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What's the Plus?

California Teachers Need to Know How to Help Students Deal with Trauma

By Wendy Threatt

I first met Nate on a warm August morning. With a fresh haircut and a new backpack, he smiled nervously at me as I greeted the class on the first day of school. As I scanned the line of 25 brand-new third graders, I wouldn’t have known just how different Nate’s home life had been from his classmates.

I learned quickly that Nate was recently removed from his biological parents due to horrific abuse. He had been thrown against walls, hit, and denied food. The traumas that Nate went through, also known as Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), are defined by the CDC as “ potentially traumatic events that occur in childhood.” Unaddressed, ACEs can lead to poor academic and health outcomes, mental health issues, and even changes in brain structure. Nate was the first student I ever met who experienced such intense abuse. He tried to hold himself together through the school day, but the pain, confusion, and fear would overcome him. Small stresses, such as thinking he didn’t have time to complete an assignment, or a disagreement on the playground, would cause Nate to unravel. He threw furniture and other classroom items, or would crawl under a table, rocking back and forth as he screamed for the better part of an hour. It was during these almost daily meltdowns that I realized I did not have the necessary training needed to support Nate. After one particularly difficult day when he attempted to kick me and ran out of the room in a storm of rage, I cried my entire drive home. I wanted to help this little boy, but I didn’t know how.

In the past decade, there has been a growing emphasis on teacher professional development around ACEs and trauma. I have participated in several district-level sessions, and I have read extensively about the topic. But even today, in 2022, California teacher credential programs do not offer any courses on ACEs, toxic stress, and the impact on learning. My own teacher credential program had not offered any courses in ACEs or childhood trauma. Now that I’ve been teaching for over 20 years, I’ve learned strategies such as anticipating cues in the environment that may trigger a response, and I prepare the student for them. I know the importance of feeling in control to a child who experienced trauma. And now I recognize that maladaptive behavior is not a choice for a child with ACEs, but an automatic response to stimuli. But these learnings came too late for me to help Nate.

In December 2021, a coalition of U.S. pediatricians declared the mental health crisis among children a national emergency. The same highly respected group of physicians stressed the need for policymakers to provide supports in schools, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to wreak havoc with our students’ mental health. This is why I believe we must prepare teachers before they enter the classroom and not wait until their school’s or district’s on-the-job professional development. In order to effectively prepare teachers to help students, teacher preparation and credentialing programs must include courses on trauma and the effects of ACEs on the brain as it relates to learning and the classroom environment.

The Office of the California Surgeon General, along with California Department of Health Care Services (DHCS), recently established the ACEs Aware Initiative, a first-in-the-nation statewide effort to screen children and adults for ACEs in primary care. This initiative is an important step in supporting families, but teachers and school employees see children much more frequently than the family pediatrician. The strategies and tools educators like me need daily to help students experiencing stress and mental health challenges cannot be limited to the healthcare fields, nor can we limit this training to a few professional development sessions the school district chooses to offer. Teachers need to continue to learn about ACEs and the associated strategies every step of the way, beginning with their preparation programs and ongoing through their career.

Nate did not have a teacher fully prepared to support him because I did not have the tools needed to understand children experiencing complex trauma. I worked diligently with the school social worker to learn how to help Nate adjust. As the year progressed, Nate became less reactive. But we could’ve done a lot more for him. No student should enter California schools without a teacher who is fluent in recognizing ACEs and supporting students with complex trauma, whether they are in their 1st or 31st year of teaching. Nate and all students deserve nothing less.

Wendy Threatt teaches 4th grade at Felicita Elementary School in Escondido, California. She is a 2021–22 Teach Plus California Policy Fellow.

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