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Kids in Crisis: Mid-Ohio Valley schools working to identify, treat childhood trauma

PARKERSBURG — Teachers and school administrators are learning how to identify childhood trauma to better address student mental health and behavioral issues.

The Adverse Childhood Experience, or ACE, Questionnaire is designed to determine a child’s risk due to childhood trauma. Things like divorce, neglect, violence, drug or alcohol abuse and physical or sexual abuse can cause an ACE score to go up. The higher the score, the more at-risk the child is considered.

Julie Bertram, coordinator of health services for Wood County Schools, said ACE was developed in the late 1990s to identify factors that could predict health outcomes.

“We’re noticing more and more, and there are other studies that indicate this, these behaviors we are seeing with our children, they have really high ACE scores,” Bertram said. “The higher the ACE score, the less the coping mechanisms, the decreased resiliency.”

Cathy Grewe, coordinator of assessment and student services for Wood County Schools, said the ACE questionnaire is not given to students except in specific counseling situations with parental permission, but Wood County Schools is using ACE as a training tool to help identify areas of trauma among students.

“Right now it is an educational tool for principals, counselors and teachers to build awareness of how students struggle based on their life experiences,” Grewe said. “Informally they can look for indicators of trauma. The survey puts language to that.

“But at this point, it is more of an awareness and educational tool” for educators, she said.

Earlier this school year, Wood County Superintendent Will Hosaflook and all school principals watched a video overview of ACE, and officials are beginning to identify and implement classroom practices to help teachers identify and deal with childhood trauma.

“What we’re finding out is that we have a great task ahead of us,” Hosaflook said. “What we’re finding out is it’s not what is wrong with a child, it is what the child has endured.”

Hosaflook said the idea of mindfulness is not new to Wood County Schools, as several programs have been in the works for years, but this marks a new concerted effort.

“We have so many organizations that are working on this, but we’re trying to get everyone on the same page so we can develop a model for addressing this in our schools and communities,” he said.

Pamela Santer, wellness coordinator for West Virginia University at Parkersburg, and Amy Snodgrass with Mindful West Virginia, have introduced mindfulness and ACE to teachers and administrators in Wood County Schools for the past several years. Many schools are now adopting programs such as yoga to help students focus and to reduce stress and many area schools also have been using therapy dogs to reduce anxiety among students.

“We have the support of the superintendent and, we believe, the school board, in using these programs to help our students and teachers,” Santer said.

Hosaflook said children growing up in an abusive or neglectful home often have issues of trust and communication in addition to disruptive behavioral issues.

“The brain is being rewired. That is what is hard for us to understand,” he said. “They’re always in that fight-or-flight response. We can control a lot of adversity during the school day, but we don’t know what kids are experiencing outside of school.”

Bertram said using indicators such as ACE helps teachers to better identify the reasons for and respond appropriately to disruptive behavior.

“Our response is very important to these children,” Bertram said, adding a negative response often compounds issues and makes it more difficult to help a child.

Too often the solution to bad behavior is medication, Hosaflook said.

“If someone has a cough and they go to the doctor, it would be real easy for that doctor to prescribe them cough medicine without finding out why it is happening,” he said. “We’re masking the real cause.”

“What we’re trying to do in the school system is learn about how to build in protective factors and increase the resiliency of our students,” Bertram said.

Wood County isn’t the only area school system looking at ways to address childhood trauma and mental health issues. A drug epidemic, social media pressures and the normal stress of adolescence and young-adulthood have come together to create a particularly difficult mix of issues and hurdles facing students throughout the nation.

In 2018, several Washington County school systems partnered with local mental health service organizations to provide in-house therapy and counseling for students. In December, Wolf Creek Local Schools became the latest to partner with Life & Purpose Services of Marietta. Other school systems, including Belpre, Marietta, Fort Frye and Warren, already partner with L&P, and many also work with Hopewell Heath Centers and other service providers.

Belpre Superintendent Tony Dunn said passage of the Washington County Behavioral Health Board levy allows for the expansion of mental health services in Washington County.

“The six kindergarten through 12th-grade public school districts in our county collaborated with Life and Purpose Behavioral Health to write a grant for Trauma Informed Schools training that will take place over the next several years,” he said. “The goal is to train all the employees of those school districts to better understand and serve those students and families who have experienced or are experiencing severe trauma in their lives.”

In 2016, Belpre City Schools introduced a pilot program called Culture Club for middle school students, which gave them the opportunity to discuss issues and learn techniques to deal with issues in a positive way. The program is now expanding to the high school and a similar program for the elementary school.

Belpre also has begun using the free Hope program, which is a health curriculum designed to fill in gaps in health education in schools. That program helps teach students about the dangers and consequences of drug use.

“We know that trauma can affect students and families in a variety of ways, and public schools are in a unique position to be able to help relieve some of those negative effects,” Dunn said. “It is important that all our school employees understand the effects of trauma on our students and families so we can surround our students with the support and care they need to be successful in school and in our communities.”

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