Jen Soriano

All Clear: Seattle’s First Trauma-Informed Public School

by Jen Soriano for Seattle Magazine

It’s a late spring morning at West Seattle Elementary and as usual, morale is running high. Counselor Laura Bermes high-fives students as they walk through the door. Principal Vicki Sacco greets teachers while cradling Bingo, her watchful Chihuahua. The children walk single file to their classrooms, and a bespectacled special guest bounds upstairs to talk to fifth-graders about their brains.

“Hi, everyone, I’m Ms. Natalie,” says the guest, waving at the students like the school celebrity that she is.

“You’re the brain lady!” exclaims an enthusiastic 11-year-old boy named D.J.

“That’s right, I’m the brain lady. I’m here to talk about feelings and how you can manage your feelings so you can learn.”

What follows is a dynamic 40-minute conversation in which Ms. Natalie (aka Natalie Turner) and the students discuss the biology of emotions in fifth-grade terms. They establish that it’s harder to learn when they feel angry, overexcited or sad. She tells them that it’s possible to know when their feelings are getting too big, and to make a choice to cool down so they can refocus on school.

Holding up her fist, Turner explains to them the hand model of the brain: Your thumb is the center of feelings; your palm is your “downstairs” brain, where you go to react; and your fingers wrapped around your thumb are your “upstairs brain,” where you can learn and make good decisions.

Turner wiggles her thumb and pops her four fingers open. “This is what happens when you have a big feeling that gets out of control,” she explains. “You flip your lid!”

All the students laugh and follow suit, flipping their four fingers up and displaying their “downstairs brains.” A few describe what flipping your lid means to them: screaming and slamming doors, eating too much, hitting yourself, committing suicide. Their examples hint at the intense struggles many of them face outside school.


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