Teacher with child asking "Is everything OK?"

“Is everything OK?”

A single question can start the process of a child overcoming trauma.

Monsters are real—though they may not be the same ones that kids think of.

It’s not the boogeyman in the closet or the beast under the bed. Yet these demons follow kids from their homes and communities into their schools and wherever else they may go.

It’s trauma. And it lingers long after kids stop believing in ghouls and ghosts and what goes bump in the night.

Science behind adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) is growing. While Kaiser Permanente completed an initial study in 1998 that laid out the framework for calculating what exactly quantifies as an ACE (anything ranging from abuse to household challenges and neglect), further research has shown just how damaging ACEs can be. A 2019 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study revealed that ACEs were “significantly associated with poorer health outcomes, health risk behaviors, and socioeconomic challenges.”

With nearly one in six people experiencing at least four types of childhood trauma, this spells out massive repercussions for their futures. In California alone, adults with four or more ACEs are 12.2 times as likely to attempt suicide and almost twice as likely to report poor mental health in the past month.

This type of trauma also affects the present. Children come to school as students but bring with them what happens at home. Unable to process their feelings, they may act out—and with some teachers and caregivers quick to write them off as troublemakers—these kids fall deeper into the cycle of trauma. The “bad” kid at school may not be so bad once you consider the nightmares he brings to class.

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Children and trauma

Dr. Nadine Burke Harris, California’s first-ever surgeon general, has a possible fix: Screen every child for trauma before entering school. This makes a statement: California is making screening for ACEs a priority. Although the state is taking this systematic approach, it ultimately comes down to getting that information and knowing what to do with it. And if students can’t be screened, or have never been screened, they shouldn’t be left out of the good that early intervention and care can do.

And that awareness is the first step in helping intervention efforts. Intervening ACEs—whether it’s having the knowledge and referring a student to more specialized support or providing some extra love, attention, and care when interacting with a child—can be the first step in mitigating some of the consequences. Rather than harping on what’s wrong with children, it’s focusing on what happened to them—a shift from “What’s the matter with you?” to “Is everything OK?”

child thinking of parents arguing

“When it comes to the neural development of the brain, timing is always critical. Early assessment and identification of trauma in children and youth who are affected by complex trauma can reduce the possible sequelae of psychological challenges later in life,” says Marilyn Davis, Psy.D., an adjunct professor at Pacific Oaks College. “There is not a specific time period when it would be too late, because on an individual level, children and youth have a myriad of ways in which they expel their traumatic feelings. If one intervenes in a developmentally appropriate manner, there is hope.”

Too often though, people remain unaware of what exactly is happening with a child. Children don’t always know how to describe their feelings, or maybe never learned how.

And who best but teachers—who children often spend more time with than their own families—to help bridge that gap?

“I believe teachers are in a perfect position to act as conduits in getting the children and youth in their care to mental health professionals in a timely manner,” Dr. Davis says. “In addition to tending to the academic and social aspects of children’s needs, the literature supports a need for teachers to become more informed about trauma in children and youth.”

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Seeing the whole child

Obviously, it’s a teacher’s job to educate students. But traditionally they’ve focused only on what goes on in the classroom. For this kind of large-scale intervention to happen, a focus on the whole child is necessary—something Yvonne Davis, a Pacific Oaks alumna and teacher at Pasadena Unified School District (PUSD), has experienced since she was a preschooler herself at the Children’s School, and then put into practice after graduating from Pacific Oaks College 30 years ago. She notes that Pacific Oaks gave her the skillset and grace to care for the whole child and take a holistic approach in the classroom, despite past norms in education."'I believe teachers are in a perfect position to act as conduits in getting the children and youth in their care to mental health professionals in a timely manner.' - Marilyn Davis, Psy.D."

“Years back, I got some information about one family’s situation at home, and when the youngest came into my classroom, I thought, I’m going to love this kid,” Davis says. “It wasn’t easy. He was one of those kids that just the wrong person walking by him or looking at him would trigger a violent reaction. I was able to be positive and productive with him from the beginning, which helped. Information is truly power.”

Now a long-time figure at PUSD, Davis has seen a marked difference in how the district helps children through trauma—making a huge switch from punitive punishment to positive discipline. School Support Services and The Office of Child, Welfare, Attendance, and Safety at PUSD are taking a trauma-informed approach, focusing on “supporting the whole child toward positive behavior that leads to their academic success.” Not only are school and district staff receiving professional trainings, but parent education programs are also in development.

One example is a soon-to-be-opened space in the school. As an alternative to traditional forms of discipline, such as a trip to the principal’s office or a detention, teachers will soon be able to guide students to “The Calm Room,” where a mental health professional will be on hand to keep children company as they reset, re-center, and refocus. With soothing light, pillows, and blankets available, it’s a welcome oasis from the usual sterile nature of a principal’s office.

One of the major partners in PUSD’s new work on trauma is nonprofit Young & Healthy—particularly, its executive director Mary Donnelly-Crocker. In addition to her 30 years at the helm of Young & Healthy, Donnelly-Crocker serves on the leadership council at Collaborate PASadena, an inclusive network of voices housed out of Pacific Oaks’ Center for Community & Social Impact (CCSI). CCSI and Pacific Oaks partner with Young & Healthy to collect and analyze data about their efforts.

Young & Healthy, which started as a way to connect children with free health care, now conducts trainings on trauma-informed care, starting their work at PUSD. For the fourth year in a row, Young & Healthy has provided a three-day training to PUSD educators.

“It really was just the luck of having our socks blown off by research and then deciding nobody else in the community was doing this,” Donnelly-Crocker says. “We thought we could get some support to take the lead and that’s how we got started with the trauma-informed trainings.”

At first they brought in outsiders to conduct the training, but an overwhelming demand to make them shorter and more affordable led Young & Healthy to start developing their own.

“We wanted something that everybody can walk away with and do the very next day. We didn’t want people to walk away feeling helpless,” Donnelly-Crocker says. “We have several hour-long talks that answer the basics of trauma-informed care and of the research. We’ve trained more than 2,500 people in the community this year and we’re only halfway done.”

These trainings can help ease the stigma—to help everyone speak the same language when it comes to dissecting trauma and its repercussions and get people comfortable stepping in if needed.

“It only takes one caring adult attached to the child or youth to mediate the effects of ACEs,” Dr. Davis says. “Having said that, the quality of the relationship is very important. Treating trauma can be complex, and it is advantageous to treat the whole child using a holistic approach.”

The research continues to demonstrate the effects that intervention can have, starting with Young & Healthy’s efforts at PUSD.

“We have been tracking that data to see if all of these outputs and all of these resources that we’re pursuing are changing school culture,” Donnelly-Crocker says. “So far the stats are astonishing—from 28% of kids believing they had an adult who cared about them to 60%.”

Superhero teacher with student

When the interventions work, kids can be kids. Their fears and traumas are still very much real, but they can still dream and play and goof off. That’s the benefit of the whole person approach and of being trauma-informed: You can banish the monsters once and for all and help pave the path to resiliency.

And if monsters are real, superheroes are too.

To Pacific Oaks, teachers are the heroes. The Children’s School was founded to serve children in their truest form—with curriculum that supported free thinking and the uninhibited joy of childhood—and the College shortly thereafter to train those teachers. Pacific Oaks, at its core, has always been about the teacher-child relationship—of seeing the whole child—mentally, physically, academically, and emotionally. 75 years later, that core hasn’t changed.

Yvonne Davis speaks of how powerful it is to support kids in every way possible, of not just writing them off as troublemakers or immature. Davis details another example of this at work—adult mentors recently instituted at PUSD. If a teacher sees a student who needs a little extra support, and the teacher is unable to give it themselves, they can tap someone to be that student’s support person and check in with them.

“A fifth grade teacher at my school offered to support one of my young students,” Davis explains. “He would check in on him at the beginning of the day, and then two hours later at lunch, he would come by the classroom and see the student one more time and give him a hug. It was a lovely relationship to watch—I literally saw my student melt back into being a 5-year-old. As a teacher, nothing is better than that—to see a student be present and live in the joyful moment of childhood.”


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