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Schools learn how to recognize, help traumatized students

Gaylord Herald Times - 12/4/2017

OTSEGO COUNTY - Like many districts, Vanderbilt Area School is taking a closer look at the impact of certain trauma on students.

Rick Heitmeyer, principal and superintendent, said Vanderbilt has been looking at how to better help students who have, or continue to have, adverse childhood experiences. He said the new information is revealing.

"The number of situations here that kids are coming from a background of trauma is phenomenal," Heitmeyer said. "It's stuff that I wish I'd have known 20 years ago early in my career ... The amount of brain research that's been done and the amount of research that's been done into poverty, trauma and behavior is great, and it's allowing all of us to become better at our jobs."

Adverse childhood experiences can be anything from emotional, physical or sexual abuse to neglect or domestic violence in a home. The list continues to include experiences of parental substance abuse, mental illness, separations or divorces of parents, incarcerated parents, discrimination, homelessness or natural disasters.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), "childhood experiences, both positive and negative, have a tremendous impact on future violence victimization and perpetration, and lifelong health and opportunity. As such, early experiences are an important public health issue."

Late last year, Otsego became one of 10 counties in the state to participate in a pilot program to to train and support communities in helping children who have experienced trauma.

The Trauma and Resilience Unified Support Team initiative takes an interdisciplinary approach and partners collaborate among different community agencies in an effort to curb the impact of trauma on children with the goal of helping youth.

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) and a list of groups like community mental health agencies, universities, foster parents and school systems are participating in the collaborative pilot.

In a previous Herald Times story, Heather Samkowiak, children's services specialist for Otsego, Crawford and Oscoda counties for DHHS, said the initiative aims to create self-healing communities and said those communities understand how to assist people who have experienced trauma.

"By trauma-informed, we're talking about where the community members are working to ensure that children or families who are touched by trauma receive interventions and supports that can help improve the recovery and build resiliency that can help them thrive and really move past what trauma (has done) and the lasting impacts (to include) later on in life with the very negative impacts that can be happening," Samkowiak said.

According to the CDC, childhood trauma has been linked to risky health behaviors, chronic health conditions, low life potential and early death.

Heitmeyer said several years ago Vanderbilt started looking deeper at how aspects like poverty impacts students' lives.

Using the restorative justice methods is the next step in what the district is aiming to use, he said. The concept focuses on the impacts a person's actions has on another and has the offender talk with and learn about the real effects of their actions on other people.

"We realize that we have a lot of families who come from poverty. We realize that we have a number of kids who've experienced a great amount of trauma that has affected them, and sometimes they act out," he said. "Sometimes their behavior needs to be discussed with them and a lot of times their parents. And what we have found out is that some of the approaches we've been taking with having conversations and and trying to find other ways to help students learn about the behavior is the right way to go."

According to the latest Kids Count report issued by the Michigan League for Public Policy, Michigan ranks 34th in the nation for children living in poverty and the worst in the Midwest.

Johannesburg-Lewiston Area Schools (JLAS) and Gaylord Community Schools (GCS) have also participated in the trauma training and are working toward changing perceptions and methods to help students.

Dennis Keck, GCS director of curriculum and special education, said the first step for educators is to be able to recognize students who have had trauma or continue to deal with trauma.

"For example, if they're living in a home with drug abuse, that's what they know, that's what they see, that's what they're used to," he said. "That will have a direct effect on how they perform in school socially, emotionally, academically ... Students have a lot of baggage sometimes that they bring to school."

In addition to the trauma training, Keck said the district also offers wraparound services that connect students with all the available resources and support services in the area.

"For example CMH (Community Mental Health) might be working with a student that's having some behavioral issues or some mental health issues ... They're doing that part of it. On the other side of it, DHHS is working on housing, heating, food," Keck said. "Well, they're two totally separate organizations. So, what wraparound does is it tries to bring those together to work together to help these families and these kids the best that they can."

Katy Xenakis-Makowski, JLAS superintendent, said doctors Mark Sloane and James Henry at the Children's Trauma Assessment Center at Western Michigan University brought the findings from their research and presented the findings to the district's staff.

She said their brain research explains some of the behaviors of students who have experienced trauma and that allows school staff to see children differently.

"This can then provide a bigger picture to see what schools can do to support positive growth and meet the needs of an ever-changing population in cooperation with multiple community resources," Xenakis-Makowski said in an email.

She said the trauma training is not required by schools and said the two doctors are working with schools in the area as well as medical and human services professionals to help children and families.

 
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