Childhood emotional health may help prevent high risk adult behavior
By SUE SUCHYTA
Sunday Times Newspapers
LINCOLN PARK – Lincoln Park Public Schools Supt. Terry Dangerfield announced the launch of a district-wide Resilient Schools Project March 14 during his State of the Schools address in the Lincoln Park High School auditorium.
Resilient schools help children cope with adversity and trauma, recognizing the importance of a student’s emotional well being to successful learning and behavior, and how unchecked stress is linked to brain pathways changes associated with high risk behavior in adults.
Dangerfield said school safety, fiscal responsibility, and the district’s work with trauma and resilience are his top three priorities.
He said he plans to build a trauma-informed district called the Resilient Schools Project, which he said is deeply rooted in the brain research around the negative impact that trauma can have on the human brain.
“We have been working on this for about three years now, and are now at a point where we can actually publicly announce some of the work that we have been doing,” Dangerfield said.
He said research shows that individuals who are exposed to trauma as a child can affect the human brain by changing the neural pathways and even DNA.
Dangerfield said traumatic situations can be a singular event or experienced consistently over time.
“The type of trauma that is consistent and over time is called Prolonged Chronic Stress,” he said. “These types of experiences have been proven to affect the overall health and performance of children and adults.”
Dangerfield said landmark research called the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study followed 17,000 people with good jobs and access to quality health care, of which 75 percent were college graduates. They were asked about 10 types of childhood trauma, including physical abuse, sexual abuse, neglect, domestic violence, having a parent with a mental disorder or a substance abuser, parental separation or divorce, or an incarcerated parent or household member.
The participants were followed over time, and the researchers found that a person’s cummulative ACE score has a strong relationship to many health, social and behavioral problems throughout their life, including substance use disorders, and was highly associated with high risk health behaviors such as smoking, alcohol and drug abuse, promiscuity, severe obesity, and correlated with ill health, including depression, heart disease, cancer, chronic lung disease and shortened life span.
“Compared to an ACE score of zero, having four adverse childhood experiences was associated with a seven-fold increase in alcoholism, a doubling risk of being diagnosed with cancer, and a four-fold increase in emphysema,” Dangerfield said. “An ACE score above six was associated with a 30-fold – that’s 3,000 percent – increase in attempted suicide.”
Dangerfield said the study suggests that maltreatment and household dysfunction during childhood contributes to health problems decades later, including chronic diseases like heart disease, cancer, stroke and diabetes, the most common causes of death and disability in the United States, and similar trends have been observed elsewhere in the world.
“The simple fact is, what happens to us as a child matters,” Dangerfield said. “If a person is exposed to traumatic experiences as a child, it affects their ability to do anything and everything as an adult.”
Dangerfield said traumatic experiences change the neural pathways in the brain.
He countered, however, by stating that traumatic experiences do not have to define a person.
“Brain research has also shown us that a person can overcome this adversity through a thing called resilience,” Dangerfield said.
He said research has show that even people with high ACE scores can almost eliminate the negative effect on the brain by having a positive relationship in their life that supplied resilience.
“I am proud to say that the Lincoln Park Public Schools recognizes this, and we have made a major investment into making sure our district is called trauma-informed and resilient-focused.”
Dangerfield said the Resilient Schools Project is committed to environments that support the whole child by meeting their social and emotional needs first.
“This program and this environment is not only for those students who have experienced trauma, but literally every child,” Dangerfield said. “By providing an environment that is built upon trauma-informed strategies, and ensuring that there are plenty of positive opportunities for resilience, we will meet the social and emotional needs of our students, and as a result, ensure that they are properly prepared to engage in the rigorous, high quality instructional plan that we have developed.”
Dangerfield said the Resilience Schools Project would require hard work, but said it is worth doing, and the district’s early results have been promising.
“The Lincoln Park Public Schools are stronger today academically than we were two years ago,” he said. “This isn’t just me saying this. It is proven in our data, based on the state assessment.”
Dangerfield said the district was above the state average in graduation rate, student attendance at almost every level, performance of English language learners, and student academic growth of the district’s students as compared to their peers.
“Lincoln Park is not a low-performing school district,” he said. “The Lincoln Park Public Schools are financially stable, we have a solid enrollment base, and we are improving academically each year.
“We have quality facilities, and we are centered on providing all of our students a trauma-informed, resilience-focused environment that meets their social and emotional needs.”
Dangerfield said the district is implementing this the right way, with focus on the students.
“We have a philosophy here in Lincoln Park that we talk to the staff about all the time,” he said. “It is called the ‘your kid’ test.
“Is this good enough for your kid? Is this the kind of environment you would want your kid in? Are you the kind of teacher you would want to have your child have? Every decision is based on this. If it’s good for my kid, then it is good for our kids.”
Dangerfield said students are the “bright light for the future.”
“They are gifted, amazing young men and women that we should all be focused on and encouraging and supporting,” he said. “I am incredibly proud of Lincoln Park Public Schools. Together we are strong, and together, we are being successful.”
Dangerfield said being a Lincoln Park High School Railsplitter means something.
“It means toughness, it means care, and it means hope,” he said.
(Sue Suchyta can be reached at [email protected])