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Importance of Trauma-Informed Practices in School

Posted in 2019 Tuesday, 24 September 2019

Importance of Trauma-Informed Practices in School

By Antonino Grillo, CFYJ Fellow

On Wednesday, September 11, 2019, the House Education and Labor Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary, and Secondary Education held a hearing titled, “Importance of Trauma-Informed Practices in Education to Assist Students Impacted by Gun Violence and Other Adversities.” The hearing mainly focused on the damaging effects of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE’s) on children, how to train teachers and support families to help the children succeed, and how to get funding for some programs that help students who have dealt with trauma. There were four witnesses on the panel, including Dr. Nadine Burke-Harris, Founder of the Center for Youth Wellness, American Pediatrician, and the first and current Surgeon General of California; Dr. Ingrida Barker, Associate Superintendent of McDowell County Schools in West Virginia; Ms. Joy Hofmeister, State Superintendent of Public Instruction in Oklahoma; Ms. Janet Jackson, CEO of the Chicago Public School System (CPS).

The main points that were highlighted by the witnesses were the importance of getting funding to programs that help students deal with ACEs, allowing teachers to foster relationships with their students that they might not have at home, and screening children early on to see if they have ACE’s and how they can go about treating them before the effects become too overpowering to deal with. 

According to Dr. Robert Block, who was quoted twice in the hearing, “ACE’s are the single greatest unaddressed public health threat facing our nation today.” There are about 34 million children who have at least one ACE that makes their academic, emotional, and psychological stress hard to develop. These children are more likely to become addicted to drugs or alcohol, are at a higher risk of suicide, and do not perform as well in an academic setting than children without any ACE’s. Furthermore, in Ranking Member Allen’s opening statement, he mentioned that in his district, children who cannot read at a third grade level by the end of third grade are more likely to have experienced a traumatic event and eventually drop out of school. He was subsequently informed that 90% of children detained in the juvenile justice system have at least one ACES; and 84% have two or more.  

A topic that was emphasized by the panelists and members of the Subcommittee was the science behind trauma affecting overall childhood development. Dr. Burke-Harris, who has a medical background, talked about how ACE’s lead to changes in brain structure and gene development, which causes a toxic stress response. She found that people with four or more ACE’s face double the risk of 7 out of the 10 leading causes of death and often battle with intense depression, substance abuse, and PTSD. These same children with four or more ACE’s are 32 times as likely to experience behavior problems and repeat grades in school.

Dr. Barker from West Virginia noted that children who have experienced trauma often expend most of their mental energy on surviving physically and emotionally, thus it makes it harder for them to focus and succeed in school. Dr. Jackson explained that many of her students experience trauma through exposure to violence and poverty. Specifically, Dr. Jackson said that when she talked to two of her students, they described their neighborhoods with this phrase: “no one can be trusted.” These common themes suggest that some students not only don’t have time to worry about school, but feel hopeless in the school system because they are lacking a proper support system and role models to keep them motivated. Instead, they feel trapped in a cycle of poverty, bad behavior, and a high likelihood of incarceration.

These witnesses not only identified the problems, but gave many suggestions for change. There was an emphasis on building relationships between students and teachers so that they can develop a support system of people who inspire them to succeed. Ms. Hofmeister was the witness who emphasized this relationship the most. She specifically said, “the connection with a stable caring adult is a common factor in moving our children from trauma to hope.” In her state of Oklahoma, she has implemented three trauma summits that have trained more than 10,000 teachers on how to deal with these trauma ridden students. Ms. Hofmeister has also started a pilot program in some of her schools titled “Individual Career Academic Plan (ICAP)”. ICAP was created so that students can purposefully tailor their career path to the job of their choice. After only one year, the students in this pilot program have reported feeling more optimistic about their lives and are behaving better. In terms of quantitative proof, there has been an increase in standardized test scores from these students. She plans on having ICAP executed in every school across Oklahoma. Also, these witnesses encourage schools to work with families as well. Schools should be encouraging parents to keep their kids on top of their work as much as they can. 

Another program was presented by Dr. Jackson titled “Summer for Change.” This CPS program is for students who are from low socioeconomic backgrounds, have experienced trauma, or have experienced violence in some way. These students partake in a six-week program that helps them meet other children, provides them with activities and enrichment opportunities, and grants them access to mentoring from the staff and direct trauma-informed therapy. 

Additionally, all of the witnesses advocated that paired with these relationship building programs, schools should steer away from suspending and expelling students, which does not help change their behavior. Instead, they want teachers to use restorative practices and uncover the root cause of their bad behavior while keeping them in school. 

Dr. Burke-Harris also recommended universal screenings for all school children to figure out if they have the symptoms of ACE’s. This process is implemented by having each student take the ten question ACE questionnaire. This will help identify the problem early in the child’s life so the problem can be addressed appropriately.

Not only do we know that trauma can negatively impact a student’s ability to learn, but we know it also increases the likelihood that a child will be pushed out of school and into the justice system. Childhood trauma is further intensified by the criminal justice system, which is why it’s critical schools are equipped to address childhood trauma in order to block the entrance to the justice system. The reauthorization of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA) in 2018 by Congress, recognizes this as the updated Act calls on State, Tribal, local governments, and U.S. territories to “support a continuum of evidence-based or promising programs that are trauma informed, reflect the science of adolescent development, and that are designed to meet the needs of youth…” If Congress is truly committed to addressing childhood trauma, it must fund programs like those described by JJDPA, the witnesses in the hearing, including programs that provide professional development for school personnel to implement practices that recognize, acknowledge, and respond to childhood trauma. By taking these steps and more, Congress can ensure every student has a fair chance to succeed.