Trauma, Adversity and Transformation in Afterschool Programs

By Eric Gurna, President/CEO of LA’s BEST Afterschool Enrichment Program

LA’s BEST coach connecting with a student while helping her with her homework.

In recent years, there has been a fundamental shift in the health and well-being of our children — youth anxiety and depression have significantly increased. Situations I was accustomed to seeing in middle and high school programs — suicidal ideation, self-harm, high levels of anxiety — are now manifesting in younger, elementary school-aged children.

The statistics are staggering and their implications sound the alarm. Nationally, more than 46% of U.S. youth — 34 million children under age 18 — have had at least one adverse childhood experience (ACE), defined as child abuse, exposure to violence, family alcohol or drug abuse, and/or poverty and more than 20% have had at least two. In the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), where 80% of students live in poverty, 98% of students reported experiencing one or more stressful or traumatic life event in the past 12 months and at least half suffer from moderate to severe symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Adversity affects all aspects of life and is physical and cognitive. Dr. Nadine Burke Harris, California’s first State Surgeon General informs us that, “High doses of adversity not only affect brain structure and function, they affect the developing immune system, developing hormonal systems, and even the way our DNA is read and transcribed…”. Young children across the country are experiencing a mental health crisis and our collaborative team of social workers and educators are tackling it in Los Angeles.

One of my colleagues, Joel E. Cisneros, Director of School Mental Health for LAUSD explains,“When the parent/caregiver stress load is high due to factors such as poverty, community violence, poor housing, discrimination, mental illness, and substance abuse their ability to be that teacher and co-regulator for their child becomes compromised. This could result in a child being exposed to ongoing toxic stress. Children with compromised executive functioning skills may have a difficult time with transitions; they may have difficulty following instructions or remembering rules; and they may have a difficult time managing the range of emotions that are normal in childhood.”

I’ve worked in the youth development field for over 20 years and am currently the President & CEO of LA’s BEST Afterschool Enrichment Program. LA’s BEST Chief Operating Officer Debe Loxton, who built the program and expanded it from the original 10 schools to the 200 we work in today, has been doing this work for close to 40 years. In partnership, we practice a reflective and responsive process and are always trying to grow and adapt to changing needs.

LA’s BEST provides a safe and enriching environment for 25,000 elementary students after school throughout Los Angeles’ most economically distressed neighborhoods. Our staff see and feel the effects of trauma on children every day. We do more than provide a safe haven, we also help our students and staff cope with exposure to ACEs and strengthen core life values so they can live healthy lives full of choices.

LA’s BEST coach facilitating communication between students.

Our program staff are seeing an increasing number of disturbing behaviors among LA’s BEST students. Children are cutting themselves, expressing suicidal thoughts and displaying inappropriate conduct — behaviors that are often indicators of trauma — that require additional responses and interventions, with escalating levels of seriousness in recent years.

LA’s BEST can’t protect our children from all ACEs, but we can mitigate the often devastating effects of trauma and work with each child to help them transform their adversity into strength.

While we all feel a sense of urgency to alleviate the effects of ACEs immediately, the journey to helping our students requires us to evaluate and proceed with great care. As one of the nation’s largest afterschool programs, we need to be reflective and transparent. We need to invest time and resources in research rooted in quantitative and qualitative data that provides guidelines and recommendations. Our journey is detailed in my article The process of implementing trauma-resilient informed practices at LA’s BEST.

We want our process and outcomes to not only help children enrolled in LA’s BEST, but to also serve as a leading example for all afterschool programs. Over 10 million students are enrolled in afterschool programs across the country and like most of them, LA’s BEST operates in areas with high levels of poverty. Our students are 11% African American and 78% Latino. This fact is significant because recent studies show that African American and Latino children are exposed to more traumatic events than white children. LA’s BEST is proudly leading the afterschool field to ensure ACEs don’t define a child and to join the growing movement to de-stigmatize mental health support.

To respond to our students’ growing needs and increased experiences with ACEs at such an early age, we decided to implement a trauma informed approach. This approach includes updating policies and procedures, educating our staff on the research and science associated with ACEs and providing them with more support in responding to trauma and crises.

LA’s BEST coach helping a student write his autobiography.

It’s important for me to hear the types of trauma our students are facing and how our staff are facing them to help inform our policies. John*, a student in the fourth grade was displaying erratic behavior — from aggressive to withdrawn and uncommunicative. Ben*, John’s coach, told his supervisor Maria* that he was frustrated with John’s behavior and didn’t know what to do.

Ben and Maria discussed the ramifications of ACEs and the importance of approaching every child with empathy. Ben gave John a journal to write down what he was feeling and thinking during the day and offered to read it with him, if he wanted. Ben learned that John’s family was struggling to pay the bills, his parents were getting divorced and there was a lot of yelling at home, that he was scared. Through this trauma informed approach, John learned to better express himself which will hopefully continue to help him throughout life.

As we continue our journey to be the nation’s first large-scale trauma informed afterschool enrichment system, we are following the four recommendations detailed in the Trauma-Resilient Informed Practices in Expanded Learning Programs: A Snapshot of Trends in the Field report.

  1. Build Capacity on All Levels: We are building a professional development program for all our staff, especially for new staff, where they are given the tools to help identify and recognize trauma and respond to it appropriately. Perhaps most significantly, we created a full time position of Mental Health Practitioner, a psychiatric social worker who can provide the expertise and crisis response support we need.
  2. Foster Partnerships: As a school district program, our most important partnership is with LAUSD School Mental Health, who have been incredibly supportive and generous collaborators, and UCLA, which has designated expertise, research and other resources. Together, we are working to provide our staff with the resources and hyper-local referrals to meet their children’s and families’ needs.
  3. Elevate Self Care: During professional development trainings, the issue that most resonates with our program staff is self care. Our staff are experiencing secondary trauma, which can also trigger their own ACEs. As an employer of 2,000 mostly young adults who come from the communities we serve, it’s important that we help our staff take care of themselves so they can adequately take care of our students. They appreciate that we value them and understand they need support to remain resilient.
  4. Create Field-specific Resources: The afterschool field as a whole still needs significant resources to become trauma informed. To create and sustain quality resources and have a sustainable impact with our children and families, the afterschool field needs support from districts, foundations, donors and higher education institutions. We are sharing our resources, journey, triumphs and struggles in the hopes that others will learn and grow along with us.

The prospect of scaling our trauma informed practices with all 2,000 LA’s BEST staff motivates me every day. The impact on one child’s life is significant. To scale our work to serve all 25,000 children in LA’s BEST will be extraordinary. The effects of a trauma informed approach reach the family members of our students and staff. It permeates into the communities where we work and across Los Angeles. I know that as we help children transform their adversities into strength, our children will lead healthier lives — which will benefit Los Angeles now and for generations.

I believe the important thing for us to remember as we expand our trauma informed practices, is that the children we serve are not “other” from us. Certainly, many of us have had privileges and resources that provide protective factors in our lives. But we have all faced adversity; we’ve all coped with tragedies and complicated emotions. We are a community. We are our children, grown up. When we stand with them, facing the world together with love and solidarity, rather than across from them, looking to fix what is wrong with them, we move past and through personal and community trauma, and toward strength, healing, and joy.

* The names have been changed.

LA’s BEST Afterschool Enrichment Program

LA’s BEST Afterschool Enrichment Program

LA’s BEST Afterschool Enrichment Program plays a vital role in the lives of more than 25,000 unique and talented elementary school students who come from neighborhoods with the fewest resources and the greatest needs.

LA's BEST Afterschool Enrichment Program

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Providing a nutritious meal, academic support, sports and enrichment activities to 25K students throughout Los Angeles’ economically distressed neighborhoods.

LA’s BEST Afterschool Enrichment Program

LA’s BEST Afterschool Enrichment Program plays a vital role in the lives of more than 25,000 unique and talented elementary school students who come from neighborhoods with the fewest resources and the greatest needs.

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