Trauma-informed care, teaching becoming more prevalent in Kansas

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Trauma-informed teaching and trauma-informed care, especially in community health care settings, is becoming more commonplace in Kansas.

Since becoming superintendent of Topeka Unified School District 501 in July, Tiffany Anderson is pushing multi-tiered, districtwide training on recognizing and addressing trauma-related behavior and toxic stress in the classroom with the goal of becoming a trauma-informed district. Pine Ridge Prep and Sheldon Head Start preschool programs in USD 501 test 3- and 4-year-olds for adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs.

“We’re doing things differently to understand the story behind the trauma,” Anderson recently told members of the Kansas Maternal and Child Council. “Our mindset is beginning to change regarding how to teach children with trauma issues.”

During the statewide council’s January meeting in Topeka, trauma-informed systems of care in Kansas and the metropolitan Kansas City area were highlighted through a panel discussion in which Anderson participated.

“We’ve done this in an effort to really coordinate and align what’s happening now,” said Rachel Sisson, Title V director of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment’s Bureau of Family Health, “and think about and plan on how to move forward together.”

Sisson said the point of the group’s work during their recent meeting was to make members aware of what evidence-based “practices and approaches” are available for dealing with trauma, not necessarily develop a specific toolkit.

“We’re trying to meet all of our partners where they’re at and those who are serving women, children and families across the state and think about what they can learn and take away as far as take back and implement in their practice,” she said.

Those attending the council meeting were public health practitioners, family physicians, pediatricians, nonprofit representatives and staff members of the KDHE’s Maternal and Child Health program. Sisson said representatives from Head Start, the Kansas Department of Aging & Disability Services, Kansas Children’s Service League, to name a few, also attended the meeting.

“We’re really trying to think cross system and move some of this forward as far as applying approaches and practices,” she said. “Our work really stems from a five-year needs assessment that we conduct across the state around maternal and child health.”

The Kansas Maternal and Child Health state action plan for 2016 through 2020 calls for increasing the number of providers with capacity to provide trauma-informed care by 2020.

“Trauma-informed care and ACEs are specifically throughout our plan,” Sisson said. “We need to think about those and address them for populations. It all ties to our state plan.”

Dena Sneed, a community occupational therapist at Truman Medical Centers in Kansas City, Mo., and a panelist during the Kansas Maternal and Child Health Council’s recent meeting, said providing trauma-informed care has been “a cyclical journey” and a “cultural shift” in the mindset of the medical centers’ staff when it comes to understanding patients who have experienced trauma and ACEs.

“It’s not an excuse for the behavior,” she said. “It’s an understanding.”

Members of the Kansas State Board of Education are also beginning to be much more aware of the impact of trauma and toxic stress on student achievement. The issue is being addressed as a component of the social and emotional growth of students in the “Kansans Can” vision adopted by the board in 2016.

“If a child is exposed to poverty or abuse, that will change their chemistry, their neurochemistry,” Kent Reed, school counseling program consultant for the Kansas State Department of Education, told board members in October. “Evidence is showing that has an impact on how children behave. It keeps them from learning, which impacts them even more.”

Kansas data gathered in 2014 by KDHE’s Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, is similar to national data that shows the most common causes adults reported for their own adverse childhood events were parents’ divorce, emotional abuse and substance abuse in the home. Other contributing factors reported were having a mentally ill person in the household, physical abuse and sexual abuse.

Reed said the toxic stress related to ACE not only impacts a child but teachers as well.

“When you’re dealing with heavy hearts, it’s impossible to not take that home,” he said, adding that dealing with students’ emotional and behavioral issues lead to stress and burnout for educators. “It’s a challenge to be in education.”

Reed pointed Anderson’s work in USD 501 in creating a “trauma boot camp,” where teachers will learn to recognize ACE symptoms and how to address them in the classroom. He said it would benefit the board members and KSDE officials if USD 501 officials eventually present how the district’s work on trauma-related issues is progressing.

Reed said work groups have formed to study ACE and trauma issues and recommendations will be presented to Kansas Education Commissioner Randy Watson.

“This is important work,” he said. “We’re breaking new ground. Kansas is changing as we speak. We really need to keep ahead of the curve.”

Contact reporter Angela Deines at (785) 295-1143 or follow her on Twitter @AngelaDeines.

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