Just two days before students returned from summer break, roughly 100 educators and community members gathered in the small red auditorium at Champlain Valley Union High School to watch the hour-long documentary film “Resilience,” and discuss the effects of childhood trauma.
The reason for this unique get-together was to discuss a growing consensus in the medical and education communities that there is a link between childhood stress and health issues in adulthood, and that schools can aid kids who have experienced trauma. Panelists said doing so requires schools to become “trauma-informed,” meaning educators must consider childhood traumas when navigating “problems” in the classroom.
State Rep. Mike Yantachka, D-Charlotte, led a panel discussion following the film. “The whole idea behind the film is that we can do things to mitigate the adverse effects of adverse childhood experiences,” Yantatchka said.
“Resiliance,” which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2016, focuses on medical studies that measure the prevalence of so-called “Adverse Childhood Experiences,” or ACEs – extremely stressful experiences in a child’s life that may affect their well-being in adulthood. These experiences could include physical, emotional or sexual abuse, neglect, mental illness, substance abuse or domestic violence within the household, divorce, incarceration or the death of a family member.
It went on to examine a study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control in the late 1990s which found the higher the number of adverse childhood experiences a child had, the greater the likelihood of the child experiencing everything from heart disease, obesity and diabetes, to depression and suicidal tendencies later in life. They also found that 67 percent of the population (1 in every 3 people) has had at least one ACE, and that 13 percent (1 in 8) has had four or more.
Dr. George Till is an obstetrician and gynecologist at University of Vermont Medical Center, and also a state representative for the towns of Jericho and Underhill. He spoke on the panel following the film, describing the moment he first discovered the results of the CDC’s study as being hit by a bolt of lightning.
“All through medical school, this is not something you hear about,” Till explained. “It was clear to me that you have to do something when you get that kind of information. The trick is figuring out what to do.”
In 2014 Till introduced a bill that called for integrating adverse childhood experience screening into medical care, and teaching about it in medical school curriculum. Vermont was the first state to pass such a law.
The Chittenden South Supervisory Union school district is one of several Vermont school districts that are seeking to become trauma-informed, according to CVU principal Adam Bunting.
According to the film, individuals with adverse childhood experiences tend to “act out” as children, misbehaving in the classroom, displaying violence or aggression, or showing behaviors so similar to ADHD that the underlying problems are often overlooked.
“I think when it comes to developing a more personalized education, the need is there,” Bunting said. “Meeting students where they are allows them to display their strengths, and in times of stress we can reach out. It’s a mindset I was hoping today would set for the course of the year.”
During the panel discussion, Attorney General T.J. Donovan spoke of working with many adults in the criminal justice system who had experienced trauma as children. He noted that taking students’ life experiences into account is important when handling behavioral issues.
“It’s not about what you did, but about what happened to you,” Donovan said. “It’s not to absolve their responsibility in any way, but to provide context for those behaviors.”
Panelist Christine Lloyd-Newberry, director of CVU’s Connecting Youth program, encouraged the educators in the room to be actively involved in the lives of their students, reiterating the point of the research that the education system can make a difference for children coping with trauma. Earlier in the session, Dr. Till described high school as the “last best chance” for students to be helped.
“Most people will tell you that having a positive adult role model in their lives is one of the greatest indicators of successful kids,” she said. “Most of us aren’t counselors or social workers or therapists necessarily, but we still have a role to play in this work.”
Donovan concurred, encouraging those present to “be that adult who looks out for somebody.”
“Really there’s an issue of fairness. You don’t pick what family you’re born into,” he explained. “This stuff transcends finances, families, and class. I think we need to be willing to talk about it openly, to push aside the shame and guilt, and we as adults have the lead on that.”