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Last week I sat across a coffee shop table from a bright young program coordinator for a public health department in the greater Charlotte region who hoped to bring a trauma-sensitive learning model to her local school districts. When asked about challenges, she noted the need to educate everyone from teachers to policymakers about the number of students bringing adverse experiences into the classroom.

This perception runs counter to what the Adverse Childhood Experiences study by the Center for Disease Control has shown. The ACE Study included more than 17,000 participants which showed that, “almost two-thirds of our study participants reported at least one ACE, and more than one of five reported three or more ACE.”

What are adverse experiences or ACEs? Emotional, physical, or sexual abuse. Emotional or physical neglect. Household substance abuse or mental illness. Divorce.

A few years ago, the New York Times reported on a study from Washington state. The study showed that of 2,100 elementary school students in Spokane, Washington, 20 percent had two or more ACEs.

This program coordinator was anxious to put the research to work on behalf of all of the students in the surrounding area.

Different models are being experimented with around the country in an effort to do just that. The Public School Forum, as part of Study Group XVI, will soon bring in experts from Massachusetts on the trauma sensitive schools model.

The promise of the model is that trauma-sensitive schools will help children feel safe in order to learn.

The core values of the school were defined by the Trauma and Learning Policy Initiative on their website as follows:

  • A shared understanding among all staff—educators, administrators, counselors, school nurses, cafeteria workers, custodians, bus drivers, athletic coaches, advisors to extracurricular activities, and paraprofessionals—that adverse experiences in the lives of children are more common than many of us ever imagined, that trauma can impact learning, behavior, and relationships at school, and that a “whole school” approach to trauma-sensitivity is needed.
  • The school supports all children to feel safe physically, socially, emotionally, and academically.
  • The school addresses students needs in holistic ways, taking into account their relationships, self-regulation, academic competence, and physical and emotional well-being.
  • The school explicitly connects students to the school community and provides multiple opportunities to practice newly developing skills.
  • The school embraces teamwork and staff share responsibility for all students.
  • Leadership and staff anticipate and adapt to the ever-changing needs of students.

Other models are in play in North Carolina including in Buncombe County. David Thompson challenges Buncombe County to change the question posed to students from, “Why did you do that?” to “What is going on with you?”

Two weeks ago, I traveled to Old Town Elementary in Winston-Salem. Old Town students are 100 percent eligible for free and reduced-price lunch with over 70 percent of the students ESL. They are instituting Eric Jensen’s Teaching with Poverty in Mind model at present. 

Old Town Principal Benjamin “Rusty” Hall told us that part of the promise of the model is to alter the perception of students who “act out” from that of being a challenger to the teachers to the likely reality that they are facing stresses at home that they carry in with them.

The question before North Carolina is how do we serve all of the students of our state — including those who carry adverse experiences with them into the classroom?

Nation Hahn

Nation Hahn is the director of growth for EducationNC.