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CMU tackles childhood trauma

CMU challenges childhood trauma

Future educators are positioned to help students cope, head off health crisis

Contact: ​Jeff Johnston


It’s simple: “Stress is bad for kids.”

Alison Arnold, College of Medicine staff member and director of Central Michigan University’s Interdisciplinary Center for Community Health and Wellness, says that, with common wisdom and 20-plus years of science, we know experiences in the formative years shape bodies and brains for a lifetime.

What to do about it? That’s complicated.

But teachers educated at CMU will be part of the solution.

All about the ACEs

Were you abused as a child? Did your parents separate? Did someone in your household go to jail?

Those are examples of ACEs: Adverse Childhood Experiences. The more ACEs a person has before age 18, the more likely he or she will not only struggle in school but will have lifelong health effects:

  • A child with an ACEs score of four or more is 32 times more likely to have issues in school.
  • Seven of the 10 leading causes of death correlate to high ACEs scores.
  • A score of six or higher brings three times the risk of heart disease and lung cancer and a 20-year reduction in life expectancy.

These are among the findings revealed in research that began with a groundbreaking study of 17,000 people in the late 1990s. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates the lifetime costs of these health effects at more than $124 billion a year.

There are many places online where you can take a 10-question quiz to find your ACEs score. But that score does not have to be your destiny.

“You can counteract the negative effects not just by preventing the adversity but by learning how to be resilient,” Arnold said.

That’s where CMU teacher education comes in.

On the front lines

More than almost anyone outside of family, teachers interact with children in the formative years when traumatic adverse experiences can do the most damage and healthy coping strategies can do the greatest good.

"It's really the shift from 'What's wrong with this student?' to 'What is happening with this student?'" — Alison Arnold, CMU Interdisciplinary Center for Community Health and Wellness director

To make a difference, schools and teachers are taking a “trauma informed” approach to address how ACEs drive classroom behaviors.

“It’s really the shift from ‘What’s wrong with this student?’ to ‘What is happening with this student?’” Arnold said. “How do we create an environment where students aren’t on edge all the time?”

Trauma-informed schools and teachers recognize that children in fight-or-flight mode from stress hormones need to feel safe before they can learn. Solutions take a variety of forms, including:

  • Providing quiet classroom spaces where overwhelmed students can regroup.
  • Teaching children how to be mindful and self-regulate before losing control.
  • Reconsidering even ordinary-seeming classroom strategies like posting “good behavior” charts or rankings that can leave traumatized students feeling shamed or mistrustful.

“Being trauma informed helps us understand what the child has been through,” said elementary education student Stephanie Buzzelli, of Harrison, Michigan. “It also can help shape our lessons and the way we communicate about certain topics and learn how not to use trigger words or situations that could startle a child.”

Working on the issues

Buzzelli, an early childhood development and learning major, is one of about 70 CMU teacher education students who participated in a six-hour ACEs workshop series offered for the first time this spring.

The College of Education and Human Services, partnering with the interdisciplinary center, plans to offer the training again in the fall.

Human development and family studies faculty member Cheryl Geisthardt, a certified ACEs master trainer, led the three-part workshop series. Students learned how stress and trauma affect brain development, what that may look like in their classrooms, and how to help children understand and cope with the ACEs in their lives.

“The training completely changed my view of how to approach my student conflicts,” said elementary education student Staci Maule, of Davison, Michigan. “I started asking ‘What is happening?’ instead of ‘Why can't they follow my directions?’

“I teach little learners, primarily preschool through second grade, and even these young children are facing one or more ACEs at home. Students like this need further assistance in calming their bodies down and learning how to articulate their needs and emotions. The training showed methods on how to be a competent educator.”

In all, Geisthardt led or organized 13 different trainings along with Arnold and seven other faculty, community members and staff from the college’s Center for Student Services and Center for Clinical Experiences.

Geisthardt said more and more schools in Michigan expect incoming teachers to be trauma informed, and it’s something future educators need to understand no matter what.

“You’re going to have problems in your classroom if you don’t figure out how to work with children who have had significant trauma in their lives,” she said.

Not just for future teachers

Teacher education isn’t the only field of study at CMU focusing on childhood trauma and its health effects. ACEs also play a huge role in medicine and psychology.

“Over the past year, four faculty physicians in pediatrics and psychiatry specialty areas also have become Michigan ACEs master trainers,” Arnold said. “These teaching faculty are incorporating trauma-informed approaches in their own practice and are working with medical students and residents.”

The College of Medicine also is expanding its psychiatry residency program, adding a child psychiatry fellowship and collaborating with the College of the Arts and Media to create a series of professional education podcasts on ACEs and trauma-informed practice for more than 800 physicians and community educators throughout Michigan who work with CMU medical students.

Larissa Niec, director of the Center for Children, Families and Communities within the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences, said CMU’s clinical psychology and school psychology programs also are focused on ACEs.

“We are training therapists to be able to identify, prevent and lessen the effects,” she said.

The CCFC also helps train teachers and consults with schools on trauma.

“We feel like we’re kind of a natural counterpart to the education of educators,” Niec said. She notes schools and teachers are positioned to have tremendous impact on children coping with trauma.

“Seeing the whole child is so important.”



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