Can School Heal Children in Pain? Yes, it Can!

ApaperJames Redford, director of Paper Tigers, a documentary about the journey of students and teachers at a trauma-sensitive alternative high school in Walla Walla, Washington, posed a provocative question in a recent blog: can school heal children in pain?

I believe that it can.

While trauma-sensitive schools can’t erase every source of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), considering how many hours of their lives children spend in school, educators can do much to mitigate the effects of traumatic stress, and help students to build skills for resilience and well-being. At the very least, schools can refrain from further traumatizing children.

Children with disabilities and behavioral problems, in particular children of color, are regularly subjected to practices such as seclusion and restraint in school. The data conclusively prove that “zero tolerance policies” driving the school to prison pipeline disproportionately affect students of color and students with disabilities. Given all that we know about the devastating long-term human and economic impacts of these policies and practices, I believe that we have a moral and ethical obligation to change things.

I had the opportunity to watch Paper Tigers at a recent screening hosted by ACEs Connection and the Kennedy Forum in the Washington, DC, area where I currently live. The Paper Tigers story is so compelling to me because it so closely mirrors my own experiences with trauma, disability, and education.

I am a survivor of early childhood trauma, but I am lucky in that initially, my high ACE score did not interfere with my ability to concentrate and learn. Learning was actually the only thing that brought me joy growing up. It was my sole source of self-esteem.

But around age 14-15, my unaddressed trauma began to manifest in substance use and some pretty serious mental health challenges, including suicide attempts. In one long-term residential treatment facility, I was denied permission to attend classes at the local high school because I was labeled as a “flight risk.” I was there for almost a year, and my “education” consisted of watching movies all day and writing silly essays about them. It completely set me behind academically. I had no hope of catching up with the rest of my class. This caused me enormous shame. The source of my self-esteem had evaporated.

When I got out of the residential treatment facility, I was funneled into a horrible, filthy group home, where I was told I would need to remain for life. I was on the verge of turning 18, with no job and no high school diploma — on the road to poverty, addiction, and jail. I thought about suicide every single day in that place.

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From abuse to adoption: Three sisters share their stories

AhappyMy girls were removed from their biological family due to longstanding neglect and significant physical and sexual abuse. They are now 7, 8, and 10 years old and each of them has an Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) score of 10 (out of 10). (Got Your ACE Score?) This is the only test they have all aced. Many labeled them “damaged beyond repair”.

Over the last two years, my family has spent countless hours in individual and family therapy making sense of our own stories, learning how to cope with them, and building the strength required to share our stories outside of our family. And in understanding, embracing, and sharing their stories, our girls are proving that it is possible to overcome the negative effects of a traumatic childhood. Strengthening protective factors and increasing resilience can be just as powerful as the cumulative adverse experiences.

For decades, research has supported the effectiveness of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) for the treatment of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other trauma-related diagnoses. There are many trauma-informed therapeutic models that use CBT strategies – generally known as trauma focused-CBT (TF-CBT).  For children, these models often include working individually as well as with non-offending parents and/or caregivers. Time-limited sessions focus on psycho-education, relaxation techniques, affect management, developing healthy self-care, interpersonal relationships, and coping skills, as well as exposure and habituation to triggering memories.

The culmination of most models is completing a trauma narrative. I vividly remember anticipating this part of the process. It is the grand finale and making it to and through this benchmark meant we were far along in the recovery process and everything was going to be okay. The survivor works with the therapist to write and depict (if appropriate) their personal trauma story including the good, the bad, and the ugly. Once comfortable with the story, it is generally shared with loved ones. In our case, the girls shared their narratives with both of us.

There is something truly empowering in being brave enough to share. I have had the privilege of seeing the added courage, strength, self-awareness, self-esteem, and confidence the girls have found through writing and sharing their stories. While we cannot change ACEs, we can build our resiliency, a process that has life-saving implications.

I am incredibly proud to share Chelsea, Savanna, and Shianne’s stories with you.

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Why we need a paradigm shift in mental health care: the case for recovery now!

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Another “May is Mental Health Month” has come and gone, and it is time to build on years of awareness campaigns and move into action to promote whole health and recovery. People with serious mental health conditions are dying on average 25 years earlier than the general population, largely due to preventable physical health conditions, so why do we still focus on mental health separately from physical health? And when we know that people with serious mental health conditions face an 80 percent unemployment rate, why do we largely ignore the role of poverty, economic and social inequality, and other environmental factors in mainstream discussions about mental health?

Decades of public health research have clearly shown that access to the social determinants of health — affordable housing, educational and vocational opportunities, and community inclusion — are far more important to mental and physical health than access to health care alone. As one recent article explained: “For many patients, a prescription for housing or food is the most powerful

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Medical community: It’s time to wake up and screen for trauma!

Etching by G.M. Mitelli, c. 1700. Wellcome Images.

An international array of physicians. Etching by G.M. Mitelli, c. 1700. Wellcome Images.

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Today was interesting.  I’m on my own with the kids for a few days. I had arranged for some sort of acid-reflux related procedure at the local hospital with my new ENT (all singers have one…ear, nose and throat physicians). Anyway, I carted the kids down to the doctor.

We blithely made our way to the ENT suite and were promptly met by my doc. Kids had to stay in waiting room (anxiety rose).  Nurse took vitals — my blood pressure yesterday at my GP: 102/70. Today at ENT: 118/90. Hmmm. This was BEFORE I knew anything about the procedure. I’d had vocal cord scopes before, so I figured it’d be no big deal. ERROR.

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Can School Heal Children in Pain?

Aredford

After learning about the overwhelming effects of childhood trauma, I decided to make a film about a school that’s adopted a “trauma-informed” lens.

Documentaries are no walk in the park. They take a lot of time and money; they have a way of making a mockery out of your narrative plans. They must share the attention of an audience that is increasingly losing more and more of it.

Why bother? It’s a good question. For me, I have one simple bar that all my films must clear: an “oh my God!” moment. If a story does not elicit that reaction from deep within my bones, I don’t do it. I count on that sense of awe, concern, wonder, and alarm to carry me through the long haul of making the film. To do otherwise, well — it just seems stupid.

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Resilience practices overcome students’ ACEs in trauma-informed high school, say the data

The cast and crew of Paper Tigers take a bow after the sold-out premiere at the Seattle International Film Festival.

The cast and crew of Paper Tigers take a bow after a sold-out screening at the Seattle International Film Festival.

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Three years ago, the story about how Lincoln High School in Walla Walla, WA, tried a new approach to school discipline and saw suspensions drop 85% struck a nerve. It went viral – twice — with more than 700,000 page views. Paper Tigers, a documentary that filmmaker James Redford did about the school — premiered last Thursday night to a sold-out crowd at the Seattle International Film Festival. Hundreds of communities around the country are clamoring for screenings.

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More than half of Tennessee residents experienced childhood adversity; one in five have 3+ ACEs

TN report art

In its second survey of the prevalence of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) in the state, Tennessee Young Child Wellness Council and the state’s Department of Health found that 52% of its residents experienced at least one ACE, and 21% have experienced three or more, which can lead to adult onset of chronic disease, mental illness, violence and being a victim of violence.

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