Parental neglect, emotional abuse, physical abuse — one in three children in the United States is exposed to these types of experiences, which collectively are known as complex trauma.
Complex traumatic exposure threatens children’s development by putting them at risk for academic, social and health problems, including criminal behavior, drug and alcohol abuse, and involvement in abusive relationships.
Every child victim is a potential future perpetrator, and breaking the cycle requires intervention. The mental health system offers support to some children, but many others fall through the cracks.
“With one in three kids affected, we can’t possibly have treatment system-oriented responses that are going to be able to address this. The numbers simply don’t pencil out,” said Chris Blodgett, director of the Area Health Education Center (AHEC) of eastern Washington at WSU Spokane and a long-time researcher specializing in issues related to the well-being of children and families.
Universal system
For the past three years, Blodgett has been exploring the concept of complex trauma with AHEC senior research associate Roy Harrington and research associate Natalie Turner, among others. The key to addressing the issue, they say, lies in the one nearly universal system serving children in the United States: K-12 education.
Kids spend more time in schools than in any other setting outside their homes, and they bring their experiences into the classroom, where they can create challenges for teachers who have received little or no training in recognizing and effectively engaging with traumatized children.
“These are kids who are coming in with different learning styles, a different ability to interpret and understand what’s happening in the environment,” said Blodgett, who emphasized that schools don’t have a choice about being treatment providers.
“They’re already in the business. What we have to figure out collectively is how to help them do that more successfully,” he said.
Training successful
In 2006, AHEC received grant funding through the Washington Office of the Superintendent for Public Instruction (OSPI) to improve school and mental health treatment coordination. As part of that project, Turner and a colleague provided one-day training programs at schools in the Spokane area and in Pierce County to teach educators, school administrators, counselors and other interested professionals about trauma and helping traumatized children to learn.
The response to the trainings has been overwhelmingly positive, said Turner.
“Once you understand how trauma impacts healthy development and affects a child’s ability to engage in relationships with you, then you can think about how to approach that child in a way that’s going to allow that relationship to be more successful,” she said.
Funding sought to test model
In the past year, Blodgett and his colleagues have developed an intervention they think will enable schools to adopt trauma response through an emphasis on individual learning. They are looking to secure funding to test their model in eastern Washington in the next few years, and they hope eventually to see it adopted throughout the country.
Though he refers to complex traumatic exposure as a public health crisis, Blodgett stressed that there is an element of hope to the story.
“With our intervention, we have what we think is essentially the other half of the story, which is about what a classroom teacher, by changing his or her behavior, can do to create an environment that can truly change the trajectory of a child’s life,” he said.