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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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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Enochs High School students adamant about “Ending the Culture of Violence”

When Debbie Adair began teaching Enochs High School seniors a new unit she had introduced into her English classes called “Ending the Culture of Violence” last January, “eight or nine kids came forward.”

“Most of these kids told me about being a victim of violence, whether they had been molested by mom’s boyfriend or physically assaulted by an acquaintance,” she says. “None of them had received

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Landmark lawsuit filed in California to make trauma-informed practices mandatory for all public schools

KimberlyCervantes

Kimberly Cervantes, student-plaintiff in law suit against Compton Unified School District in California.

A landmark first step was taken today to insure that all public schools in the United States be legally required to address the unique learning needs of children affected by adverse childhood experiences.

A class action suit on behalf of five students and three teachers in the Compton Unified School District in Compton, CA, was filed by Public Counsel, the nation’s largest pro bono law firm, and Irell & Manella LLP. The civic law suit demands that Comptom schools incorporate proven practices that address trauma, in the same way public schools have adapted and evolved in past decades to help students who experience physical or other barriers to learning.

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Paper Tigers to premiere at Seattle International Film Festival

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Paper Tigers will  premiere at the Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF) at 7 PM Thursday, May 28, 2015, at the SIFF Cinema Uptown in Seattle, WA. SIFF is the largest and most highly attended festival in the U.S.

Paper Tigers follows a year in the life of an alternative high school in Walla Walla, WA, that has radically changed its approach to disciplining its students, and in the process has become a promising model for how to break the cycles of poverty, violence and disease that affect families. A story about the school was published on this site in 2012: Lincoln High School in Walla Walla, WA, tries new approach to school discipline; suspensions drop 85%

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An additional screening will take place at 12:30 PM on Saturday, May 30 at the same location. For ticket information and other details: http://www.siff.net/festival-2015/paper-tigers

The documentary was directed by James Redford. Its executive producer is Karen Pritzker. To view a trailer of the movie, go to PaperTigersMovie.com.

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ACEs-informed ‘freckles’ spreading across Midwest

SaintA human services agency

SaintA human services agency ________________________________________

Organizations across the Midwest that are integrating trauma-informed practices based on adverse childhood experiences research are like freckles amassing into a suntan, says Elena Quintana.

“It’s spreading,” says the executive director of the Institute of Public Safety and Social Justice at Adler University in Chicago, who estimates that about 100 organizations have integrated trauma-informed and resilience-building practices based on research in adverse childhood experiences. “You want there to be total coverage within practice and policy. We’re not there yet, but those spots are getting bigger.“

Restraints and seclusion

One of those spots is SaintA in West Allis, WI, that provides foster care, education and mental health services for children and families. The organization serves about 5,000 people daily across a wide array of services, the largest of which is child welfare case management in Milwaukee County, where SaintA serves about 1,400 children daily.

Ann Leinfelder Grove, executive vice president and a 25-year veteran of SaintA, says her organization began moving toward trauma-informed care about eight years ago.

Ann Leinfelder Grove, SaintA executive vice president

Ann Leinfelder Grove, SaintA executive vice president

“We were looking at the question of how to reduce the use of physical restraints within one of our programs,” she says. The State of Wisconsin had encouraged a change in the use of physical intervention and seclusion to manage troubled youth, which SaintA does through its residential treatment program, which serves 40 children at any one time, as well as supervised visitation family services programming.

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