PARIS — Trauma is sometimes unseen but it’s a critical consideration when assessing struggling students, SAD 17 Superintendent Rick Colpitts said.

“Sometimes students have experienced physical trauma, but often it is much different,” he said. “A divorce – even a friendly one – can cause a child trauma. Our district is changing the definition of it and training our staff to recognize it.”

“Children come into the school system with behavioral issues due to anxiety and depression,” Special Ed Director Jan Neureuther said. “Often a young child is well into a semester before it becomes apparent he or she has additional needs. By the time assessments are done and plans developed, the student may fall even further behind.”

Earlier intervention will help identify students who require social work or support services beyond public education, making their classroom time more productive sooner.///////////////

“Many kids can’t identify the emotion that they are feeling,” Neureuther said. “They don’t have a word for it. My goal is to help kids realize themselves why they are feeling angry, sad, anxious. This extends to their understanding emotions and behaviors of their peers as well.”

With Neureuther’s guidance, SAD 17 is shifting toward trauma-based practices, which combines psychology and education in the school setting. Across the district faculty and staff are undergoing training to address emotional behaviors as part of teaching.

“A lot of kids’ struggles can be tied to technology, Neureuther said. “Growing up with 24/7 access to the internet, is hard on kids,” because it develops children’s brains at young ages but they don’t know how to use it appropriately.

Jan Neureuther. Submitted photo

Neureuther was drawn to special education early in her career when she taught a seventh-grade resource room class. After graduating from the University of Maine Farmington she student-taught second-graders in Brunswick.

“I spent two semesters teaching second grade and after that I landed a job as a long-term sub for a seventh grade resource room,” she said, also in Brunswick. Within two months she was permanently hired for that position.

“I was teaching a tough group,” Neureuther said. “It was mostly boys, but some girls too. They hated school and they hated being in special education. I could see signs of trauma in these students. And I tackled it by focusing on relationship-building with them. I set high expectations of them and they began working to meet them.”

They were so devoted that several of them staged a sit-in outside her class room when a scheduling adjustment threatened to take them away from it.

“These five sat outside the door and refused to leave my classroom until the administration changed their schedules back to my class,” Neureuther said. That group of students would end up changing the course of her career from elementary to special education, and to eventually become an administrator executing policy.

SAD 17 Special Education Director Jan Neureuther helped a former student with this stuffed dog so he could pass art class. Nicole Carter/Advertiser Democrat

Neureuther points to a stuffed dog sitting on a shelf in her office.

“That was a project I helped one of the students on so that he could pass his art class,” she said. “After I moved home to Aroostook from Brunswick, one of the other students came with his grandparents to the restaurant where I worked, to check on me. It was those relationships that inspired me, helping those kids feel like they could change their own pathways.”

In Aroostook, Neureuther returned to teaching second grade, this time at a Christian academy. The school had no special education program so she set up a resource learning center and wrote and taught new education plans at the center, on top of her teaching duties.

“They had students who struggled academically but no program,” she said. “They had a need and I had the background from working in Brunswick and from my master’s degree work. I spent lunches and prep times, summers, tutoring students.”

Neureuther returned to public education in 2011, intending to teach a seventh grade resource room class in RSU 29 in the Houlton area. Before she started the superintendent asked her to be the special education director.

“It was during my years at RSU 29 that I became familiar with trauma-based intervention within special education,” she said. “When I first worked in special ed, it didn’t really have a name. But looking back, I always had a passion to help the kids who struggled.”

One of those influences was from student-teaching in Brunswick. A student began showing up for class earlier and earlier every morning.

“He was my little buddy,” she said. “He would knock on the door each day.”

They would share a bagel for breakfast. She gave him a winter coat.

“I never met his parents. He became more outgoing in class, he began to smile more, by getting that little bit of intervention,” she said.

As she juggles her role facilitating trauma-based practices into SAD 17 and overseeing the special education needs of more than 600 students, Neureuther is working toward her doctoral degree in prevention and intervention from University of Maine Orono. She also teaches undergraduate classes at University of Maine Machias.

Neureuther was pleased that her position leaves time to follow up with students. She is able to support parents and spend time with children who may be going through crisis, even outside of school.

“One of the most valuable things that Jan has brought to SAD 17 is her fresh perspective,” Colpitts said. “She is the first special education administrator in the last 30 years who has worked in other districts. With a different lens with which to view special education, we have a different energy and new approaches.”


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