Acknowledging childhood trauma — a growing movement in Connecticut

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Imagine sitting in a room with 360 other people. Now imagine that 95 percent of these people are women. Indeed, the room is filled with chatter, laughter, and anticipation. The room is in a downtown Waterbury hotel and occupied by pre-school and kindergarten teachers, home daycare providers, and administrators. The women, and the handful of men, have come to kick off an important movement in Waterbury: to make early childhood care more aware of and informed about the prevalence and impact of trauma. Specifically, how traumatic experiences influences the lives of the young children they work with.

The meeting, which took place on Tuesday, Sept. 12, was organized by Waterbury’s Cradle to Career partnership organization ‘Bridge to Success’ (BTS). The goal of BTS is to help Waterbury children and youth succeed in school, work, and life by offering backbone support to organizations who deliver direct care.

Mental health and the awareness of young people’s traumatic experiences lies at the heart of everything. Emotional wellbeing is the foundation upon which young children learn to understand their surroundings, build their sense of self, and set out to the world to learn, explore, and experience.

Post-Traumatic Stress

Th Office for Veteran’s Affairs estimates that about 30 percent of the Vietnam veterans develops Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) at some point in their lives. While this number seems staggeringly high, consider this: In a recent evaluation that I conducted for the New Haven Trauma Coalition, a mental health initiative conducted by Clifford Beers Clinic in New Haven, I found that nearly half of the students in selected grades of the public schools the program scored within the clinical range of PTSD. In other words, and to repeat this astonishingly high number, nearly one in two students had already developed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and they had not even reached adulthood.

Trauma prevalence in Waterbury

Connecticut is leading the nation in bringing awareness to trauma, and rightfully so. Because, as Arielle Levin Becker’s series of articles in the Connecticut Mirror (“Starting Early: A four-part series,” January 20-23, 2015) already stressed two-and-a-half years ago, childhood trauma and the life-long impacts of trauma should no longer be ignored. Yet they are, time and again. People prefer to focus on things that they can grasp, that seem easier to fix, or that are beyond their control altogether. They would rather tag children who experienced trauma as having behavior problems, pump them with ADHD prescription drugs, or assign them to special learning disability programs.

After initiatives in towns such as New Haven, New Britain, Stamford, and Sandy Hook, Waterbury is the next in line to change their approach and become (more) trauma-informed. Waterbury too will take the stance that trauma should be addressed so to create opportunities for children to succeed in school, work, and life. Just as the other towns, they will no longer focus on the question: “what is wrong with you” but rather try to help the child understand connections between behavior and past experiencing, starting with the question: “what happened to you?”

While Waterbury did not yet conduct large-scale trauma screenings, the potential for children to develop trauma in the once booming brass city is large. Compared to state averages, Waterbury residents appears to struggle: more than a third of the town’s children grow up in poverty; 38 percent of households are headed by single mothers; 7 percent of all births were to teenage moms; and a person has a one in 233 chance to become the victim of a violent crime.

The prevalence of trauma is recognized by the participants of the Sept. 12 symposium too. Nearly half of the 332 people who pre-registered were kindergarten or preschool teachers. At registration, BTS asked about the young children they work with and their exposure to secondary trauma is shocking: 77 percent indicated having worked with children whose parents were incarcerated; 76 percent worked with children with serious physical or mental health conditions; 75 percent worked with children experiencing or witnessing violence in the home; 71 percent worked with children witnessing or experiencing verbal/emotional abuse; and 40 percent worked with children experiencing sexual abuse or assault.

Despite trauma being seemingly prevalent, nearly half (46 percent) of the pre-school and kindergarten teachers were unable to mention many resources to which to refer their students. Half of the teachers were unable to name three resources or more. In fact, half of the teachers who did provide three resources, included Department of Children and Families (DCF) as one of the go-to places for children with trauma. DCF is, however, often seen as parents’ last resort and caregivers try everything in their power to stay away from DCF out of fear their children may be taken away from them.

Interestingly, about a quarter of the teachers mentioned teachers or other school staff as a resource for children and families experiencing trauma. And indeed, teachers and school staff can be an excellent resource, especially to children who do not have other stable, caring, and knowledgeable adults in their lives.

Addressing trauma at school

One of the best ways to offset the toxicity of trauma, researchers at Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child found, is by having a responsive, adequate, and loving adult.

While most parents love their children, not all are able to be responsive or present—be it physical or mental. As noted earlier, in Waterbury poverty rates are high, as are teen births. With an unemployment rate of 7.4 percent, Waterbury’s is the second highest in the state.[2] Families struggle to pay for utility bills, get food on the table, and clothe their children. Providing love and mental support are secondary to fulfilling these basic needs. In fact, some may argue based on Maslow’s (1943) infamous hierarchy of needs, that addressing mental wellbeing and as such enabling the child to live up to its potential is the top of the pyramid and thus lower on the parents’ list of immediate priority.

For teachers, one could argue, the pyramid is reversed. It is their goal and their job to help children reach their highest potential. It is their mission to help children express their creativity and to boost their self-esteem so children can grow into confident, creative, accomplished adults. Oftentimes, teachers and school staff are with the children more hours than their parents are. This is not to remove responsibility from parents, but rather to increase the accountability among the community. Organizations such as BTS bring community partners together to strengthen teachers in their effort to help students. While the notion of supporting students’ emotional wellbeing may scare some educators (they became teachers after all, not social workers), it may encourage others (they became teachers, after all, not accountants).

Waterbury Public schools and the Mayor strongly support the movement to help the city’s teachers become more informed about trauma and the impact it can have on the city’s youngest residents. David Morgan, Chief Executive officer at Team Inc., Darren Schwartz, Chief Academic Officer, WPS, and the Honorable Neil O’Leary, Mayor of the city of Waterbury, all welcomed the participants during the September 12 Symposium on Early Childhood & Mental Health. They offered the early childhood providers words of wisdom and gratitude. They acknowledged the importance and weight that this topic puts on the shoulders of the Waterbury teachers. But they also expressed their confidence in this being a task that teachers could tackle. The Mayor stressed that early childhood has been on the forefront of his agenda ever since he took office in 2011, and Mr. Schwartz reassured teachers that they would have his support.

Financing trauma-support at schools should be easy

Addressing childhood trauma has become and should be a major priority of many school districts in Connecticut. Addressing trauma and its impact at an early age can save the city, state, or nation billions and billions of dollars. For example, UCLA’s Civil Rights Project indicates that every year, districts spend billions of dollars on suspensions (Majerowicz, 2016), as well as on learning loss, discipline, and specially designed (and priced) curricula to help children with learning disabilities –which are often misdiagnosed PTSD symptoms (McCarthy, 2001).

Moreover, youth with PTSD are more likely to drop out of high school and high school dropouts cost taxpayers an average of $292,000 over a lifetime, a study by researchers at Northeastern University found (Sum, et al 2009).

Adults with four or more Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) are more likely to develop heart disease, become depressed, attempt suicide, smoke, and become overweight (Felitti, et al. 1998), thus costing the state and the country billions more.

Individual traumas and its implications can come with additional costs. For instance, according to a 2012 study by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, child abuse and neglect costs the United States $124 billion per year (Xiangming, 2012).

Why won’t we rather spend all that money on PTSD treatment for students, afterschool programs, prevention mechanisms, mental and emotional support for families and teachers, and self-care of school staff?  Teachers and school social workers, school nurses, school psychiatrist, administrators, bus drivers, and janitors see how children arrive at school, they know the children by name, they recognize when something is amiss. One child at the time, Mayor Neil O’Leary, put it. “By supporting one kid at the time we can make a difference.”

We do not expect teachers to do it alone, we do not expect school social workers to do it alone, we do not expect daycare providers to do it alone, and we do not expect parents to do it alone. We are all in this together. It takes a village to raise a child, and, as was evident from all the chatter among the Symposium’s participants, nothing less is true. We are all in this together—and we are proud of it.

Kris R. Noam, Ph.D., is the Manager of Data and Operations at Bridge to Success in Waterbury.

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