New research on childhood trauma reveals opportunity for educators, schools to be 'agents of change'

Becky Carlton
Sep 18, 2019 4:21:39 PM

Trauma has no boundaries. It reaches every socio-economic class, neighborhood and race. However, it often concentrates in areas of poverty where resources and support are limited. Here in Michigan, we see numerous geographic pockets of trauma - whether they be urban or rural. Now, more and more educators are adapting classroom and school practices to meet the needs of students and families, in a way that incorporates more empathy and understanding.

ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences) is a relatively new research study that has provided evidence that childhood trauma and toxic stress can result in long-term health implications into adulthood. The more ACEs a child experiences, the more likely they are to suffer from things like heart disease and diabetes, poor academic achievement, and substance abuse later in life.

Julie Hopper, Academic Assessment Specialist for Lake Superior State University's Charter Schools Office, is an ACE Master Trainer. 

Children with high ACE scores have experienced a world that is dangerous, mean, and unpredictable and so their brain architecture, traits, and characteristics are different than a person who grew up in a kind, generous, and safe world. Those with high ACE scores may be edgy, hyper vigilant, and lacking communication skills or an understanding of social cues.”

For educators, it's critical to understand the effects of trauma in the classroom, as childhood adversity dramatically impacts a student's ability to learn and respond to traditional interventions (whether they are academic or behavioral.) Practically, it's a paradigm shift for educators, as it requires an awareness of ACE's and trauma-informed training for all employees, all the way from District Superintendent to the custodial staff. 

Fostering strong relationships between children and adults, including teachers, can help children cope and buffer them from the effects of toxic stress and help schools build a foundation of support.

- Shawna Boomgaard, LMSW, certified trauma practitioner (ACTP) and Manager of Academic Accountability for Oakland University’s Office of Public School Academies

Boomgaard added that establishing a sense of hope and resilience is key to becoming agents of change - and the one biggest change any school can make is empowering staff with knowledge on trauma and resilience, especially because many educators experience the effects of secondary trauma when working with children who have experienced toxic stress.

The important thing is to offer a school culture where teachers feel supported by the administration and their colleagues. Educators should create a self-care plan to help with stress that includes exercise, eating right, reflection and mindfulness practices, hanging out with friends and setting boundaries with relationships when necessary. Most importantly, they must feel like they can lean on one another when the going get's tough.

-Shawna Boomgaard

As schools begin to evaluate structures and supports for students who have experienced trauma or who are faced with toxic stress, it's critical to remember that necessary resilience can be taught - and by establishing trauma-informed practices in a school, educators are actively helping prevent the transmission of inter-generational trauma. 

Education is an important, and often vital, path to leading a successful, fulfilled life. The trauma that many Michigan students encounter is a core hinderance to that quality education. To truly impact and support communities immersed with trauma, schools need to be funded to dynamically address barriers like poverty, trauma and special education.

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