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Teachers, social workers address child trauma in schools

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — Indiana teachers and mental health experts are advocating for communities to implement mental health programs emphasizing a method called “trauma-informed care” inside schools.

“Trauma-informed care started from something called the ‘Adverse Childhood Experience Survey,’ and it shows that childhood experiences affect behavior,” said Stephanie Shene, communications coordinator for the Indiana Department of Child Services (DCS). “Instead of ‘kids act badly,’ some professionals started looking at why kids might act the way that they act, and a lot of that is just being aware of what kind of experiences they might have at home.”

Caseworkers with DCS say they’ve been using techniques associated with trauma-informed care for years and are happy to see awareness and use growing in Central Indiana.

“Any child we come into contact with has some form of trauma,” said James Wide, communications deputy director for DCS. Trauma-informed care “is built into our practice, our policy.”

Teresa Meredith, a kindergarten teacher and president of the Indiana State Teachers Association, said the need for more trauma-informed care studies and implementation was in ISTA’s legislative priority list issued last week. The group reiterated the need for awareness and care for students Tuesday.

“If a child has had, I think it’s more than five adverse experiences before the age of 3, you can pretty much bet that they’re going to come to kindergarten with delayed language skills, the inability to cope emotionally like other children their age,” she said.

Traumatic experiences don’t just include child abuse or neglect. The National Child Traumatic Stress Network’s Child Trauma Toolkit for Educators lists 14 different situation examples, including car accidents, natural disasters, viewing acts of terrorism on television, or having a relative incarcerated.

“I remember the first student I had that I realized he was sleeping in his car,” Meredith said. “It made perfect sense because he couldn’t walk. He didn’t walk like the other kindergartners did. And I was referring him for evaluations for physical therapy and all these other things and when at the end of the day it was because he had nowhere to play nowhere to sleep and so he was curled up with three other brothers and sisters in the back seat of the car.”

Indiana School Mental Health Facilitator Christy Gauss works with Indiana schools to learn the mental health needs of students and educate staff and communities on the changes they could see with more robust mental health programs.

“When we ask the teachers what is your biggest concern, it’s not the curriculum. It’s not the content they’re delivering. It’s what they’re saying are behaviors and this is the stress response they’re seeing in their classrooms,” said Gauss, explaining her term “stress response” replaces the term “misbehavior” when a child is acting out because of a traumatic situation in his or her home life.

She said anyone who works with children should focus on the “why” of the behavior to determine what the child really needs.

“We often respond quickly without understanding the stories behind our students,” Gauss said. “Once we understand the stories behind them we respond in very different ways.”

Trauma-informed care can mean the difference between looking at a student and saying “that child is trouble,” versus “what’s troubling that child.”

“One caring adult relationship makes all the difference,” Gauss said.

Meredith and the ISTA team has praised several Indiana communities and schools for their advances in mental health, including Fishers, Brown County and Vigo County. Meredith said those communities understand that teachers can’t be the therapists; that it takes a community to help fight the underlying causes of poor scoring or poorly behaving children. They’ve organized mental health task forces, partnered with hospitals and churches, and placed mental health experts into schools.

“When you look at Fishers and what they’re doing at HSE (Hamilton Southeastern) there’s definitely a community partnership there,” Meredith said, “because everybody recognizes that child trauma spills into adulthood if we don’t address it with the children. Help the student figure out how to cope and manage.”

Gauss agreed.

“These are community issues at the end of the day. They’re not just school issues, they’re not just mental health issues, they’re not just health system issues, They’re not just juvenile justice issues, we could go on and on. They’re community issues.”