With kids’ school behavior problems coming from home and neighborhood, schools, home visits can help

You could say that the graphic above, from the Pew Center on the States Home Visiting Campaign, demonstrates the need for a community approach to preventing and reducing child trauma. It’s going to take all parts of our communities — home visiting programs as well as schools, pediatricians, the faith-based community, recreation, clinics, hospitals, La Leche and other breast-feeding support groups, law enforcement, juvenile justice, homeless shelters, courts, etc. — to achieve this.

Schools are getting the picture. Last week, about 500 principals, assistant principals and school psychologists from the Philadelphia School District, which educates nearly 150,000 students, met at a three-day summit to begin the process to replace a punitive approach to school discipline with a preventive, supportive approach, according to a story by Philly.com reporter Susan Snyder.

“We can’t arrest our way to higher student achievement,” said incoming Superintendent William R. Hite Jr., who doesn’t officially start until Oct. 1 but came to town to take part in the summit. “We can’t suspend our way to higher student achievement. We can’t arrest or suspend our way to safer schools.

The local Stoneleigh Foundation is supporting a person in a two-year fellowship to develop a school

safety and climate strategy for the district, according to the story.

One of the speakers at the meeting was Dr. Sandy Bloom, founder of the Sanctuary Model, a trauma-informed, evidence-based approach to change an organization’s culture. She asked a group of attendees fill out the short ACE Study questionnaire anonymously, according to the second story that Snyder wrote about the meeting.

About a third had been humiliated, insulted, or slapped often by an adult in their household, had parents who were divorced – or lived with an alcoholic or drug user. About the same percentage said they had lived with someone who was mentally ill or who had gone to prison.

Bloom reviewed the findings from the CDC’s Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACE Study), and applied the concepts to children’s behavior in school.

Bloom said repeated exposure to adverse trauma significantly alters children’s brains, can leave them in a constant state of anxiety, and can deeply impact their ability to learn and remember. Educators may see the effect most readily when students act out for seemingly no good reason.

“Even very minor stresses cause these major emotional responses that don’t seem to make sense,” she explained.

New research underlines Bloom’s statements. A University of Michigan study shows that children between the ages of four and six who witness their mothers being battered and who have additional trauma, such as sexual or physical abuse or serious illness, risk developing traumatic stress.

“Such findings draw attention to an at-risk sample of children who may be labeled as aggressive due to their behavior problems, but are in fact highly traumatized,” Sandra Graham-Bermann, the study’s lead author and professor of psychology and psychiatry. “It is especially important to accurately diagnose these children so they gain access to appropriate treatment services.”

The study was published in the Journal of Traumatic Stress.

In Kansas City, teachers from Central Academy of Excellence, once known as Central High School, went on a bus tour of the neighborhoods where their students live. According to a story by Kansascity.com reporter Joe Robertson, the school’s principal, Linda Collins, wanted her teachers to know more about the conditions their students experience every day. Vice Principal Thomas Shelton, a former police officer, was along on the tour.

See that Days Inn motel going by? “Some of our students live there,” he said.

And not all of those boarded homes are always vacant. Students live in them, too.

Do the teachers notice how many of the students don’t want to leave school? They will be there ahead of breakfast in the morning, Shelton said. And they’ll be there until the last of the staff leave in the afternoon.

“There’s a reason for that,” he said. “They don’t have a place to go.”

What all this means is that kids who are traumatized are likely to act out in school or become the “unmotivated” kids that don’t engage because they’re in the “fright or flight” instead of the “fight” mode typical of trauma. The punitive approach to trying to control kids’ behavior just doesn’t work. In fact, it’s shown to send many kids straight into the arms of the criminal justice system. It takes an entire community to make sure kids aren’t traumatized to begin with, and to help those who are to feel safe so that their brains can focus on learning instead of survival.

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