Training Educators in Childhood Trauma Goal of Partnership
Training Educators in Childhood Trauma Goal of Partnership

Four aces are not always a winning hand.

Beverly Doyle, PhD, associate professor of education in Creighton’s College of Arts and Sciences, knows this, having established a national reputation over the past 50 years in the field of educating individuals who are classified as disabled or at-risk.

Doyle’s current foray into this challenging world involves building a program around the Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACE study, conducted between 1995 and 1997 by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in partnership with California-based Kaiser Permanente, a health care consortium. The study, after questioning 17,000 people about childhood experiences, found a correlation between a range of childhood traumas and the development of health and social problems in later life.

Each traumatic experience was designated an “ace.” The higher number of “aces” a child accumulates, the higher the level of learning disability and poor socialization he or she is likely to experience in the years ahead.

The study’s findings, in conjunction with other research that shows a correlation between incarceration and childhood trauma, underly a working partnership between Doyle, Creighton’s Department of Education and St. Philip Neri Catholic School in the Florence neighborhood of Omaha.

Doyle’s training program, titled “The Link Between Trauma and Students’ Academic and Social Skills,” asserts that troubled students are often in a state of constant mental arousal because of trauma at home and therefore cannot focus on instruction.

The goal is to identify, through teacher observation, students who exhibit symptoms of trauma and who might benefit from counseling designed to counter trauma’s negative effects.

“We want to intervene at a time when we can make a difference,” Doyle says. “What we’ve had in terms of past training for counselors is reactive counseling. Somebody gets in trouble at school and they get referred to the counselor, who tries to put the pieces back together.

“What we want to do now is to be proactive. We’re screening all of our [St. Philip Neri] students, and those who have experienced some type of trauma we’re taking out of the classroom at certain points and we’re training the teachers to deal with them, to provide intervention in the classroom for all students, but especially for those who we feel might be at risk for trauma.

“We are trying to prevent problems. We’re trying to prevent these kids from dropping out of school, from having emotional and social problems at school that will affect their entire life.”

Some 15 teachers at St. Philip Neri are being trained to recognize trauma resulting from physical, sexual or emotional abuse; neglect; the presence in the home of mentally ill, depressed, drug-addicted or suicidal people; witnessing violence against the mother; loss of a parent due to abandonment or divorce; or the incarceration of a family member.

The teachers gathered at the school library the afternoon of Nov. 11 for a training session featuring Jack Stark, PhD, a performance psychologist who won renown from 1989 to 2004 as the sports psychologist for the Nebraska Cornhuskers and who for the past 15 years has worked with Creighton University athletic teams.

Stark says trauma carries the potential to physically restructure the brain, a process that can be reversed by reducing stress through “mindfulness,” which he compared to meditation.

“Kids come in and they’ve been traumatized. They’ve seen stuff,” he says. “Really nice kids. Spiritual, moral, ethical. Nice kids, good grades, great parents. Worrying. All the time. They can’t shut their brain off. They get stressed out and flustered because they’re dealing with some difficult things.

“We need to work with them, teach them how to relax, how to calm down.”

Anne Jensen, MS’94, principal at St. Philip Neri, who holds a master’s degree in elementary education from Creighton University, said schoolchildren today carry “baggage” unknown by previous generations and that the ACE’s approach, with its emphasis on forming positive relationships with students, is a necessary tool.

“We have to give teachers the tools to deal with children who are dealing with things we really haven’t experienced,” she says. “Teachers must be ready to work with kids as they are now, so that they can learn. They all have a story, and we have to know what those stories are.

“Once you understand a kid and make a positive relationship, then you start to see that child getting better. The relationship is absolutely everything. If they respect you, they will want to please you. But teachers have to earn that respect; they can’t just demand it.”