Column: Addressing childhood traumaJuly 5, 2021
The numbers are staggering. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 61% of adults in the United States endured an adverse childhood experience in their youth. Childhood trauma comes in a variety of forms. It can be caused by divorced or incarcerated parents, death of a parent or caretaker, physical/emotional/sexual abuse, substance abuse in the home, mental illness, and poverty.
Why does this matter? Adverse childhood experiences can affect short-term and long-term physical and emotional health. Childhood trauma also negatively affects development. Children who experience toxic stress on a continuous basis cannot develop properly without the help and intervention of caring adults.
In short, when we experience prolonged toxic stress in childhood such as abuse, neglect, or domestic violence, our brains cannot thrive and grow. Unfortunately, if these problems are not treated, they can eventually lead to significant physical and mental health problems later in life.
Children who have experienced trauma are in a constant battle with their physiological flight/fight/freeze response. Many children who experience this do not have parents or adults at home to help them feel safe. These children need adults or trusted authority figures outside of their home to help give them a sense of safety and security.
Schools are uniquely positioned to play an important role in a child’s life. Teachers, school administrators, social workers and school staff have the opportunity to be role models for students if they don’t have positive influences at home. Children who have just one positive adult in their life are much more likely to thrive and be resilient later in life.
Now that we know childhood trauma is a serious and pervasive problem in America, it is important to know how to mitigate the damage. I recently completed an excellent training on Trauma Informed Resilient Schools by STARR Commonwealth. In the training, they recommended steps to take into the classroom to help students with trauma.
STARR recommends providing students with security, structure, and consistency to minimize anxiety and reduce instances of flight/fight response in students. When students are in a flight/fight/freeze response, they cannot focus on learning. STARR noted that students test better and teachers have more job satisfaction when trauma protocols are in place.
If students have a positive environment at school, it helps them weather the storms of their personal lives. Having rituals and routines that make students feel connected and welcome at school increases their engagement within a healthy environment. It is also important for adults to be aware of possible triggers that students could be having in the classroom in response to noise, raised voices or lack of structure.
I am hopeful that although trauma is a significant problem in our culture, adults and educators can have a significant impact on children’s lives by being nurturing and emotionally available to children in need.
Shannon Loehrlein, LCSW, is the Youth First social worker at Plaza Park International Prep Academy in Vanderburgh County. Youth First Inc., a nonprofit dedicated to strengthening youth and families, provides 64 Master's level social workers to 92 schools in 11 Indiana counties. Over 60,000 youth and families per year are served by Youth First's school social work and after school programs that prevent substance abuse, promote healthy behaviors and maximize student success. To learn more about Youth First, visit youthfirstinc.org or call 812-421-8336.
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