Bringing Trauma-informed Care to the Classroom

Unity Center School Program keeps kids connected to their educations, links them to vital resources and provides a safe learning environment as they receive care.

November 9, 2022

High school wasn’t easy for Portland native, Zaire Wellmon. He struggled with anxiety and a sense that he didn’t belong.

When his junior year rolled around in 2013, he decided to leave his private prep school for an alternative school. But that didn’t bring the relief he was seeking, so Zaire took a break from school. Eventually, his anxiety led to suicidal ideation and self-harm.

Zaire isn’t alone in his experience. Even before the pandemic, middle- and high-school aged children struggled with anxiety and depression at alarming rates. Those rates have only increased since the onset of the pandemic.

Zaire Wellmon sought care at Unity Center for Behavioral Health as a teenager and reignited his interest in school through the hospital’s school program.

According to a recent report from the U.S. Surgeon General, in 2019, “one in three high school students and half of female students reported persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness,” which was an overall increase of 40% from 10 years prior.

Going Back to School – at Unity Center for Behavioral Health

Zaire was able to get the help he needed by seeking care at Portland’s Unity Center for Behavioral Health, a psychiatric emergency hospital that cares for adults and adolescents.

At Unity Center, he experienced compassion and care and learned essential coping skills, but something unexpected also happened—he reconnected with his education through the hospital’s school program.

When he recalls it now, he laughs about it. He hated school, he admitted. The thought of going back while receiving care at Unity Center was not a welcomed one.

While the classroom inside Unity Center’s School Program is a like most any other, with books, computers and desks, the learning structure is different. Students talk about their lives in a safe, compassionate environment, building trust and rapport in ways they may not have experienced in a traditional classroom.

“It was intimidating at first. Why are they sending me to school? School is my main stressor,” Zaire said.

But he eventually started to like it and found it to be one of the best school experiences he’d ever had.

“I was learning that it was something I wanted to do, something I looked forward to, versus something I had to do. It was a comfortable environment and during school sessions, we talked a lot about mental health and coping.”

Eventually, Zaire went back and finished high school. Today, he works as a longshoreman and enjoys writing and creating art. He’s even working on a novel.

What Makes Unity Center’s School Stand Out?

Unity Center’s school program isn’t your typical classroom environment, but in many ways, it is. And that’s the point. It’s a place of healing, but also familiarity.

Adolescent patients seeking care at Unity Center learn together in one room. They are typically between the ages of 10 to 17, and the year-round program sees about 450 children a year. There are eight to 10 kids in the classroom at one time, joined by teachers and other staff.

And the classroom is located just directly across from Unity Center’s adolescent unit. The average stay for a child at Unity Center is about two school calendar weeks.

The program, run through the Multnomah Education Service District, helps kids stay connected to their schoolwork, assists with a smooth transition back to school after discharge, and for patients like Zaire, shows them that school is something they can in fact enjoy.

“We help rebuild that connection. We meet the kids where they’re at in their journey and provide an open forum, where they can learn in a comfortable, accepting environment,” said Ben White, lead teacher for Unity Center’s program.

Ben White oversees Unity Center’s School Program. Along with his staff, White makes the classroom welcoming with familiar surroundings while emphasizing compassion and trauma-informed care.

School staff coordinate with the hospital’s clinical team to ensure kids are getting the care they need, while also partnering with school counselors and patients’ family members so that they can have a smoother transition back to school. The most important voice in the process are the kids themselves—the school program’s instructors make sure to hear their needs and concerns and provide them with an experience best suited for their care and healing journey.

The classroom’s physical set-up resembles one you’d see in most schools—there are books on the shelves, maps, supplies, posters, computers and desks. And children spend time on typical school subjects such as math, science, social studies and English.

But the atmosphere of the school is very different. Kids learn in a trauma-informed, compassionate classroom, where they open up about stress, participate in talk therapy, contribute to skill-building groups and keep healing front and center.

“For most kids, they’re struggling with mental health and school feels like a burden. School has gone toxic for them at that point. They come in post-crisis, they’re still in shock, and it can take a day or two to warm up to the idea of school. They are still stabilizing,” White explained. “While we’re set up to mimic a typical classroom, we put emphasis on being a trauma-informed space.”

Partnering with Local Schools

The school program’s staff work closely with Unity’s clinical team and area schools’ counselors, psychologists, social workers and leaders to create a smooth back-to-school transition.

Emilee Refvem is a school psychologist at Portland Public School’s Ida B. Wells-Barnett High School. She said the partnership between Unity Center and her school is essential in helping kids transition.

“When it comes to the on-the-ground moment, the partnership between Unity and schools is essential. The school team at Unity is really good about checking in with us and communicating the student’s needs, so they can integrate back in,” Refvem said.

Unity Center’s classroom is filled with plants and natural light from large windows, making the space welcoming and fun.

Kids are struggling with a lot of anxiety and depression, and at times, that can manifest into substance use or self-harm, she explained.

“Communication skills and conflict resolution are sometimes lagging skills for many kids. And it’s only become more pronounced during the pandemic. They went remote and didn’t have access to adults in person at school who might notice them struggling and could raise the alarm. And kids didn’t have to practice conflict resolution because they were doing everything through a screen. Now they’re trying to come back, and their interactions are not rooted in a lot of empathy. Educators across the state are seeing the same thing,” Refvem said.

Elizabeth Jensen, Flexible Learning Experiences administrator with the Gresham-Barlow School District, said the partnership between her program and Unity Center is one of the best she’s seen throughout her career.

“I’ve been doing this for 20 years and I’m not over-exaggerating about how much I respect the program and the work they do. They transition children with a clear path of support and a warm handoff. That’s rare,” Jensen said.

Unity Center’s program is innovative, collaborative and very proactive, she added. “Unity initiated multiple community activities like parent support groups. They reach out to our social workers for families who might benefit from that. They are incredibly proactive versus reactive, which is rare when working in a crisis environment. They stay in partnership with us until the very end when a student returns to school.”

To hear more about Zaire’s story, click here.

– Elizabeth Baker,