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Innovative School Program Seeks to Understand and Help Students Overcome Childhood Trauma

Waterville Senior High School Sign
Flickr.com/Kris McElman
Waterville Senior High School Sign

Studies have documented the connection between childhood trauma, and chronic disease and mental illness later in life. Some public schools in Maine are paying more attention to the impacts these experiences can have on student success. These schools are helping students identify — and cope with — the stressors that are effecting their lives.

Waterville High School teacher Sherry Brown sees her students differently than she did several years ago. That's when she first learned about "adverse childhood experiences" and the lasting ill effects they can have on future health, relationships, and chances for success.

"I'm interested personally in making students capable human beings who can go out, and you know, create healthy lives for themselves beyond anything that has happened to them in the past," says Brown.

And research shows that what's happened to them in the past, from negligence to emotional, physical and sexual abuse, can program their brains into a perpetual fight-or-flight mode, affecting their ability to learn.

Brown says that once she began to understand how students were affected by childhood trauma, she became more empathetic, and open to the idea of helping students develop resilience to toxic stress.

"Part of what we're looking at is trying to make the school feel like a safe place, to create this sense of community where people feel comfortable coming to talk to us, because there is such a disconnect sometimes," she says.

Waterville is among a growing number of Maine school districts and communities working to help young people cope with the effects of childhood trauma. That trauma is measured through a questionnaire developed as part of an ongoing study by the Centers for Disease Control and Kaiser Permanente insurance. Participants are asked about adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs. Each reported event adds one point to an ACE score. More than four ACEs, researchers say, can be a predictor for dramatically higher rates of obesity, heart disease, suicide and addiction.

The documentary film Paper Tigers chronicles the experiences of a school in Washington State, where educators tempered their responses to behavioral issues and poor academic performance, with a more empathetic approach to discipline. The film was recently shown in RSU 13, in the midcoast city of Rockland, which is exploring the issue.

"Learning is about both academic and social emotional experiences," says Loren Andrews he is a psychotherapist and leader of the newly formed RSU 13 Student Engagement Task Force. "We have as a community, as a culture, not focused on that enough and I think now people are starting to do that and in our district we clearly are."

District officials say the task force is part of an approach that's aimed at improving the connections between students and teachers at the elementary, middle and secondary levels.

"It's really about relationships," says John McDonald, superintendent of RSU 13. "Education today is going to be successful when we turn toward building relationships with students and emphasizing relationships in terms of a community of practice within the school."

McDonald says elementary teachers will begin training this spring in using a curriculum aimed at building community; and by the fall, middle and high school teachers will become well versed in restorative justice practices, a system that goes beyond discipline to help create a shared sense of community, responsibility, and support. The message for students is a simple one, McDonald says.

"You're included," he says. "You're part of the community."

According to Sue Mackey Andrews of the Maine Resilience Building Network, a coalition focused on reducing the impact of traumatic childhood experiences more than half of Maine children report at least one ACE. And she says in addition to the future health consequences that can come from that trauma, communities can also feel the effects of disengaged youth in other negative ways.

"And if a kid doesn't feel like they matter, not only will they leave but the chances are very unlikely that they will return to their community to raise their family later in their life," Andrews says. "So this becomes then an economic and workforce development issue."

In Waterville, high school teacher Sherry Brown says the conversations about toxic stress and its effects are ongoing, and that this kind of work, aimed at building resilience to stress, should start much earlier.

"A lot of these kids, we need to help them a lot sooner than by the time they come here," says Brown.

The Maine Resilience Building Network will offer trainings for service providers and educators in Deer Isle, Stonington, and Sedgewick later this month and will continue expanding across the state as demand grows.

For more information on ACEs, visit cdc.gov.