Over 70 supporters jammed into the Chrysalis Center on July 26 to attend a screening of the film Resilience: The Biology of Stress and the Science of Hope. The award-winning documentary revealed how toxic levels of stress in the form of abuse and neglect during childhood can have long-term health consequences on the brains and bodies of children and then adults, causing all sorts of health problems and leading also to barriers to learning. A panel discussion moderated by Alice Forrester, CEO of Clifford Beers Clinic in New Haven and force behind New Haven’s Trauma Coalition, followed the screening and delved into how Hartford communities and schools can become more trauma-informed.

To panelist Catherine Corto-Mergins, becoming a more trauma-informed community requires people in schools, treatment centers, youth service agencies and other entities to look at the world they work in with a “new set of lenses.” Comparing her own work as Director of The Village’s Collaborative Trauma Center to one of a brain surgeon, Corto-Mergins explained how children exhibiting behavior problems may be acting out not because they are deliberately hostile or are suffering from ADHD, but because their adverse childhood experiences have negatively altered their neurological system, thereby increasing their likelihood of aggressive conduct.

Awareness of how trauma-induced hormones wreak havoc on brains and bodies should inform policy and practice changes within schools – in areas like discipline, classroom management, and daily instruction. “A consistent, caring adult in a child’s life is one of the most important preventions for trauma,” said Corto-Mergins.

Providing effective support for children harmed by trauma is challenging on multiple levels. To Hartford community activist Kelvin Lovejoy, even if kids attend safe, supportive schools and participate in after-school activities, they still have to return to homes and communities filled with adversity.

“What happens between 3(pm) and 8(pm) affects what goes on between 8(am) and 3(pm),” Lovejoy said, noting that everyone in a community, from parents and relatives to store owners and churches, has a role to play in providing a safe environment for children to grow up in.

Fellow panelist Timothy Goodwin, founder of Community First School in the North End of Hartford, added that supportive environments need to also be built into schools.

“If you can’t reach a child, you can’t teach a child,” said Goodwin, explaining that training teachers in how to interact with students suffering from trauma is necessary to build the authentic relationships which are crucial for a successful learning environment.  Goodwin’s proposed new school is built on the notion that all adults will be trained to address trauma and working alongside community resources to get the needs of students met.

Yet the efficacy of teacher training in trauma-informed practices is limited. Collective bargaining agreements restrict the amount of time teachers receive training. Additionally, incorporating these practices is often met with hostility from a common mindset among teachers and administrators that trauma-affected children can rise above their troubled past if they just had the determination to do so.

But it is these adverse childhood experiences that often undermine how resilient a child is. Kelvin Lovejoy believes focusing on restoring a child’s emotional intelligence – their personal temperament in day-to-day life – is key to putting them on the right path.

“When you can raise the emotional quotient of a child, automatically reading, writing, and arithmetic will go up also,” said Lovejoy.

The Bottom Line

Many of those in attendance indicated in a response card before leaving an interest in forming an organized “trauma coalition” that would push for policies and resources to make Hartford and its schools more trauma-informed communities.

Getting decision makers to change policies and allocate more resources for trauma-informed training will be a challenge, but for Community First School Board Member and Founder of ScriptFlip, Trudi Lebron, it is more about changing minds than changing hearts:

“You can try to change people’s hearts, which is hard, or you can try to change people’s minds; and the way you change people’s minds is to put policies in place that require people to deal with things differently.”

With a thriving trauma coalition in Hartford sometime in the near future, Catherine Corto-Mergins hopes teachers, counselors, parents and anyone working with traumatized children will change their approach towards kids from “What’s wrong with you?” to “What’s happened to you?”