‘Toxic stress’ strikes at home, school and beyond, educators told

An expert on the way trauma at home also hurts children in the classroom encouraged Vermont educators to build a coordinated program to help affected students.

Lynn Dolce spoke recently about the growing problem of “toxic stress” before more than 250 school superintendents, special education directors, and state employees who work in education and health.

A group of children in Montpelier. File photo by Jasper Craven/VTDigger

“This is not a mental health issue, this is a public health issue,” said Dolce, director of foster care mental health at the San Francisco Department of Public Health.

Dolce urged school leaders at the spring conference of the Vermont Superintendents Association and Vermont Council of Special Education Administrators to consider building a “trauma informed educational system” that involves teachers, school staff and the community.

According to experts, schools and early education centers in Vermont are dealing with higher levels of children experiencing toxic stress at home, which inhibits their ability to learn.

“Thirty percent of the calls to (the Department for Children and Families) are coming from educators,” Dolce said. She added, “Since 2014, there has been a 33 percent increase in children going into custody in Vermont. Sixty-eight percent of those are under 6 years old.”

The problem has been getting worse, according to Sean McMannon, superintendent at the Winooski School District, who said superintendents report a growing number of students in families facing poverty and addiction.

In Winooski about 35 percent of the students are refugees or new Americans who have been forced to flee their homes due to war, persecution and natural disaster. There is also a high number of families living in poverty. Eighty percent of Winooski students qualify for the federal free and reduced-price lunch program — an indicator of poverty.

McMannon described a first-grade classroom with 16 students: Three children are identified as having special needs due to behavioral and learning challenges; five students are not native speakers of English; and 12 students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

“That is challenging for any teacher,” he said.

Sean McMannon, superintendent of the Winooski School District.
Sean McMannon, superintendent of the Winooski School District. File photo

While McMannon praised his teachers for doing an “incredible job” creating a caring environment, he said the work takes a toll on the teachers and staff trying to help. He created a wellness program several years ago to help lessen staff burnout.

“What I hope we can take away from this is a focus on what trauma is and how it affects not just the children, but the staff,” McMannon said.

The overwhelming attendance at the conference is testament to the need in Vermont, according to Jeff Francis, executive director of the Vermont Superintendents Association.

The two organizations surveyed their membership to prepare this year’s conference, and superintendents and special education administrators independently urged organizers to focus on toxic stress, according to Francis. “Not only because of the effect of trauma on schoolchildren but also the effect trauma and stress of the children have on the adults working with them,” he said.

Secretary of Education Rebecca Holcombe was present to lend support and work with superintendents on an issue that she said is extremely important to the Education Agency.

In Vermont, 20 percent of children have experienced enough adverse events in their lives that it affects their ability to function in school, according to a conference presentation.

Toxic stress is the result of traumatic events that children are exposed to, including neglect, abuse, a drugged or alcoholic parent, violence or extreme economic hardships. The child lives in a constant fear that doctors call a “toxic stress response.”

Stress hormones are released constantly and change the way the brain is wired, according to those who have studied it. That is said to lead to learning problems, behavior issues, teen pregnancy, substance abuse, diabetes, poverty and other health concerns.

“Trauma creates a fragmentation in our neurobiology, and we cannot integrate what is happening in front of us and our actions. We are not thinking. We are just surviving,” said Dolce. She added, “If this is chronic it has lasting health effects.”

The Adverse Childhood Experiences study measures 10 types of childhood trauma. One in 8 children in Vermont have experienced three or more types of adverse family experiences; that is about 800 classrooms of 20 children, according to Vermont data collected for the National Survey of Children’s Health and presented to the crowd.

Heather Freeman, special education director in Orleans Southwest Supervisory Union, said the schools are not set up to respond to the problem. “We have been organized for individual locales, and it is not working. We are isolated,” Freeman said.

Orleans Southwest Superintendent Joanne LeBlanc agreed: “Our schools are not equipped to deal with the therapeutic side of this. We are educators.” She said it is a community issue.

“If we don’t build a system to address the needs of the youth and support the community we will still have the problem,” she said.

Dolce talked with participants about using a trauma lens when teaching. That means understanding how trauma affects the brain and what might trigger unwanted behavior. Teachers working from this perspective will see the student’s behavior differently and better help the child cope, she said.

In a San Francisco school Dolce worked in, small children were losing control when the metal feet of chairs scraped the floor as they were pulled from a table, because the children associated that sound with gunfire, she said. The solution was to put tennis balls on the feet of each chair.

Teaching schools are not currently instructing educators in trauma, according to Dolce. She said the curriculum does not include child development or behavior management. “It is important for schools of education to look at this research and bring it into child development and neural development so that (educators) can understand how the brain works from day one,” she said.

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  • Dave Bellini

    We need to REDUCE special ed. spending not increase it. The ever inventive and expanding definitions of criteria will bankrupt home owners. There has always been poverty in America but the poor are better off in 2016 than they were years ago. It’s not getting “worse” it’s getting better, perhaps not fast enough. Junkies can’t take care of a cat or dog and the state should remove children if parents are shooting heroin. As for teacher “burnout…..I and many other Vermonters will be getting up at 0430 to go to work all summer and don’t have time to “burnout.”

    • Mark Tucker

      Dave, you need to spend some time in the schools to see what is really going on with this trauma issue, before you once again scream about reducing special education costs. It’s a simple rant that has no foundation in reality. There is no secret plot by educators to increase special education costs, or education costs in general. On any given day, 5-10 percent of our students come to school having experienced a traumatic event at home the night before, in no mental condition to be receptive to learning, and yet we are expected to teach them. We take the kids we get, and do the best we can. If you have some magic formula for fixing this that doesn’t involve money and time, PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE tell us what it is.

      • Jan van Eck

        Here’s your solution in one sentence, Mr. Tucker: “Society institutes policies that promote general and wide-spread prosperity.”

      • Tom Pelham

        Mark…I came up through Vermont’s public school system, graduating in 1967. My children also came up through Vermont’s public school system, graduating just a few years ago. I also served on my local school board for eight years. The services and financial resources available to address the issues raised in this article are light years ahead of those available just a generation ago.

        Prior to the late 1960’s, there were no state provided social welfare systems or special education requirements in our public schools or Brigham decision. Today there is a statewide social services network spending over $2.5 billion annually and separately education spending of over $1.5 billion. Our average spending per pupil is near $20,000 (the highest in the nation) and according to legislative studies, distributed equitably. Given the growth in education spending simultaneously with a steep decline in the student population, spending per pupil is generously on the rise.

        Further, the legislature’s recent (January, 2016) consultant study documents that $163.9 million can be saved in Vermont’s K-12 education system while still allowing “each school and school district to provide all students an equal opportunity to meet the state’s student performance standards”. It documents that Vermont identifies 16 percent of our children as receiving special education services vs. a national average of 12 percent.

        Tax Department data shows the adjusted gross income of Vermonters rising at the annual rate of a little over 2 percent since 2007. Yet, for example, recent state spending is on the rise at over 5 percent annually and health care premiums are also up 5 to 10 percent a year.

        Bottom line, there is a lot of “financial stress” in Vermont’s households as families try to make ends meet in a stagnant economy while taxes (including property taxes for education), fees and health care premiums are persistently on the rise. Vermonters are “tapped out” as they say. It’s great that “toxic stress” is your priority and passion, but given the above context, it’s unreasonable to ask Vermonters for even more money they cannot afford. Reasonable minds can point to significant efficiency opportunities in Vermont’s education and human service networks (the Picus Report, ending the “benefits cliff” or replacing the ACCESS system for example). Please seek the implementation of these efficiencies as the source for the resources you seek rather than squeezing taxpayers even more for money they don’t have.

        • Mark Tucker

          Tom, I do not disagree that this is all an expensive proposition. We somehow have overlooked the fact that educators are taxpayers too, and I feel the same strains from increasing costs that the rest of the state feels. I have read the Pincus study report and I support the initiatives underway right now to look at reforming special education funding. I don’t think I said anything about asking for more money; but in any case, what would you have us do with these damaged children who are not responsible for the sins of their fathers and mothers?

          I am just a few years younger than you so I too recall the days when we didn’t have these expensive social welfare and special education structures. But if your point is that we have created systems for the sake of systems, and not to address needs that didn’t exist in the waning days of post-WWII-II prosperity and community, I think you are wrong. When I was in school in the 60’s, special education meant shipping “retarded” kids to special schools where they learned to sew buttons on shirts and not much else. We know we can do more today, and we do. If someone doesn’t like that, they are entitled to their opinion, but if you want to change it start lobbying the Federal Government, from whence all of Vermont’s special education regulations are spawned.

          • Tom Pelham

            Mark…public school educators do not feel the same financial strains as other Vermont taxpayers whose incomes are rising on average at just over 2 percent annually.

            Here is the most recent actuarial report for the teachers’ retirement system. You can see that annual wage increases for teachers, depending upon age, are growing by more than 4 percent to more than 8%. See pages 16 and 17.


            What I would recommend you do should “toxic stress” be among your top priorities is to advocate for reforms in the existing and expensive education systems in order to reallocate resources to the services you believe necessary. For example, Secretary Holcombe has said often that if K-12 education staffing ratios in Vermont, now at 4.7 to 1 (the best in the nation), were guided toward 5 to 1 (still the best in the nation) that $74 million can be saved. This would be a better solution than asking property tax payers for even more funding.

          • Mark Tucker

            Tom, I have never received a wage increase of more than 2% in any given year (and 0% in some). Perhaps you are making the mistake of confusing total salary costs, which include health care benefits and the like, with teacher salary. I don’t get to pay my property taxes by deducting them from my healthcare expenses.

            As for Toxic Stress, this has nothing to do with “my” top priorities, in that a specific societal problem like the increasing numbers of kids living in bad homes is not more, or less, important to me than any of the other factors that make the public education system so complex and challenging. The issue foes beyond the school day, and there are things that I wish we didn’t have to deal with in school, but the fact of the matter is that in public education we take all kids regardless f need or challenge, and we are held accountable for teaching them. Do I think that there has been a cost shift from mental health onto the education fund? Yes. Do I think that there is a lack of personal responsibility and bad parenting contributing to this problem? Yes, indeed. Can I refuse to try to meet the needs of a kid because his or her parents are schmucks (in their personal behavior) and do not adequately prepare their children for school? No, I cannot. I think we can at least agree that there is a problem, and there must be a better way to pay for this, but the problems do not begin at school and the funding mechanisms for addressing them are not decided by the schools. I know you are smart enough to know that.

          • Tom Pelham

            The data I linked to is not mine, but the actuary’s for the teachers’ pension fund. It profiles only salaries, exclusive of health care benefits, as that is what counts in the actuarial calculations for the pension fund. Your personal anecdotal situation is irrelevant to the bigger picture.

          • Scott Mackey

            This exchange between Tom Pelham and Mark Tucker is really interesting. Both represent valid points of view thoughtfully expressed.

            I also attended public schools in Vermont, although in the 1970s, and I agree with Mr. Tucker that sending kids to “Waterbury” was wrong. However, there was also the threat of sending kids to “Vergennes” if they were threatening students and teachers with serious bodily harm or committing crimes. Now kids with “emotional behavioral disturbance” are kept in the schools, sometime to the detriment of learning for other kids.

            I think that we really need to step back and evaluate whether all the social service / education “supports” we’ve put in place are actually helping. Why if we are spending so much more than we did in the 1970s and 1980s do things seem to be getting worse? Does a system where we fail to hold kids (and adults for that matter) accountable for their actions produce better outcomes for individuals and society? Can public schools really become “de facto” parents of kids with problems at home?

            For two generations, some Vermont leaders have blamed “big businesses”, “greedy corporations”, and “the rich” for all of society’s ills. This implicitly lets individuals off the hook for their own behavior and creates a sense of fatalism. If you hear long enough that no matter what you do, the game is rigged and you cannot get ahead, then dropping out of school does not seem like a bad choice.

            I’m not saying we can or should go back in time, but something needs to be done to restore a sense of personal responsibility in Vermont. Government is just not capable of solving all of the problems of society, and expanding government programs to the point where they cause further “financial stress” for Vermont’s stagnant population of taxpayers surely cannot be the solution.

      • Michelle Salvador

        Dave Bellini, this diatribe from you is unfounded, uneducated and perpetuates destructive stereotypes.The continual attacks on individuals with substance use disorders in your posts is vile at best. The lack of solidarity with educators is shameful.Try a day in the life of a teacher with the challenges they face in the lives of their students…you’ll be back to driving inmates around for a living before recess.

        • Dave Bellini

          “…individuals with substance use…” – your very broad term. vs. “shooting heroin.” my more narrow quote. “unfounded” – I work with drug addicts every day, directly.. “stereotype” – actually true, kids aren’t in school most of the summer.
          “Try a day…” How do you know i haven’t? “destructive” – drugs are destructive not debate. “uneducated” – I went to public school what are you saying…????

      • Dave Bellini

        @Mark “We take the kids we get and do the best we can” Agreed. I’m not arguing otherwise. See my comment from May 16:
        I struggle to pay my ever increasing property taxes and keeping my home is important to me. That’s as real as difficult school situations. Too bad we have to choose between the two. My “answer” is to pay for education via an income tax and not put all the cost on home owners. An income tax would really be income sensitive. The issue of “burnout”, ALL jobs are difficult and stressful. All employees have to deal with demanding situations. I don’t know of many easy jobs. I recognize education is difficult and stressful but no more so than most other occupations. And … Do you think “mainstreaming” has worked? . . .

    • ed stanak

      What an intense expression of “unsolidarity” with other public employees. How fortunate that VT Department of Corrections workers have strong union protections and don’t have to struggle with stress-toxic or otherwise. Here’s a link that provides information on what special education programs address for the children in our communities:
      After passing the first statutory provisions for special education back in the 1960-70s, Congress has never come close to allocating funds sufficient enough to cover what was to have been the federal government’s fair share of costs. Instead, funds have flowed into the military- industrial complex and corporate welfare and the financial burdens of educating the children of 21st century America fall onto the shoulders of towns and states. Rather than directing rage against teachers, recognize and redirect the criticism where it belongs.

      • Mark Tucker

        When the Feds first passed the Individuals with Disabilities in Education act (IDEA), they promised to fund about 45% of the cost of these programs through grants to the States. To my knowledge they never funded more than about 24% of the cost, and continue to reduce their share.

        • Tom Pelham

          Here are links to the reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Section 611 sets forth the federal govt’s “maximum” commitment which is based on 40% of the average per-pupil expenditure in the United States multiplied by the number a pupils with disabilities in a state. The commitment is not 45 percent of the cost of special education nor 40% of the average per-pupil special education expenditure.

          However, I agree that funding at the established maximum has not been appropriated by congress.

          • Jim Christiansen

            Relying a federal government that is trillions in debt to increase special ed funding is not a solution, short term or long term.

          • Larry Johnson

            The exchange between Mr. Tucker and Mr. Pelham was on its way to being one of the best that has appeared on these pages in quite some time. Some other commentators felt moved to add thoughtful insight as well. It was very civil, disciplined, and thought provoking. Too bad it couldn’t have continued. Things seemed to go a bit sideways when Mr. Tucker saw fit to comment about Mr. Pelham’s “smarts”. The tone of what followed seemed to change.
            Mr. Tucker, within the course of your exchange with Mr. Pelham and based on the net total of thumbs up (Total thumbs up minus total thumbs down.) that the readers awarded each of you, it would seem that those same readers have given the edge for expressed “smarts” to Mr. Pelham.

  • edward letourneau

    This is another example of the special ed community finding more kids so they can keep their jobs. Its the old adage of the fox watching the chicken coop. Vermont has close to 20% of kids in special ed. Other states have about 10%. That number alone tells us we have one a system that needs correction. — As to drug addicted parents, putting their kids in SPED will not help them. Locking them up until they dry out will.

    • Mark Tucker

      Ed, your vitriol aside, I don’t understand how you can conflate the the “cause” of the stress (in your example, addicted parents) with the “effect” of the stress – kids coming to school not ready to learn. Removing the parents from the home and putting them in jail or removing the kids from the home into foster care may feel good to you, but both are examples of toxic stress and neither resolve the underlying issue.

      I don’t want to debate special ed numbers with you (your VT percentage is inflated) but the number itself proves nothing unless you understand how and why each state decides how to identify kids. Vermont may over-identify, but other states may under-identify. You have no data to know which is which. But, if raw numbers is your criteria you could look it up and move to one of those states. May I suggest Mississippi?

  • Tom Grout

    Toxic strees will be the next new buzz word for educators after coming back from this rah-rah event.Next, another couple lines in the budget, then a special needed which will turn into a full time staff member in a supervisory union. Then project for a need of another foreign language teacher for every ethic background.

  • Rich Lachapelle

    I guess in the twisted world of the left-wing, which oversees our education system it’s not fair that some kids have a higher “victimhood status” than others so we need to provide more definitions of new kinds of victimhood which open the door to new opportunities and programs so that no one feels left out. Under the “everyone is a winner” philosophy, when all can lay claim to their own special niche of officially recognized adversity then no child is left behind. Vermont taxpayers need to open our eyes to see the world through the “trauma lens” as we are squeezed from every angle. Being taxed into poverty can certainly bring on anxiety and trauma in the home but our public officials apparently havn’t recognized that as a form of victimhood yet. Elections have consequences.

  • Yes, children under stress need support. No question. But until we address the causes of that stress, we will never “bend the curve” or reduce the problem. E.g. Since having an incarcerated parent is one of the childhood stressors, we need to limit it to those who really need it, and find alternatives for everyone else that heal, strengthen, support families.

  • Marty McMahon

    This is good; happy to see this insight being shared. One item that also need to be addressed is the toxic stree in the schools from low grade bullying. It is the wallpaper in schools – seemingly just a part of the space.

  • Although I am pleased to see Vermont Education Agency head Holcombe’s official statement about finding ways to relieve toxic stress in schools, as Vermont representative of UnitedOptOut, I have a specific complaint. When a very small number of parents try to opt their children out of Common Core testing, they meet militant refusal from the Education Agency, When individual principals, who understand and sympathize with a child’s needs permit test opt out, the Agency threatens principals with “Never again!”

    I’m not talking about kids just not wanting to take a few tests. I’m talking about parents who present a history of anxiety exacerbated by a barrage of testing that yields no useful information for teachers.

    Across the lake in Plattsburgh, about 70% of the students opted out of Common Core testing and life goes on as usual in the schools. It is past time for the Vermont Education Agency do something very specific to relieve unnecessary stress: Allow opt outs.

  • Martin Dole

    It is so true as the children were not asked to be born yet the adults who wanted them cannot give up there life to properly support there child. The teachers have more burden with out the help of the parents. It is very hard for teachers these days since parents do not parent

    • Right on, Martin. Right on.

    • So, “parent” is officially a verb?

      • John Greenberg

        William Hays:

        Yes, according to OED, since 1663.

  • Bonnie Kynoch

    It makes me sad that the President of VSEA, David Bellini, would rant and rave with no foundation, and attacking teachers which is an insult to the NEA, one of the largest unions in the state…..Mr. Bellini, unfortunately, has very little experience with kids and families and is spouting a very one sided viewpoint without consideration for the REST OF THE STORY…..Mr. Belllini has worked in Corrections for way too long and has a very jaundice view of what is happening in the present day. Any VSEA members who are teachers should be extremely insulted by their President, and it is obvious to me that Mr. Bellini is not willing or able to represent all VSEA members, which is what the President of any union is expected to do……maybe Mr. Bellini could have benefited from some special education himself. Thank to all Teachers and shame on you Mr. Bellini!

  • J Scott Cameron

    Have state and/or local governments considered the issue and costs associated with toxic stress when making decisions about welcoming large groups of immigrants from war and genocide ravaged places such as Syria or Africa? Should they be doing so? Is there a duty to take care of our own citizens/residents before expending scarce resources on non-citizens/residents? Is anyone in power asking these questions or is it politically incorrect to do so?

    • Rich Lachapelle

      The answer to your assumedly rhetorical question is: Yes, it is politically incorrect to ask and is a microaggression bordering on xenophobia and racism. We must all remain silent on such issues.

      • J Scott Cameron

        Rich, I like your style. I do, however, assume that your response contains a modest amount of satire coupled with a strong dose of sarcasm. If not, let me know.

  • John Jacobs

    Just another hidden tax on the working class that is funneled to the non-working class.

    Nowadays you can have a child you can’t pay for or care for and the rest of society is expected to pay for your home, food, smokes, property taxes and now we have to pay to fix the kid because of a shitty parent.

    Do something about the root issue. Nothing has changed in 50 years that has made home life any different for any number of children except that now it is everyone else’s problem.

    • ed stanak

      Yes, let’s by all means do something about the root issue. Perhaps Swift had the practical answer almost 300 years ago to dealing with all these burdensome children….

  • rosemarie jackowski

    Tax payers feel toxic stress every time they receive their property tax bill.

    • edward letourneau

      …And the stress is imposed by the democrats/progressives under the Gold Dome.

  • Ironic that there is no mention of the toxic stress placed on working families by the endless pile of local/state regulatory obstacles and taxes put on the backs of every small business and farm in VT. Instead, we are told we need more govt manipulation/regulation/expenditures that are only going to increase the real root problem.

  • Ed Fisher

    Where to begin ! Classrooms have about half the students they had thirty -forty years ago , A teacher ,plus an “aid” or two , helicopter parent child-raising , ……..But to me the real problems are directly related to this problem . This is a result of a negative cultured society not an originating issue . Relaxing legal standings on drug enforcement , lets face it , how many parents are or were users , the epidemic of parenting under the “influence “, How about the legal -illegal immigration standards , what about a language standard of one parent at least speaking English before they come to America and Vermont ? The anarchy style of Vermont state leadership and oversight of education just about says it all .

    Toxic stress has been around awhile , it’s HOW it is handled that has become relaxed , retreated and retarded !