As we transition to in-person learning environments, the long-term ramifications and trauma of the pandemic on our overall physical, mental, and emotional well-being remain to be seen – perhaps most of all, for our children.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “many children’s social, emotional, or mental well-being has been impacted by the pandemic. Trauma faced at this developmental stage may have long-term consequences across their lifespan.”
Traumatic experiences, also referred to as adverse childhood experiences or ACEs, impact a child’s ability to learn and regulate behavior, and often present long-term impacts on physical and mental health as adults. Student expulsions, drop-out rates, poor attendance and failing grades are often linked to traumatic experiences.
With Arizona ranking 47th in the country for students graduating high school within four years, it is imperative that we better understand the impact of ACEs on our children.
ACEs are categorized as abuse, neglect and/or household dysfunction, and CDC experts have identified additional challenges related to COVID that will further impact children: change in routines, break in continuity of care or learning, missed significant life events and loss of security and safety.
Further complicating this scenario is that greater time spent in-home may have increased some children’s exposure to abuse and neglect.
The most recent pre-COVID statistics rank Arizona 33rd in the United States for adverse childhood experiences, with 17% of our children having experienced at least two ACEs in their adolescence. The question remains, what will our ranking be a year from now when the effects of COVID are more well-known?
With the implementation of trauma-sensitive approaches in our schools, we can not only address the traumas of COVID and other adverse childhood experiences, but also a real and urgent need to improve our educational outcomes in Arizona.
Trauma sensitivity requires a whole-school approach to create an environment where all children, including those that have faced traumatic experiences, are able to succeed. Trauma-sensitive schools are places for our children to learn and be understood from a place of empathy and compassion.
Adverse experiences happen in all communities and within all demographics. Exposure to adverse experiences can cause adaptations in a child’s stress response that make traditional school practices ineffective.
It’s up to us to advocate for educators who are trained to recognize the signs of trauma and what to do when they are presented, and to ask for implementation of practices that meet both regulatory and relational needs to ensure student success. The benefits extend well beyond empowering successful students – the cultural shift created can also lead to increased faculty wellness, productivity, and overall job satisfaction.
Immediate next steps emerged from research conducted by Vitalyst Health Foundation in collaboration with 20+ partners that will enable more Arizona students and teachers to benefit from the trauma-sensitive school environment:
- We must develop a unified advocacy voice by aligning the multiple organizations working to improve school health and wellness to steward this work and champion positive change.
- We must require a baseline of knowledge of adverse childhood experiences for all school staff, while increasing leadership opportunities for champions of trauma sensitive approaches in schools.
- We must establish permanent, long-term funding mechanisms to support trainings, leadership development to shepherd policy and practice changes, and investments in our educators mental and physical health.
During the pandemic we were all forced to adapt and evolve. COVID-19 protocols mandated who we saw, the way we did business, and even what we touched. Our children and teachers were tested just the same. And as we continue to move through this pandemic – worn and a little weary – the time for innovation on behalf of our educational system is now.
We must come together to demonstrate compassion for our children and education professionals and a desire to see them succeed. We must help them adapt and evolve. In our quest for positive change in Arizona’s educational system, trauma-sensitive schools are the game changer we’re looking for.
Melanie Mitros is Vitalyst Health Foundation’s Director of Strategic Community Partnerships, working with coalitions and community partners to establish strategic alliances for effective change initiatives. Melanie contributed to the recently released Spark Report on Trauma-Sensitive Schools. To learn more, visit: Creating Trauma-Sensitive Arizona Schools – Vitalyst Health You can reach Melanie at: firstname.lastname@example.org