Student Trauma Is Widespread. Schools Don't Have to Go It Alone
Community partnerships can help schools support students facing adversity
A report from the National Survey on Children’s Health made headlines last October with the finding that nearly 47 percent of all children in the United States have experienced at least one adverse childhood experience, or ACE, such as abuse or neglect, the death of a parent, or witnessing community violence in school or in the neighborhood. Nearly 22 percent of all children have two or more ACEs.
This is also happening to young children: 35 percent of all children had at least one ACE by the time they were in kindergarten. Recent tragedies, like the devastating school shooting in Parkland, Fla., offer harsh reminders that preventing violence exposure is not assured regardless of age or demographic, and that few of us are immune from the lasting impact of traumatic events.
The breadth of this challenge is significant. Previous studies have shown that having two or more ACEs can have a detrimental effect on a child’s development and can negatively impact educational and health outcomes. And findings from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicate that ACEs are common across households at all income and education levels and across all races.
Amidst these depressing statistics, however, there is some hope. Additional research points to buffers that provide the means for children to not only bounce back but also bounce forward. These buffers include having access to a caring adult, stable housing, and quality education. Having two or more ACEs does not have to determine a child’s destiny as long as supportive buffers are in place to counteract adversities.
What does this mean for schools? The greater the number of ACEs children experience, the greater the likelihood they will struggle academically and disengage from school. But maintaining a strong connection to school and to caring adults throughout the building is a powerful way to buffer the negative impact of pervasive stressors. Schools are one important place in a community that can reduce the negative impact of ACEs on children’s health and development.
Furthermore, investments to strengthen school-community partnerships have begun to yield benefits at individual, family, and systems levels (and are especially important when schools have limited resources or have also been impacted by trauma). Through our work in communities around the country, we have learned that partnerships across multiple sectors—including education, health, human services and child welfare—can help counteract ACEs. But each one takes persistence and time in order to establish trust, realize common goals, and improve student, family, and community outcomes.
For example, in Cincinnati, efforts to bring trauma-informed practices to public schools began with principals who realized that many students bring the effects of childhood trauma into the classroom, which interfered with learning. Social-emotional learning techniques alone fell short in addressing students’ needs. In 2015, the school district partnered with a community initiative called Joining Forces for Children to tackle ACEs and give students access to a broad network of trauma-informed social and family services.
And in Portland, Ore., public schools like Faubion Elementary have partnered with the Building Community Resilience collaborative at The George Washington University (where we both work) to launch a wraparound-services program called 3toPhD. Eighty-one percent of the school’s students are eligible for free or reduced lunch, and many had experienced poverty and community violence.
The school now offers trauma-informed training and support to all staff and faculty, as well as behavioral-health services and a health center. Concordia University, which is next door to the school, provides university students who serve as one-on-one tutors, mentors, and coaches to younger students. Outcomes associated with the 3toPhD supports include a 7 percent reduction in suspensions and a 7 percent increase in attendance for K-8 students across the board.
These school-community collaborations can be challenging and may feel elusive. That is why the Center for Health and Health Care in Schools at The George Washington University developed a free online resource called the Action Guide. The guide identifies practical steps communities can take to build local allies, map important assets, connect to influential policy initiatives, and communicate with key audiences to help sustain these collaborative efforts. It also provides school administrators, program directors, civic leaders, and other stakeholders with the tools to improve the sustainability of collaborations that promote students’ cognitive, social, and emotional health and educational success.
Whenever possible, schools can also take intentional steps to become trauma-informed by leveraging school-community partnerships that expand their ability to recognize and respond to those exhibiting the signs of trauma. First, schools should identify a leader at the school or district level that will be primarily responsible for managing partnerships between school and community agencies.
Second, in order to ensure integration of services and minimize fragmentation of care, school personnel should extend invitations to outside partners to participate in meetings about assessment of student and school needs and the distribution of available resources. Third, meeting accountability and continuous-improvement goals requires that all partners share data and progress reports to ensure equitable distribution of services and to support data-driven decisionmaking.
Buy-in from leaders with the goal of long-term sustainability is essential for effective school and community partnerships to address the emotional and social needs of children and families. The commitment is significant, yet the payoff can yield lifelong dividends.
Vol. 37, Issue 23, Pages 18-19Published in Print: March 7, 2018, as Schools Shouldn't Tackle Trauma Alone