Tennessee center helps address adverse childhood experiences
By AMY BETH MILLER
Aug. 19, 2018
MARYVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — To reach a child who can't concentrate in the classroom or relate with peers, educators literally might need to build new pathways in their brains.
Maryville City Schools teachers are learning how to do that this year, working with Harmony Family Center.
An $87,000 grant Harmony received under Tennessee's Building Strong Brains initiative is funding not only the training but also a full-time counselor who will work in the elementary schools.
Harmony plans to develop a model that could be used by schools across the state.
More than two decades ago, a landmark study by Kaiser Permanente showed that adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) are common and linked to behavioral, psychological, physical and economic difficulties throughout a person's life.
The more ACES, the greater the risks, with consequences ranging from lower academic achievement to early death.
"We all have positive stress in our lives, like starting back to school," said Debby Skyler, director of the MCS Family Resource Center, adding that people often recover from negative stress. However, she said, "toxic stress is lethal for kids and families."
ACEs can lead to children's brains not developing the cognitive functions so that they can move from reacting to a situation to reasoning through it, explained Harmony CEO Pam Wolf.
"The top part of their brain is offline," she said.
Children growing up in those environments don't develop the brain pathways that help them reason in stressful situations. "It robs the brain from really developing the way it needs to," she said.
"We are asking these children to reason with us, and they don't have that pathway," Skyler said.
Understanding the impact of ACEs has led to a change from asking children, "What's wrong with you?" to "What happened to you?" Wolf said, to provide support.
A 2016 study found 27 percent of Tennesseans had experienced three or more ACEs, according to the state Commission on Children and Youth. The most common types were family separation or divorce, substance abuse and emotional abuse.
Harmony's application for the grant says the need to deal with the impact of trauma is "growing at an alarming rate in this community."
"Children lack the ability to regulate their emotional responses and demonstrate significantly diminished social skills impacting their capacity to learn," the application states.
Harmony cites opioid and other substance-abuse problems in the community, as well as poverty levels, with a third of MCS students qualifying for free or reduced-price school meals.
Harmony's experts use research on neurodevelopment and trauma to help train adults in techniques and select approaches for working with individual children.
The goal is to help children regulate themselves so they can relate to others and eventually reason.
Instead of only reacting to situations, children can learn to slow their heart rates and silence negative messages in their brains. For example, Skyler explained, someone might have told them repeatedly negative messages, such as "You're so stupid."
If a pregnant mother is under stress, her developing child can grow up accustomed to a high heart rate. With training, however, children can learn what it feels like to be calm.
At Harmony's Camp Montvale, teachers experience different types of therapy and learn how it can affect children.
Riding horses, they experienced the bilateral movement that can calm a person. In the classroom, that might come from an exercise or a student sitting on a ball.
When the children regulate their bodies and minds, they can focus longer in the classroom, Skyler said.
During the training, the teachers hear everything from simple techniques to advanced research. For example, sitting parallel to a child and engaging in an activity can lead to more conversation than sitting across from the child. They also heard about techniques such as EMDR — eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, which can use therapy tied to eye movements to move people past post-traumatic stress disorders.
In the classroom, they might lead an exercise in which students touch hands to their opposite knees to build new neural pathways in the brain.
The program will bring sensory materials into the classrooms, too, such as water beads and weighted blankets commonly used in therapy with children who have experienced ACEs.
The Harmony counselor working in the schools also will be available to help families learn techniques they can use in the home.
Coulter Grove Intermediate School and Maryville Junior High School staff members already have attended training at Camp Montvale, with Maryville's elementary and other intermediate school scheduled to follow over the next four months.
"Our teachers have a lot of tools in their toolbox for behavior management," said MCS Assistant Director Amy Vagnier, adding that this training will provide more.
The school district cares about more than the students academic achievement, Vagnier said. Students should know, "There are many people in my life, at home in the community and at school that I can trust to help."
"Many successful people have high ACEs, but they also have high resilience, because they have found the support they need," Skyler said.
Information from: The Daily Times, http://www.thedailytimes.com