work of serving students and teachers in schools. And she’s making the information relatable for adults.
“When Kristin is speaking to packed rooms of educators, she’s not shaming anyone for the things we’ve done in classrooms for 50 years or longer, but she’s talking about her story, about her students’ stories, to help people understand we can do things in a better way.”
For educators and parents interested in “trauma-informed” or “trauma-sensitive” instruction, Atchley said strategies must be implemented from the top-down and from the bottom-up.
She said it also requires a fundamental goal among educators of serving the whole child.
“You have to have a leader who believes in it. And we have teachers who have been doing these types of things for years,” Atchley said. “You have to address trust and a child’s lack of safety first — before education.”