PARIS — Two Oxford Hills groups focused on adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and its effects on long-term health and learning have joined forces. All SAD 17 faculty and staff are currently training in trauma-informed practices to its schools. Stephens Memorial Hospital and affiliated groups formed Community Engaged Research Group formed to address ACEs two years ago.

“Some of our principals attended a workshop on trauma-informed practices in 2018,” explained Heather Manchester, Curriculum Director for SAD 17. “They found the information phenomenal and began working to incorporate it in their own buildings. We had pockets of the work getting started.

“Then the district received Title 4 funding for staff training, and based on what our principals had found we decided to focus on projects supporting students. I reached out the workshop organizer and leader, Cassie Yackley, and made arrangements for her associate Alison Roy to provide a year-long program for all SAD 17 employees.”

Yackley’s and Roy’s work incorporates impacts of the biology of traumatic reactions with how schools can equip themselves to understand and manage education for children affected by it. In a trauma-informed school, staff is able to recognize and respond to students who have experienced traumatic stress.

Training for SAD 17 began last August with Roy leading a full day workshop for administrators in the district to provide an overview of what trauma informed school looks like. Then in October she spent a split day working with elementary and secondary school staffs, giving teachers background on what might cause certain behaviors in children and practices on how best to respond to those behaviors.

Alison Roy, a Doctor of Psychology specializing in adolescent behavioral health, leads a training workshop on trauma-informed practices for SAD 17 faculty last October. Submitted photo

As SAD 17 embarked on bringing trauma-informed practices to its schools, other Oxford Hills organizations had already formed the Community Engaged Research Group and were well into their own research of the matter.

The Community Engaged Research Group began in 2018, with members representing Stephens Memorial Hospital and Western Maine Pediatrics, MaineHealth and Healthy Oxford Hills. It also includes individuals from the Oxford Hills community.

“Our group started when MaineHealth received a grant to study how community issues may affect health and clinical outcomes,” said Brendan Schauffler of the Oxford County Wellness Collaborative, who is facilitating the the research group. “They focused on rural health in two areas of the state, Oxford Hills and the Penobscot region of eastern Maine. Our group chose to focus on ACEs and how it impacts long-term health.”

Manchester joined the Community Engaged Research Group last summer and it is expanding its study to include how trauma-informed training in schools will impact students affected by ACEs.

“We’re looking at specific questions with SAD 17,” said Schauffler. “Will there be differences in attendance, suspension and graduation rates? Some of these may be things slow to change. We’re developing our baseline data and will monitor the emerging data.”

While the effect of trauma-informed training on education will take time to analyze, according to Manchester it has already moved the bar for educators. Before their training sessions began last October, 44% of SAD 17 staff reported a high level of recognizing ACEs in students. Afterward they were surveyed on the same information and awareness levels increased to 87%. Additionally, confidence levels in identifying signs and symptoms of trauma in young children increased from 22% to 55% following training.

“It’s a shift for teachers to understand student behavior. Trauma-informed practices changes the question from ‘why is this kid giving me trouble?’ to ‘what is the trouble this kid is experiencing?’” said Schauffler. “It makes it less personal and encourages them to understand that a behavior that seems offensive or disrespectful may actually have very little to do with how that student actually feels towards his teacher or school. It is more about the stress in his life that leads him to choose that behavior, which previously was dismissed as misbehavior.”

“Trauma-informed training is helping our teachers get to the root,” said Manchester. “If a kid isn’t doing their work, why? Is it a problem with learning? Is it their environment at home? We’re looking at the block first and then how we can help them.

“There are lots of things involved. We can’t control what happens when they leave our building, but what we can do is control the environment they come into. Make school a welcoming place for kids. Our educators can be supportive while holding high expectations for students’ learning.”

ACEs was first studied in 1990s. Clinically and traditionally, there are 10 adverse childhood experiences that mental health professionals look at. An individual reporting even three ACEs becomes more likely to suffer the impacts of them, including  chronic health issues, depression, anxiety and substance abuse. Examples of ACEs include divorce, family death and alcoholism.

“ACEs studies have revealed that trauma is an equal opportunity malady,” said Schauffler. “It doesn’t discriminate across wealth or race. The original study was done on 17,000 people and the majority were white, college educated, insured professionals. We often expect people who are struggling socioeconomically will be the ones with higher ACEs scores. But it’s equally spread throughout the population. People with more means might have access to more support. But it doesn’t mean that trauma won’t find them in the first place.”

ACEs and trauma-informed awareness is gaining more awareness throughout Maine’s education communities and at the state level. Schauffler said that broader supports to address ACEs in educational are coming and Oxford county is leading the way. LD1168 was introduced by State Representative Fran Head of Bethel last spring and was supported by Oxford County Mental Health Services, educators and school administrators throughout the county, including Schauffler himself, through hearing testimony.

“LD1168 is a move to improve Maine’s response to childhood trauma,” Schauffler said. “It obliges the state to set up a working group to focus on trauma response and practices, to frame up what sort of training schools need in an ongoing way and to fund that training appropriately. It will ensure that schools are resourced appropriately as they work to move kids who have experienced trauma past survival brain and towards learning brain.”

SAD 17 will continue its trauma-informed training with Alison Roy next month, with focus turning to strategies to treat ACEs in students. Manchester sees this work as a multi-year project for the district.

“We’re seeking to understand how and why kids behave differently so we can do better by them,” she said. “Part of our training includes making school a positive experience so that students want to be there. If they’ve got tough things going on, we are going to take care of them and help them get what they need.”


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