Schools ill equipped to address childhood trauma

Childhood trauma is one of the most significant public health issues of our time, and schools in Maryland and the nation are not ready to address the problem. There are no universal screening systems for trauma or related mental health issues, no protocols to identify the needs for mental health services in our schools and no systemic treatments provided to at-risk children. Not identifying children with mental health issues results in devastating outcomes from school shootings to teen suicide, lower IQ and reading scores, emotional problems and delinquency. The most successful schools in the future will be those that can create and maintain a trauma-responsive school culture and provide the needed services to at-risk children.

The Children’s Guild has been a leader in working with at-risk students by understanding that schools need to deal with more than academics given the fact that children don’t come to school in isolation. They are products of their environments, which often includes family histories of: mental illness, domestic violence, abuse, neglect and substance abuse. The challenge becomes how to intervene in the child’s life, as well as that of their family and community, to facilitate a healthy learning experience.

As the Kirwan Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education, a statewide government-approved advisory panel, continues its work, we urge them to look at funding models for all at-risk children, not just ones on the poverty scale. Focusing on schools located in areas of high poverty is indeed noteworthy; however, we believe that the commission should expand the definition of high-risk to include research-based risk factors such as incarcerated parents, prior involvement with mental health services and other trauma indicators, such as homelessness and engagement with social services. This effort would require an unprecedented collaboration between public agencies and public schools.

The most critical feature, as the Kirwan Commission has indicated, will be the development of a system to screen students in school for these expanded at-risk categories and provide the services recommended so each child will be “ready to learn.” Currently, there is no universal screening protocol in schools, so thousands of students’ needs are never identified. The second part of this process is placing case manager navigators, who could be Department of Social Services staff, juvenile probation officers and mental health clinicians in schools with high at-risk populations, ensuring ready access to services to support students at no cost to schools other than office space. By establishing these positions, it would also assist with the integration of needed services to families, linking them to community resources such as employment, food and health care services.

Right now, The Children’s Guild, for example, has full-time master’s-level licensed mental health clinicians in 70 schools in Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Cecil and Prince George’s counties as well as Baltimore City, and it has seen the difference these clinicians have made. Not only do these clinicians provide individual, family and group counseling services but they work with school leadership and faculty to provide education, classroom observation and teacher consultation and social skills groups to benefit the broader school population. Among the values of school-based mental health services is that they remove barriers to access of services for parents by being located in the school and providing services during the school day, as well as mitigating the perceived stigma of seeking help as school is a familiar place for both students and parents. Additionally, we have shown benefits in the areas of attendance, punctuality, office referrals, suspensions and other behaviors that impact school performance.

We believe it is important for the money to follow the students and for at-risk dollars to flow to the districts and directly to the schools. This would automatically address high concentrations of poverty, but it would also recognize that at-risk students are present in all schools. As it is currently written, only students who demonstrate need in schools of high concentrations of poverty would receive state support.

Great academic instruction relies on students being able to self-regulate their behavior, and today schools are putting a heavy emphasis on instruction and little on social-emotional development and brain-based learning. Teachers need training in these areas, and behavior-motivational skills should be built first, followed by instructional skills.

The most desired schools of the future will be those who meet the holistic needs of students. We are optimistic that the Kirwan Commission members, as they move forward, will focus their efforts on the whole child in order to support the academic achievement of at-risk students in all communities by working to identify and deal with childhood trauma in our schools.

Andrew L. Ross is president and chief executive officer of The Children’s Guild. His email address is ross@ChildrensGuild.org.

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