Always looking at the positive, Nicole Miller, intervention specialist for the Harrison County School District in Mississippi, says: “There’s a lot of room for growth in Mississippi.”
That’s something of an understatement. Corporal punishment is still permissible in Mississippi. Despite the widespread resurgence of COVID infections, the school board in Miller’s district voted against mandating masks for anyone, including teachers.
The first time we arranged an interview, Miller, who works at Lyman Elementary School, dashed off a note saying she had to postpone because was helping the school nurse quarantine students. When we finally talked—during the second week of the school year—she says, “The Delta variant is running wild through our communities."
Miller’s job as an intervention specialist is a new position within the school district’s alternative school created through its behavior modification program. For two hours each day, in her own classroom, she teaches a social skills and anger management curriculum to about 15 children from kindergarten through third grade.
She also assists with the behavior modification class for older children in the fourth through sixth grades two days a week. They cover topics about respecting others while at the same time resisting peer pressure to do things such as taking drugs.
Each behavioral modification program lasts 30 to 45 academic days, and these classes offer “more one-on-one time, which is what these kids often need,” says Miller.
In the past, these services were outsourced to a community mental health partner, but thanks to Harrison County School District leadership, the behavior modification program was brought into the school. Miller was hired to pioneer the program based on her understanding and experience of the science of positive and adverse childhood experiences (PACEs science), especially in dealing with children and their parents.
“Leadership knows where my passion lies,” she explains. “I wanted to have access to the parents. If you don’t change what’s happening at home, you don’t change the child’s behavior at school.” Her plan is to bring in the parents of each child two to three times during the duration of the program.
Right now, although school has been in session just a week, she’s already met with the mother of one child. “I know the child’s brother and sister from previous years, so I talked to the mother about them. ‘Are you signing their plans? Are you checking their homework?’”
Miller says she takes a holistic approach: “If we don’t try to improve things at home, I can’t help improve your kid at school.”
She also introduces PACEs science to parents “without scaring them.” She tells them, “We can make positive changes by recognizing ACEs.
In her past work as a social worker for the same school district—which has Title 1 funding that pays for placing a social worker in each elementary school—she assessed ACE scores with her students and shared those scores with their parents.
While an undergraduate at the University of Southern Mississippi, where she obtained her bachelor’s in social work, her mentor, Dr. Matthew Vasquez, introduced her to ACEs science. Previously, she thought social work was “very fluffy.”
After she learned about ACEs science, however, Miller says, “That grounded me. I can see the science. I can see the brain. This was a field I could really stick to.”
Not only did she stick to the field, but she also presented a poster at a national conference on trauma in 2015. After that, she was on a roll, giving presentations to teachers and counselors at the state and national level on communicating with parents after assessing their child’s ACE scores.
Miller got involved with social work as the mother of three sons, ages 8, 15, and 17. She grew up 45 miles northeast of Venice, Italy, where her mother, an Italian, had met and married a U.S. Air Force officer. She lived in Italy nearly her entire life until finally moving to Mississippi about 12 years ago, where she met her husband.
While raising her sons, she participated actively in community work. That’s why it felt only natural to return to the university for a degree in social work.
Her husband and boys were supportive, and she says working with the school district allowed her to spend summers with her family abroad. Her mother now works for the World Health Organization in the Netherlands; her dad lives in Alabama; and a brother lives in Milan, where he works for the European Commission.
Still on hold is an initiative, Handle with Care, that Miller began working on last year and hopes to find the time to launch. The initiative would be the first step in creating a program to inform a designated school contact whenever a traumatic event occurs to a child at that school. This program has been successful in other states and Miller is dedicated to seeing it work for the welfare of children in Mississippi as well.