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How will new MATES program aid Middletown Area School District students?

By Laura Hayes


Posted 6/27/18

Picture this. You are 10 years old, and you come to school without doing your homework  because you have to take care of your siblings because your parents are drunk.

Or picture this. You are …

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How will new MATES program aid Middletown Area School District students?


Picture this. You are 10 years old, and you come to school without doing your homework  because you have to take care of your siblings because your parents are drunk.

Or picture this. You are 9 years old, and you frequently see violence in the home and become upset when someone starts yelling in the classroom.

Or picture this. You are 7 years old, and your parents frequently swear at you when you get home.

How does trauma affect children and their learning?

While these are not the specific stories of Middletown Area School District students, Director of Special Education Krystal Palmer said some students have been physically and verbally aggressive to their peers and staff.

“We have quite a few elementary students who are struggling. A lot of them have suffered trauma or have been identified with some sort of mental health issue,” Palmer said.

Superintendent Lori Suski said there has been an increase in the number of students with mental health issues who need daily check-ins with school counselors or intervention from social workers or other therapists.

“The demand for intensive counseling supports for our students has risen in the past few years. I don’t know to what to attribute that phenomenon,” Suski said.

Next year, MASD plans to start the MATES program, which is short for the Middletown Area Therapeutic Elementary Support. The program is designed for disruptive students who may or may not have undergone a traumatic experience in their past. The program will offer education along with social skills training and counseling support.

Currently, how district staff responds to disruptive children varies on the level of severity and teacher-to-teacher. Suski explained that a staff member may stand close to the student or ask the child to stop behaving that way. Most students respond to it, Suski said.

“With some students who have these types of traumatic backgrounds or PTSD, something triggers the behavior,” Suski said. “It sets them off to the point where you can’t redirect” the behavior.

ACES study

The new MATES program is grounded in something called the ACEs study, which stands for Adverse Childhood Experiences.

Researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Kaiser Permanente surveyed individuals about their traumatic childhood experiences in the 1990s.

Their questions fell under eight categories — emotional, physical or sexual abuse; and exposure to substance abuse, domestic violence, mental illness, separation or divorce and household member incarceration. These categories are called the Adverse Childhood Experiences.

The study concluded the more ACEs an individual has, the more he or she was at risk for substance abuse, mental health issues, sexually transmitted diseases, and health issues such as liver disease and heart disease. These people may also face financial stress and poor work performance.

A 2010 survey conducted by the Pennsylvania Department of Health estimated that 53 percent of adults experienced one or more ACEs and 13 percent experienced at least four.

The ACE study concluded that people who have undergone trauma could also have poor academic achievement.

Nicole Reigelman, communications director with the Pennsylvania Department of Education, said while PDE doesn’t collect data on districts with trauma-informed education programs, anecdotally, the department has heard from districts that students are reporting incidents involving trauma.

What MASD is seeing

Students in the program will have high ACE scores, Suski said.

What does behavior from students with ACES look like? According to Marcy Witherspoon, senior training specialist with the Health Federation of Philadelphia, school staff may see children with anxiety, fear and worries or changes in their behavior, which may come across as being absent, irritability, outbursts of anger, changes in schoolwork or be emotionally numb.

According to Witherspoon, these students may have difficulty with authority, criticism or behavior redirection or have repetitive thoughts or comments about death. They also may overreact or under-react to physical contact or noises such as sirens, door slams or bells.

Palmer described some of the MASD elementary students as verbally and/or physically aggressive to other students and staff members and destructive behavior such as flipping over classroom items or throwing items across the classroom.

“What we’re seeing is an uptick in these very aggressive and destructive behaviors that really start to impact the learning of other students in the classroom as well as the learning of those particular students who obviously cannot focus on getting an education because they’re dealing with so many other things internally,” Suski said.

In the past, the district went into classrooms to provide support for the students, but Palmer said the children still were struggling.

Suski said while the program is intervening into this group of students’ needs, she also viewed it as preventative.

This past year, MASD started an alternative education program at the secondary level for disruptive students who have struggled in the classroom. Suski said administrators wondered what they could do to help elementary students.

The number of students entering the alternative education program — particularly at the high school — has been increasing over recent years, Suski said.

“I think the concern is maybe if we could address some of these things early in a child’s life and they can find some healing and some coping mechanisms and perform better in school, maybe we wouldn’t see some of the behavior issues we’re seeing at the secondary levels that sometimes do result in a student having to be placed in alternative education both inside and outside of the school district,” Suski said.

How will the program work?

Palmer came up with the idea for the pirate-themed “MATES,” which Suski said sounded nurturing and not punitive.

Some of the students will be recommended from the program by principals, but most of the students will be recommended by the school social worker, psychologist or Palmer herself.

The MATES program will be made up of three multi-age classrooms at Fink Elementary School, though it is open to children at all of the elementary schools in both special education and non-special education programs. The classes will be divided into kindergarten and first grade, second and third grade, and fourth and fifth grade. Each class will have at most 10 students for a total of around 30.

There will be three teachers in each of the classrooms along with paraprofessionals and behavior support coach who will help staff analyze students’ data to figure out why the student is acting this way and come up with a behavior plan.

Because of the ratio of students to teachers, Palmer said the students will receive more individualized attention.

At the start of the school day, the students will gather for a morning meeting. Palmer said this will give staff a chance to see if any of the students are facing issues from home.

Like their non-MATES peers, the students will still have their academics, but they will also attend either individual or group therapy and receive social skills instruction. The MATES students will still be able to interact with students not in the program during lunch, recess and special subjects.

“They’re not on an island by themselves. They’ll still get to interact with their peers,” Palmer said. She said the academic pacing will be different in the MATES program, but if there is a disruption by one of the students, there are enough staff members available to support that child.

MASD is not putting a time limit on how long students will be in the MATES program because it varies student-to-student. Suski said for students to get the most out of the program’s services, they will be in it for at least one year.

“But there are some students that may be in the program for multiple years,” Suski said. “It’s all depending on the need.”

Throughout the school year, staff will collect data on the students and meet as a team to see whether a student met the goals and could be placed back in the regular education program with supports in place.

The program model isn’t replicated from another school.

“We’re really developing our own,” Suski said.

The district was taking pieces of best practice from research. Suski said they hope to offer similar trauma-informed training for all staff members.


During the school inservice at the start of the school year, MASD staff watched the documentary “Paper Tigers” which follows students at a school in Walla Walla, Washington, after staff changes how they discipline students.

“We showed that to our entire faculty K-12. There pretty much wasn’t a dry eye in the house,” Suski said.

She explained that the movie showed students who came from traumatic experiences and had high ACE scores.

“Those are kids that a lot of people in general would just give up on. I think the message that we were trying to convey at the start of the school year was that we may not have kids who are at that end of the spectrum … but we have a lot of kids in general who just need someone to believe in them; somebody to form a good healthy relationship with them that they can be a mentor, a guide, an advocate,” Suski said.

The students, Suski said, are bright, but because of either mental health issues or past traumatic events, they have trouble focusing on their schoolwork.

Suski said the program would benefit both MATES and non-MATES students.

“When you have a student who is so disruptive to the regular environment and the teacher has to go deal with that particular student, that’s taking away from the education of the other students,” Suski said.

Moving forward, Suski said she would love to be able to grow the program to middle-school level, but added that there were challenges with time requirements for the subjects.

“Everything is contingent upon the budget from year-to-year. I always hesitate to commit to growing a program without knowing what the budget ramifications are,” Suski said.

The School Board officially approved the 2018-2019 budget on June 19. The budget called for adding eight new positions, and most of the positions would be involved with the MATES program in some capacity.