Semple Elementary first-grade teacher Christina Carter read a story to her class about a child who faced stressful events every day, making it hard to focus at school. After the story, she gave her students a prompt — if Ms. Carter only knew.
Some of the responses were eye-opening.
“If Ms. Carter only knew ... I get my sister ready in the morning and that's why we are always late.”
“If Ms. Carter only knew ... I live with my grandparents because my mom and dad are both in jail.”
And the most heartbreaking one:
“If Ms. Carter only knew … she is the only one who loves me.”
Traumatic events in children’s lives can create toxic stress that changes the way their brains are wired, and that has a long-term impact on their health. Toxic stress is not something they just “get over.” Two decades of research show that kids who experience what are now termed “Adverse Childhood Experiences,” or ACEs, are much more likely to experience chronic illness in adulthood — lung cancer, COPD and diabetes, for example — and even to die prematurely.
Adults can help
A groundbreaking grant from the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky to the Bounce Coalition based in Louisville, however, shows that exposure to ACEs doesn’t have to define a child’s future. Moreover, results of the six-year grant show that adults don’t have to be mental health professionals to make a difference. Carter, along with her colleagues, parents and students at Semple Elementary, engaged in training and activities supported by the grant to help build resilience to ACEs.
“I was able to address these students in the appropriate manner because of the relationships I formed with my students based on the training and support I received,” Carter said. “This was the most close-knit class I have ever had.”
The foundation grant funded Bounce training at two other elementary schools as well — Wheatley and Engelhard — and for 1,000 YMCA of Greater Louisville staff members who provide before- and after-school care. The success of the program led Jefferson County Public Schools to incorporate Bounce training for districtwide professional development. And Louisville Metro now requires the training for youth care worker certification and externally funded agency executives.
Abuse, neglect, bullying, witnessing violence and parental drug use or incarceration can cause toxic stress that literally rewires a child’s developing brain. This can lead to the adoption of risky behaviors, such as drinking, overeating and smoking to manage their emotions. Recognizing that — understanding that the disruptive behaviors may emanate from trauma — can lead adults to approach youth from a new perspective of “what happened to you?” rather than “what’s wrong with you?” This achieves better results and prevents re-traumatization that could deepen the trauma and “fight or flight” response.
What does this look like in real life? Caring adults who offer a physically and emotionally safe place for the child to play, learn and express what’s going on in their lives. Caring adults who focus on children’s strengths and work to build their confidence. Caring adults who help struggling kids make decisions about better ways to express sadness, frustration and anger. And caring adults who hear children out and give them choices, whenever possible, to help them feel empowered.
That doesn’t mean that kids with a history of trauma should be allowed to misbehave or hurt themselves or others. Clear, consistent and fair expectations are essential. But they must be established and communicated with compassion. Bounce training teaches de-escalation strategies that make everyone feel safer. And the program teaches adults in all kinds of caring professions the importance of self-care to combat the “compassion fatigue” that often results from ongoing exposure to the trauma of others.
It only takes one person
Bounce co-leader B.J. Adkins is often heard quoting research that demonstrates every child needs the consistent presence of just one caring adult, the single most effective resilience-building factor.
Now that Bounce has established a successful ACEs program in the urban area of Louisville, the foundation is funding implementation of the program in rural Kentucky — in the Lake Cumberland region through the district health department and in Russell County Schools. In addition, training on ACEs is expanding to hospitals, faith communities and businesses — all of the places where people who’ve experienced adversity can be better supported through a healing-centered, “trauma-informed” approach.
Together, these demonstration projects are providing strategies and tools to help children experiencing ACEs to thrive, and giving them an opportunity to live healthier lives. As parents, neighbors, educators and friends, we can build on that work by being one more caring adult for every child we encounter and love in our lives.
Ben Chandler, who formerly represented Frankfort and central Kentucky in Congress, is president and CEO of the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky, whose web address is www.healthy-ky.org.