By JORDAN HOUSTON
GSN Staff Writer

In a state where children experience more abuse, divorce, neglect, poverty and violence than anywhere else in the country, more than 150 education professionals flocked to Arizona State University last week to learn about the importance of creating trauma-sensitive schools.

Hosted by Kohl’s Mindful Me at Phoenix Children’s Hospital and ASU’s Sanford School of Social and Family Dynamics, the 2019 Trauma Sensitive Schools Symposium sought to explore “best practices” for providing trauma-informed care to students while also emphasizing teaching with empathy.

Around 31 percent of Arizona children experience two or more traumatic events before turning 18, according to an annual report by America’s Health Rankings.

Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACEs, are defined as an emotional response to a “less-than nurturing” life event.

“There is an epidemic of students who are struggling with a lot of challenges, and we all know schools are mostly under-funded,” said Kohl’s Mindful Me program Co-Organizer Beheir Johnson. “They don’t have support to help those students learn about self-regulation.”

Recent research suggests that ACEs have a direct correlation to mental health and well-being in adulthood, she added.

The symposium’s goal was to arm educators with a framework to create safe and inclusive environments for children — in which kids have equal access to opportunities at every stage of their education.

“The idea behind the conference was to get dynamic speakers to come in and break down these issues,” said Johnson.

Experts in the mental health field and relationship building, including keynote speaker Rick Griffin, shared their insights on trauma and its impact on brain development at the third annual symposium.

Griffin, Community Resilience Initiative master trainer, opened his keynote presentation with a game of “Simon Says.”

The practitioner asked everyone in the room to participate, adding that he wanted them to succeed — of course, he was joking.

Griffin managed to knock everyone out in only a few rounds, and explained that the game was a good example of how experiences can shape how people act and think – especially when it comes to trauma.

“Does Simon actually want you to be successful? No, and you know that from your past experiences with the game,” he said. “You play the game based on your experiences, and that’s what today’s all about.”

“It’s about what happens when there are some challenge experiences that complicate what’s happening in the present,” he continued. “You discovered what it looks like when your expectations aren’t met and when your experiences communicate something different than what’s being said in the present.”

Griffin touched how ACEs can cause toxic stress, saying it can cause a child to go into “fight, flight or freeze mode” that results in “reactionary” coping skills and behaviors, said Griffin.

These coping skills can include yelling, physically lashing out, shutting down emotionally or working hard to appease everyone, he told the audience.

“What about the defense mechanisms of a 3-year-old against an adult male who wants to put him on his lap?’” he asked. “Maybe he [the child] the sticks his arms out, but that still doesn’t work. So what else is a 3-year-old going to do? Scream kick, bite and spit.”

Griffin also discussed how knowledge of a child’s traumatic event is crucial to supporting them, but that understanding how the child interprets it is key.

He explained that because not everybody interprets events in the same way, cautioning that a caretaker or teacher could re-traumatize a child if they fail to see the adversity from their point of view.

“Knowledge without insight could be harmful,” he said.

Griffin acknowledged that teachers may not have the time to learn the traumas of all their students, but that something as simple as a smile could change their behavior.

“Everything you do that shows that you care and that they can feel some love, trust and safety around another adult —that in itself can prevent a lot of problem behavior,” said the speaker. “It doesn’t take much time to smile or say hello. It doesn’t take much time to honor the presence of another human being.”

Griffin also discussed how trauma-sensitive schools can promote accountability for disruptive or “bad” behavior, but in a compassionate way.

During his breakout session, he honed in on the idea of compassionate consequences and teaching students how to better communicate their needs.

“If you learn to play the piano and you hit a wrong note and somebody slaps your hand, how long will it take you to learn to hit the right note? You’ve got 88 keys, so it could take you 87 more chances,” he said. “It’s a lot easier and more effective if they just teach you the right thing instead of punishing you for hitting the wrong one.”

“Behavior is communication,” he added. “They [the students] don’t know how to communicate their frustration or their inability to do something and so it’s coming out in a different way – let’s teach them how to communicate.”