Heather Simonich
Photo by Britta the Photographer

Teaching Trauma
Awareness

Heather Simonich (BF’12) used her Bush Fellowship to
build a curriculum to bolster mental health outreach in
North Dakota school districts.

When Heather Simonich first applied for the Bush Fellowship, she had a specific focus: to bring a better understanding of child traumatic stress into public schools. 

At the time, she was nearing her 15th year as part of the Neuropsychiatric Research Institute in Fargo, North Dakota. There, she studied eating disorders and child trauma and helped strengthen the network of mental health clinicians across the state. Again and again, she saw the crucial importance of recognizing the signs of traumatic stress and providing the proper counseling to at-risk children as soon as possible. 

“The trajectory for kids who experience trauma is not good,” Simonich says. “They’re at higher risk for physical and mental health outcomes if we don’t intervene early. We can’t just sit on our hands. We have to figure out how to do this differently.” 

Simonich used her Fellowship funding to set aside one day a week from her full-time job to educate Fargo teachers about trauma among students and create trauma-informed interventions. To begin, she met regularly with a team of local teachers to learn about school culture, as well as the teachers’ personal struggles. 

“The goal was to increase understanding for teachers about how trauma impacts kids and manifests itself in the classroom, and then to show them how they can support kids with trauma-informed interventions,” she says. “I took a lot of time developing those relationships. And it paid off, because the work got so much bigger because of that.” 

Through these conversations, Simonich found that educators she spoke to wanted a better understanding of how to identify and respond to child traumatic stress, and they began discussing a professional development curriculum on the subject. Simonich had used similar aids for years working in foster care training — and yet for educators, there were few to none in North Dakota, and similar resources were only just beginning in Washington and Massachusetts. So, over the next two years, she and the teachers developed one. 

When her Fellowship ended, Simonich left her job in research and became the operations director at PATH, a North Dakota foster care organization. From there, she partnered with the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction, and 2018 Bush Prize recipient Mid-Dakota Education Cooperative in Minot, to create a team of trainers to bring the curriculum to public schools across the state. 

The curriculum gives teachers what Simonich calls “trauma lenses” for students — the ability to recognize when a student is experiencing traumatic stress — and the resources to respond. “If these children have a teacher who shows up to the classroom with trauma lenses on and sees their behavior and their challenges through those lenses...you just can’t put that impact into numbers,” she says. 

Today, the training curriculum has been implemented by 6,500-plus teachers in 80 North Dakota school districts. More than 8,000 training participants said they could apply what they learned and believed this training should be mandatory for all educators. 

In 2018, Simonich and her PATH team received a $2.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education to strengthen behavioral health services in schools across the state. “The part I could have never dreamt of is watching the ripple effects of that initial Bush Fellowship work get bigger and bigger and bigger,” she says. “Now, to see all that has happened...that has been, by far, the most rewarding part.”

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