Impact Essay – Melissa McMickle

We’re featuring Teach Plus Impact Essays from educators across Indianapolis, highlighting their Innovation Change projects. The work is ongoing and their essays will continue to evolve as the school year progresses. Look for new features throughout the spring!

My name is Melissa McMickle, and I am a fourth-grade teacher at Thomas Gregg Neighborhood School in Indianapolis, Indiana, and a Teach Plus Innovation Change Agent. This is my eighth year teaching. Prior to teaching, I worked for five years in urban community development.

My fifth year of teaching began with Lucas under the table screaming because of a trigger I didn’t know about. What was causing such an extreme response? How could I keep him calm and, in the classroom, so he could learn? As I read more about neuroscience, developmental trauma, and mental health, I began to think differently about how a school should “manage” children with challenging behaviors.

I was aware that Lucas had experienced physical and emotional abuse from birth until five years old. His mother, the one responsible for inflicting this abuse, was no longer his caregiver. For three years he had been in the care of his grandmother and father, a positive influence in his life. However, a child diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder does not just magically “get better.” I needed real strategies and techniques to help Lucas.

Many times, teachers with a particularly challenging student in class are tasked with bearing the challenge on their own. If support is given, it often comes in the form of removing the child from the classroom environment. Teachers like me are provided little training or support to work towards more positive outcomes for the student. And while we interact the most with the child, we are often the least prepared for the realities we face in the classroom. 

This is why I’ve focused my Innovation Change Agent project on developing a school-wide system of trauma-informed care that includes both preventative practices and regulation strategies to support educators and students. The preventative practices involve scheduled, guided daily breaks for students with identified challenging behaviors, a year-long guide for morning meetings, explicit emotional vocabulary instruction, and educator training around how an adult’s redirection can impact a child experiencing trauma or toxic stress. The regulation strategies involve training staff in the benefits of a calm-down area, providing each classroom with the needed supplies in these spaces, and training staff on practices to teach students to help them learn regulation strategies and advocate for themselves.

At the start of my project, I collaborated with our principals and dean to identify school-wide issues around trauma and challenging behaviors. Having everyone on the same page was important to give focus to the professional development sessions that my team and I then led for teachers and staff. This training included training on trauma, toxic stress, neuro-diverse learners, and developing building-wide strategies to address a child’s individualized needs. Our staff responded positively to these training sessions, and they were eager to implement the practical strategies in their own classrooms.

As the school year progressed, teachers have taken ownership of their learning; many have requested additional training and others have read recommended materials independently to continue to improve their support of students. Our behavior referral data shows teachers are implementing strategies from our training.

Random walk-throughs indicate morning meetings are happening consistently in 80% of classrooms. One hundred percent of our classrooms now have a designated calm down area, up from 48% last spring. Before documenting a behavior, our teachers have elevated their use of varied styles of redirection (verbal, visual, movement) and increased their implementation of student choice. Additionally, 71% of teachers documenting a referral are utilizing a private conversation with the child to address issues. Our administration has supported additional whole-staff training sessions, and teachers across grade levels have collaborated on how to best support individual students.

My Innovation Change Agent project has clearly shown the benefits of a systematic approach to ensure that all educators have the essential skills to interact with children exhibiting challenging behaviors. Moving forward, a teacher from each grade level will engage in ongoing training that they will present monthly in their professional learning community. We will continue to refine our practice to best serve our students.

Melissa McMickle is a 4th-grade teacher at Thomas Gregg Neighborhood School 15, an IPS Innovation School.

About Teach Plus

Teach Plus is dedicated to the mission of empowering excellent, experienced, and diverse teachers to take leadership over key policy and practice issues that advance equity, opportunity, and student success. Since 2009, Teach Plus has developed thousands of teacher leaders across the country to exercise their leadership in shaping education policy and improving teaching and learning, to create an education system driven by access and excellence for all.