‘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.

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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.

Tiffany Danitz Pache

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