Every child deserves the opportunity to learn and grow in a nurturing environment.
By JANINE HRON and JIM CACCAMO
Special to The Star
Much has been discussed about the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy. This grim scene, like several similar events before it, appears to have been generated at least in part by the vacuum that is individual isolation. We have graphically witnessed how this separation from others can lead to anger, hatred and violence. The scope of the trauma related to the Sandy Hook murders is immense and affects us all.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says 26 percent of American children will experience at least one serious traumatic event before reaching the age of four.
They may have witnessed a family member being arrested, or family members hitting, punching, kicking or killing one another. A primary caregiver may have died, often suddenly and from medical conditions that are manageable when treated. They may be enduring child abuse. Or they may be living in the shadow of a family members problem of substance abuse or mental illness.
Whatever the event, the impact on the brain and the life of a young child is long-lasting. Indeed, there is strong research demonstrating that numerous adult medical conditions are rooted in unmanaged childhood trauma.
A Pew Charitable Trust study estimated that the financial burden to society in these situations exceeds $103 billion per year. When children live in the aftermath of trauma, their heartbeats are racing. If they can sleep at night, their slumber is often fitful and accompanied by nightmares. Their bodies are always on red alert. They startle easily and complain of stomachaches and headaches.
Adults remind them to pay attention; they want to comply, but concentrating is very difficult. As preschoolers, they are already chronically hyper-vigilant and fearful. Trauma impairs their early childhood brains, physical and social/emotional development, creating academic delays and troubling behaviors that are impossible to remediate until trauma has been addressed.
In our community, the Head Start-Trauma Smart program is a beacon of hope. Over the last two years this partnership, including philanthropic funding leaders, staff and parents in Head Start programs in Missouri and Kansas, and mental health professionals from Crittenton Childrens Center, has created the Head Start-Trauma Smart model, which motivates productive response to early childhood trauma.
The strength of the model lies in the foundation of a common, trauma-informed frame of reference combined with practical skills and shared accountability for the results. Trauma-focused therapy is readily available for children with clinical needs. Adults and children alike are attuned to their own needs and participate in maintaining healthy environments.
The results have lifelong implications. Children with mental health needs make treatment gains that move them from a clinical range of concern to normal.
Tests demonstrate that school personnel gain professional confidence and increased work satisfaction, which in turn improves the classroom environment and yields high levels of academic progress. Parents better understand how to work with their traumatized children at home and increase their levels of engagement with school personnel.
Would the tragedy of Newtown have happened if the Lanza family had access to a program like Head Start-Trauma Smart early on? Who knows? What we do know is that early intervention makes a difference.
Janine Hron of Leawood serves as CEO of Crittenton Childrens Center in Kansas City, part of Saint Lukes Health System. Jim Caccamo of Kansas City is director of the Department of Early Learning for the Mid-America Regional Council.