"We love you Mrs. Wells, and there's nothing you can do about it."
That was the message passed along from one class at Newton's Northridge Elementary to principal Amy Wells on the last day of school — a fitting farewell message, as it is a mantra Wells embodies in her work.
"I've always said if you're looking for the principal who's going to scare kids to not come to the office, that's not this lady," Wells said. "I'm going to be the one who loves kids and kind of takes down the barriers of fear and what school kind of has typically done in the past for kids."
Those are traits Wells has picked up along the way in her four years as an administrator, the last two serving as principal at Northridge, and ones she will continue to practice as she transitions into a new statewide role as a systems level trainer for the Technical Assistance Support Network (TASN) in the Student Mental Health Initiative starting next school year.
Among Northridge and USD 373 staff, the expectation is that whenever Wells leads a meeting it is going to deal with the trauma-informed practices and how to apply that working with students. Childhood trauma and its effect on mental health has been a growing focus since Wells became a principal and one that was fostered when she attended the Kansas Safe and Supportive Schools conference a few years ago.
Going into the conference, Wells assumed she would learn best practice on how to handle a lockdown, but the lessons she came away with were much more enlightening — giving some context to the issues her school (a low-income building, considered failing by the state) was dealing with at the time, as well as laying the groundwork for her continued investment in students' mental health and trauma-informed practices.
"I learned about 'this is why behavior is out of control and this is why your scores are maybe not increasing even though you've changed all these pieces.' I went back to my school and went, 'this is it,' because (we had) that child, that child, that child, so many kids with trauma and poverty that were playing a role in their everyday functioning," Wells said.
Working with TASN (through a grant awarded to Keystone Learning Services), Wells will now have the opportunity to talk about that mental health and trauma-informed approach on a larger scale. She noted that 30 percent of her work will be focused on traveling to school districts around Kansas and "training the trainers" — going over the implementation of strategies with teachers and district staff.
"The exciting part about this is we're not just going to go say, 'teachers, this is what you should be doing,' we're going to say, 'teachers, this is what you should be doing and district this is how you can support them and this is how your community can support you, too," Wells said. "It's more complete, but it is a training system that I will be a part of, basically, for mental health."
"Behavior is not just a choice," Wells said. "Kids don't come to school trying to be the worst kid in the world. They don't come to school wanting to lay on the floor and scream or hide under a table. Their life has taught their brain to be wired for that, and so we're fighting a losing battle until we start changing because changing kids isn't going to happen until we change the adults."
Not only will Wells be leading training sessions, but she will also do some on-site coaching — which will allow her to stay connected to one of her favorite parts of education, working with kids — and reaching out to community partners, as she noted the trauma-informed approach to dealing with students' mental health is not an isolated practice.
Experience in Northridge and other schools has taught Wells just how much the entire community can play a role in helping build a positive mental health environment for students and allowing them to be the best version of themselves. It's something the community night Northridge held on May 8 aimed to facilitate — bringing all the partners (teachers, families, agencies like Circles of Hope, etc.) together to help build up the students.
For 16 years now, Wells has committed to helping students in schools across the state — whether as a teacher or a principal — and with each step up she has seen the greater impact trauma-informed practices can have on students.
"I've seen it work wonders on kids," Wells said. "Now, does it fix them overnight? No. There's no magic button or magic pill that's gonna change this, but I've seen it have a huge impact on very traumatized students."
Now, Wells is ready for the next challenge and seeing her work have an even broader reach.
While Wells admitted she is not one to "sit still," she said leaving Northridge will be tough, though she is already looking to come back and work with USD 373 in her new role, talking to superintendent Deb Hamm and assistant superintendent Sheila Wendling about that opportunity.
Both Hamm and Wendling have been extremely supportive in her' transition, Wells noted. Though she is not leaving Newton altogether, Wells said she was grateful that her path in education brought her back to Newton schools (where she started teaching) before leading to this next stage.
"It's been very difficult to walk away, but I know ... my meandering path brought me back to Newton a second time so that I could experience what will make me better in my next job," Wells said. "All the people who have been on that path along the way have made this so much more meaningful."