Imagine a child. A young boy or girl who has experienced trauma. Perhaps it’s emotional, physical or sexual abuse. Perhaps there’s substance abuse or mental illness in their home. Or perhaps their parents are divorcing or a family member is in jail.
Imagine now the child in school, where they are supposed to sit quietly, listen attentively and work diligently. But because of the biological changes that have taken place in their bodies because of trauma, they are simply unable to.
Instead they act out. Perhaps they yell at another student. Kick over a chair. Walk out of the classroom.
In response, the teacher sends the child to the principal’s office, where they are reprimanded. Perhaps the parents are called. Perhaps a harsh punishment awaits the child at home.
And the cycle continues.
Changing this cycle is one of the focus areas of the Alaska Resilience Initiative (ARI), an initiative of Alaska Children’s Trust. “Our goal is to support Alaska’s institutions to be trauma informed and culturally responsive, providing children and families the opportunity to heal, while also working to prevent new traumas,” explains Laura Norton-Cruz, ARI program director.
Trauma-informed, culturally responsive institutions focus on helping the person who has experienced trauma, rather than removing or punishing them. And they offer help in a way that is just, equitable and accepting of different identities. “Being culturally responsive is equally important to being trauma informed,” Laura says. “Those things together create a safe, empowering, trustworthy environment.”
ARI’s collaboration with the Anchorage School District (ASD) is just one example of efforts to create trauma-informed, culturally responsive transformation in Alaska.
In August, Laura presented to all of the ASD elementary school principals, discussing the importance of trauma-informed, culturally responsive schools. “School needs to be a safe place for all kids – and especially kids who have experienced trauma,” she says.
Following the presentation, Nunaka Valley Elementary School principal Timothy Blake invited Laura to come to his school. “I was moved by her talk,” he says. “Many of the characteristics of children with adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) that she described are evident here on a daily basis and impact our school greatly.”
Laura spoke to his entire staff – from teachers and counselors to the custodian and lunch lady. “It was very well received and generated a lot of discussion,” says Timothy, who has since joined ARI’s trauma-informed systems change workgroup. “The most important thing we took from the presentation was the importance of building connections with students and focusing on building resiliency through supportive relationships with kids.”
Going forward, Nunaka Valley staff will continue their professional development in social emotional learning and trauma-informed practices. They are also looking to establish family support groups and offer parenting workshops.
“Being trauma informed creates supportive relationships with our students and families,” Timothy says. “Understanding the effects and characteristics of ACEs allows us to use informed practices to create successful opportunities for every child.”
In addition to providing direct training, ARI also works to connect people and amplify existing efforts – such as those at ASD’s Northwood Elementary. Three years ago, led by principal Deanna Beck, the school began its trauma-informed systems change journey, beginning with a focus on staff wellness.
Through staff training, collaborative planning and implementation of practices such as morning greeters at the front door and “We are glad you made it to school today” cards in place of tardy slips, Northwood has experienced some real shifts. For example, according to the School Climate and Connectedness Survey, 79 percent of their 6th graders agreed with the statement “I can name at least five adults who really care about me” – a 29 percent improvement from the previous year.
After learning about Northwood’s efforts and successes, ARI began sharing the school’s story with others, publishing an article on the ARI blog and incorporating highlights into presentations.
“The trauma-informed work going on at Northwood is not because of ARI,” Laura explains. “We learned about it and amplified their efforts by telling others about it. And now other people are asking about it. Deanna is getting regular inquiries from other schools asking for guidance.”
ARI plans to continue collaborating with ASD, as well as expand trauma-informed systems efforts to other institutions and areas of the state. ARI, with input from many diverse statewide voices, is also in the process of developing curriculum and creating a cohort of trainers who can give presentations on ACEs and trauma-informed systems change to audiences across Alaska.
“When we address the root of trauma, we can begin to move the needle on many issues, including child abuse,” Laura says. “It’s a game changer.”
ARI’s shared goal is mobilizing Alaska to end child maltreatment, intergenerational and systemic trauma through healing and strategic advocacy. It is working toward that through networking, communication, policy advocacy, and trauma-informed systems change.