PACEs champion Rebeccah Ndung’u launches trauma-informed schools in Kenya

[Ed. note: This is a continuing series of articles about people who are involved and contributing in the movement to implement practices and policies based on the science of positive and adverse childhood experiences.]

Growing up as the eldest daughter in a family of three girls and three boys in Nairobi, Kenya, Becky Ndung’u and all her siblings attended school, which is mandatory for children ages six through 14. Her parents—both farmers and her father also a lifelong government accountant—were committed to providing all their children a good education.

Her education began in a public school, followed by a private high school. Our conversation was conducted in English, but Ndung’u is also fluent in her native languages, Kikuyu and Kiswahili.

After graduating from high school, the young scientist earned a “higher diploma”—equivalent to a bachelor’s degree—in analytical chemistry in 2000 at what is now the Technical University of Kenya and then went on to earn a higher diploma in soil science in 2003 at what is now the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology.

Not able to find a job in her field, she opted to work in schools as a science lab assistant, organizing and teaching lessons in biology, chemistry, and physics. She also prepared students for the exams they needed to matriculate from secondary schools.

She recounted that during this time, she was often asked to teach biology and chemistry when the teacher was absent. As a result, she says, “I learned a lot about how school systems work, their challenges in terms of teachers being overworked, discipline in learners, poor academic performances, and the struggles of parents to pay school fees.”

From Science Assistant to Educational Psychologist

But she had no desire to become a teacher herself. “I wanted to help the schools but not as a teacher,” she explains. “My focus was helping learners improve their academic performance and acquiring the discipline to avoid dropping out of the school. But in Kenya, there is no provision for educational psychologists in the education system.”

After earning a diploma online in educational psychology and emotional intelligence at the University of Ireland in 2020, she started working on her own as an educational psychologist. She acquired students by word of mouth from parents. “Amazingly,” she said, “I was able to help kids with behavior problems, learning difficulties, poor academic performances, and learners with special needs.”

Before learning about the science of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), Ndung’u’s knowledge about emotional intelligence (EQ) opened her eyes as to why children acted out and misbehaved in the classroom.

She recalls having to remove two sisters, ages six and eight, with severe dyslexia from the classroom because they couldn’t read at their grade levels. She used her EQ skills to get the sisters to open up and talk about their issues. She also involved their parents so that they could understand what their children were experiencing and to explain what needed to be done. She secured the students a special needs teacher, who home-schooled them for eight months. Later, they were both successfully integrated back into the schoolroom.

Learning About ACEs

While working with children, the trauma educator heard a talk by Dr. Angie Yonda-Maina, director of Green String Network, a nonprofit dedicated to peacebuilding through practices related to trauma, justice, spirituality, and security. Ndung’u was struck by a poster presented in the doctor’s talk that included a reference to ACEs.

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Bryan Stevenson: To heal our national trauma, we need to face our genocidal past

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Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, won a U.S. Supreme Court case banning mandatory life sentencing without parole for anyone age 17 or younger. Based in Birmingham, Alabama, a state that officially celebrates Robert E. Lee and Martin Luther King, Jr., day together, the Harvard-trained lawyer has dedicated his life to serving the poor, the incarcerated, and children prosecuted as adults.

Stevenson keynoted the final day of the 2016 Conference on Adverse Childhood Experiences held October 19-21 in San Francisco and hosted by the Center for Youth Wellness (CYW). CYW is based in Bayview/Hunter’s Point, a part of San Francisco as far removed from the thriving high-tech scene as is Birmingham.

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Dr. Seuss takes over community heroes panel at ACEs conference in California

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(l to r) Teri Barila, director of the Children’s Resilience Initiative; Dr. Ariane Marie-Mitchell, assistant professor in Loma Linda University Preventive Medicine and Pediatric Depts. (Photo: Jennifer Hossler)

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Sauntering on stage to the beat of Everyday People by Sly and the Family Stone, four “heroes” of the ACEs movement took their seats for a panel on trauma-informed and resilience-building communities on October 21, the last day of the 2016 Adverse Childhood Experiences Conference in San Francisco.

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2016 Adverse Childhood Experiences Conference in California focuses on action

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The Adverse Childhood Experiences 2016 Conference, hosted by the Center for Youth Wellness (CYW) and sponsored by the California Endowment, Kaiser Permanente, and Genentech, took place October 19-21 at the Park Central Hotel in downtown San Francisco and began with an exuberant welcome from the CYW’s executive director, Mark Cloutier.

“Let’s have fun,” he shouted, and the 450 participants — teachers, therapists, doctors, lawyers, and other trauma-cloutierinformed professionals — gave a big shout back.

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A working ranch integrates ACEs and animals into treatment for teens

HorseCU Although it’s too soon to tell if integrating trauma-informed and resilience-building practices based on adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) sciences is making a difference for the teens living at Home on the Range, a residential treatment center in Sentinel Butte, ND, it’s made a huge difference for the people who work there. They now understand that kids aren’t born bad.

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Rural Oregon county integrates ACEs screening in school-based trauma-informed health centers

The Combined Child & Family and School-Based Clinical Team. From left: Ratchet; Elizabeth Fitzgerald, clinical supervisor SBHC; Kelsey Dunlap, clinician; Amy Richardson, clinician; Misty Groom, Safe-School assessor; Tracey Sanders, administrative assistant; Janice Garceau, program manager; Maryanne McDonnell, clinical supervisor; Jill Montecucco, clinician; Marie Jackson, SBHC clinician; Jodi Love, clinician; Jaymie Kaczmarek, SBHC clinician; Jennifer Noble, SBHC clinician; Tracey Colocicco, clinician; Deb Stone, clinician.

The Combined Child & Family and School-Based Clinical Team. From left: Ratchet; Elizabeth Fitzgerald, clinical supervisor SBHC; Kelsey Dunlap, clinician; Amy Richardson, clinician; Misty Groom, Safe-School assessor; Tracey Sanders, administrative assistant; Janice Garceau, program manager; Maryanne McDonnell, clinical supervisor; Jill Montecucco, clinician; Marie Jackson, SBHC clinician; Jodi Love, clinician; Jaymie Kaczmarek, SBHC clinician; Jennifer Noble, SBHC clinician; Tracey Colocicco, clinician; Deb Stone, clinician.

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For the last two years, nearly all students referred for mental health services in seven school-based health centers in Deschutes County, OR, have taken the 10-question adverse childhood experiences (ACE) survey.

It didn’t take long to realize why this was good idea.

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ACEs histories for mothers recovering from substance abuse

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The aptly named Great Starts program at the Helen Ross McNabb Center in Knoxville, TN, provides a six-to-nine month residential treatment and two-year follow-up program for pregnant mothers and moms with newborns recovering from substance abuse. Earlier this year, curious about the early childhood history of its residents, the center started asking the women about their ACEs history.

The results would not have been surprising to those familiar with ACEs: Of the 16 moms who filled out the 10-question ACE survey from the CDC-Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study, the average score was a whopping 6.4.

Using the ACE survey, says mental health clinician and family treatment program manager Sarah Long, could allow staff members to identify those potential risk factors these new parents experienced as children that might in turn affect the parenting of their own children.

The ACE Study measured 10 types of childhood adversity, those that occurred before the age of 18. They are physical, verbal and sexual abuse; physical and emotional neglect; a family member with mental illness, or has been incarcerated or is abusing alcohol or other drugs; witnessing a mother being abused; losing a parent to divorce, separation or death.

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California high school health clinic asks students about their childhood trauma as a way to improve their health

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Elsie Allen High School student Anabel (l), and Erin Moilanen, school health clinic nurse practitioner (r) __________________________________

When students show up for an appointment at the Elsie Allen Health Center, which is located on the Elsie Allen High School campus in Santa Rosa, CA, one of the first things they do is answer questions about the trauma they’ve experienced during their lives.

That’s because research has shown a direct link between adverse childhood experiences — ACEs – and the adult onset of chronic disease, mental illness, violence and being a victim of violence. The CDC-Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACE Study) — which has been replicated by 29 states — also show that ACEs create mental and physical health risks that continue to crop up over a person’s lifetime if not adequately addressed.

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Who helps our helpers? Vic Compher’s “Portraits of Professional Caregivers” documents their passion, pain

ACompher2Vic Compher, director and co-producer of Portraits of Professional Caregivers: Their Passion. Their Pain,” didn’t start out as a filmmaker. This documentary — his fourth — was inspired by his 20 years working in child protective services, and another 10 years working in hospice and clinical social work with older adults.

During that decade, he learned that many professional caregivers who work with traumatized people experience secondary trauma  — also known as compassion fatigue or vicarious trauma. This includes firefighters, emergency medical crews, ER nurses, doctors, police, and others.

The first part of the documentary — which was co-produced by  Rodney Whittenberg, who teaches filmmaking, and who also composed the music for this film — focuses on secondary trauma, or what caregivers experience when they respond to and care for people experiencing trauma.

“Secondary trauma, or compassion fatigue, is one more layer of the trauma experience,” says Compher, “a parallel process for many professional caregivers with symptoms that at times can somewhat resemble what their clients may be experiencing.

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In “Notes from the Field,” Anna Deavere Smith asks us to end the “school-to-prison pipeline”

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An enthusiastic, diverse audience packed the seats at Berkeley Repertory Theater in Berkeley, CA, on July 10 for a rehearsal of Anna Deveare Smith’s new play, “Notes from the Field: Doing Time in Education.” Smith is known for seamlessly impersonating different characters from real life to spin a theme, often one that advocates for social change. This time, she stepped onto the stage – bare except for a few chairs, a sofa, and a podium — with a lone bassist (Marcus Shelby) playing off to one side. Three overhead screens identified her as Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP.

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