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Addressing Childhood Adversity in Schools

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We welcome guest author Godwin Higa, Principal, Cherokee Point Elementary School City Heights, San Diego whose work with childhood adversity and trauma is making a difference in the lives of children. 

When I first became principal of Cherokee Point Elementary School in 2008, I received volumes of discipline referrals a year from teachers and other staff members. Under the traditional school discipline model, students who misbehave are punished, whether through in-class time-outs and detentions or school suspensions and expulsions.

Today, Cherokee Point Elementary School operates under a different model. We have been able to come together around a vision of a school that does not ignore the trauma in many children's everyday lives, but rather understands how it impacts their behavior and ability to learn. That means that, when a student acts out, our teachers and other staff members are trained to ask "What happened to you?" not "What's wrong with you?" This has made all the difference.

At Cherokee Point, located in San Diego's City Heights neighborhood, nearly all of our students deal with some sort of childhood adversity. A hundred percent of our students receive free lunches, and most live under the federal poverty guideline. Many of our students' families face daily immigration threats of deportation.

The impact of childhood adversity and trauma--such as physical and emotional abuse or neglect, or mental illness, addiction or incarceration of a parent or close family member--can last through adulthood. Research shows that children exposed to adversity are at higher risk of chronic illnesses like heart disease and diabetes, learning difficulties in school, contact with the justice system, as well as addiction and economic hardship. The crisis crosses socio-economic, racial and geographic lines, straining California's systems of health care, child welfare, juvenile justice--and most importantly education. From schools and preschools to doctors' offices and juvenile courts, we all have a role to play in reducing the impact of childhood adversity.

At our school, when a student is involved in an altercation with a friend or defies a teacher's instruction, our faculty and staff delves into the root cause and seeks to support both the child and his or her family. Teachers, parents, San Diego State professors, college students and community advocates all work together to ensure that our kids' education is not interrupted by outside factors. That includes offering everything from counseling services to parenting support groups to fresh produce, clothing, and shoes for those who need them.

We follow a trauma-informed model and restorative justice practices that help  students learn to cope with adversity and resolutions in a healthy and compassionate way. All of our teachers are trained to proactively engage students and their parents, and collectively create a plan to address both the conflict and the deeper underlying issues. Parent leaders are training other parents about trauma-informed care at monthly workshops. We also have trauma-informed and trained counselors on site who provide intensive support to students who suffer from major traumas that teachers alone are not trained to handle. Since taking this approach, we have seen tremendous results. In the past three years, we have completely eliminated suspensions in our school. The number of discipline referrals also has plummeted to 20 per year.

Increasingly, we are not alone in our efforts to reduce the impact of childhood adversity and trauma on children. Last year, the San Diego Unified School District trained more than 600 staff members on the effects of trauma on the brain and ways to help students regulate their emotions and gain more control of their lives. Other schools and districts throughout the country are also adopting policies that reflect this trauma-informed model.

Over the past year and led by Center for Youth Wellness, we worked with nearly 20 organizations representing different sectors and regions to develop a seven-part statewide action plan to turn around this crisis and ensure lasting change for the state's children and families. Among our recommendations, we are calling on systems leaders, child-serving professionals and policymakers to ensure that all child and family-serving systems integrate trauma-informed approaches; advocate for policies, institutional practices, and programs that help treat the root causes of childhood adversity, such as poverty; increase funding for and access to evidence-based or promising interventions that help children heal from childhood adversity and trauma; and raise awareness about childhood adversity.

From my own experience, I know this kind of hard work is well worth the effort. When we prevent, identify and heal the effects of childhood adversity, we can ensure the health and behavioral problems we see in classrooms today do not turn into chronic illnesses and inescapable barriers tomorrow. And we can make sure every child has a chance at a healthy and successful future.

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