By Vien Nguyen, CEI Intern and Dana Asby, CEI Director of Innovation & Research Support
“I was labeled as a troubled youth, when really I just needed someone to recognize I was being hurt” testified Creeanna Aviles-Rygg. A survivor-activist, Aviles-Rygg was one of many witnesses who spoke passionately in July in front of the Committee on Oversight and Reform (Aviles-Rygg, 2019), part of the United States House of Representatives. For the first time, the committee recognized that childhood trauma deserves to be a major public policy issue. Experts and government officials supplemented the witnesses’ testimony during the session, “Identifying, Preventing, and Treating Childhood Trauma: A Pervasive Public Health Issue that Needs Greater Federal Attention” (Committee on Oversight and Reform, 2019a).
Trauma-informed Care Matters: Personal Stories from the Hearing Members
A concurrent House resolution and Senate act to recognize the importance and effectiveness of trauma-informed care led to the recent special session, where Congress members testified about their own experiences of childhood trauma. Massachusetts representative Ayanna Pressley would have floundered long ago if it weren’t for the compassionate school staff who listened to her in her most troubled moments. Pressley expressed,
“I can say with certainty that it was a school nurse who recognized, who saw the signs of trauma and abuse in my own life… it is so important that the school community is trained in these indicators because there are children who act out, but there are many more that shut down. I was one of those children” (Pressley, 2019).
Childhood trauma has become so widespread in the United States that every adult personally knows someone who has been affected, with more than 60% of adults in the U.S. having experienced a serious childhood trauma (Merrick, Ford, Ports, & Guinn, 2018).
We as a nation pay a heavy cost for not addressing childhood trauma. From a national health perspective, childhood trauma contributes to the major leading causes of death, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Kaiser Permanente (Felitti et al., 2019). Despite this sobering research, public policy hasn’t kept pace. For several years, most of the federal efforts towards addressing childhood trauma have fallen under the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), who created the National Childhood Traumatic Stress Initiative in 2016.
The Need for Infrastructure in the Fight Against Childhood Trauma
In the special session, California Congressman Mark DeSaulnier emphasized building infrastructure to address childhood trauma, “We are losing people to early death because we don’t have the infrastructure to match the neuroscience and known evidence-based practices” (Committee on Oversight and Reform, 2019a). In New England, the Childhood Trauma-Learning Collaborative (C-TLC), funded by a SAMHSA grant, is an example of such social infrastructure.
This year, the Center for Educational Improvement (CEI) partnered with Yale University’s Program for Recovery and Community Health to bring the C-TLC to New England schools. We connect school leaders with resources to alleviate the effects of childhood trauma in their communities. We do this by hosting webinars from experts in the fields of trauma, psychology, and education, helping school leaders network with each other to learn what’s working best on the ground in New England schools, as well as providing Heart Centered Learning stipends to assist them in implementing the interventions we know encourage compassionate school communities.
How to Combat Childhood Trauma
Dr. Christina Bethell, a leading expert on adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) science and a professor at Johns Hopkins University, provided examples of exactly the type of evidence-based practices the C-TLC provides in her testimony (Committee on Oversight and Reform, 2019b):
- Professional development that prioritizes the self-care of school staff
- Creating compassionate organizational cultureswith a trauma-informed approach
- Community-based partnerships that include storytelling
- Relationship-centered assessmentsand screening
- Neuro-repair methods, including mindfulness and yoga
- Relational healingusing mindfulness and social-emotional programs
Educators can take these fact sheets on ACEs from the Child and Adolescent Health Measurement Initiative to meetings with district leaders, school staff, and stakeholders to promote compassionate school cultures (Bethell, Gombojav, & Rush, 2019).
Healing Childhood Trauma with Healthy Relationships
In her testimony, Dr. Bethel advocated for a shift from “What’s wrong with them?” to “What happened to them?” as we address trauma. Trauma occurs within the context of relationships; unfortunately, all too often occurring within the family structure. Because of this, Dr. Bethel notes, “Relational wounding requires relational healing” (Committee on Oversight and Reform, 2019b).
At CEI, we believe this relational healing can begin by creating compassionate school communities where each student feels a sense of belonging and love. For guidance on creating a compassionate culture, consider taking our 12-minute research-informed and validated assessment, the School Compassionate Culture Analytic Tool for Educators (S-CCATE).
Contact your state and federal representatives, perhaps sharing one of the fact sheets mentioned above, to let them know why your state needs more funding to address childhood trauma.
Aviles-Rygg, C. (2019, July 11). Federal solutions to childhood trauma.
Bethell, C., Gombojav, N., Rush. M. (2019). Fact sheet 2019: Strong roots grow a strong nation. Child and Adolescent Health Measurement Initiative (CAHMI).
Bethell, C., Gombojav, N., Solloway, M., & Wissow, L. (2016). Adverse childhood experiences, resilience and mindfulness based approaches: Common denominator issues for children with emotional, mental, or behavioral problems. Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. 25(2), 139–156.
Bill S.774, Trauma-informed care for children and families act of 2017, 115th Congress (2017-2018).
Committee on Oversight and Reform, United States House of Representatives. (2019a, July 11). Identifying, preventing, and treating childhood trauma: A pervasive public health issue that needs greater federal attention.
Committee on Oversight and Reform, United States House of Representatives. (2019b, July 11). Identifying, preventing, and treating childhood trauma: A pervasive public health issue that needs greater federal attention. (Testimony of Christina Bethell)
Oversight Committee. (n.d.). Home .
Felitti, V.J., Anda, R.F., Nordenberg, D., et al. (1998). Relationship of childhood abuse and household dysfunction to many of the leading causes of death in adults: The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study. Am J Prev Med. 14(4), 245 -258.
H. Res. 443, Recognizing the importance and effectiveness of trauma-informed care, 115th Congress (2017-2018).
Merrick, M.T., Ford, D.C., Ports, K.A., & Guinn, A.S. (2018). Prevalence of adverse childhood experiences from the 2011-2014 behavioral risk factor surveillance system in 23 states. JAMA Pediatrics. 172(11), 1038–1044. Pressley, A. (2019, July 11). Federal solutions to childhood trauma.