RALEIGH, NC (June 9, 2017) – The Public School Forum of North Carolina announced today the creation of the “NC Resilience and Learning Project” to address the impacts of traumatic childhood experiences on student learning. The project was made possible with support from founding partners ChildTrust Foundation, The John M. Belk Endowment and The Belk Foundation who have invested $100,000 each to help launch this initiative.

The project unites the expertise of the Public School Forum with the Massachusetts Trauma & Learning Policy Initiative at Harvard Law School and the Duke Center for Child & Family Policy, as well as other nonprofit and academic institutions. Together these institutions, in partnership with several North Carolina school districts, will use an inquiry-based process to create trauma-sensitive whole school learning environments that improve students’ academic outcomes and social-emotional wellbeing.

“Research has documented the disturbingly high prevalence of traumatic experiences in childhood,” said Public School Forum President and Executive Director Keith Poston. “Educators are on the front lines, responding every day to the challenges students bring with them to school. The NC Resilience and Learning Project helps give educators tools to support students as they cope with adversity and engage in the learning process.”

The Project arose out of the Forum’s Study Group XVI: Expanding Educational Opportunity in North Carolina. Childhood trauma and its impact on learning, along with racial equity and chronically low-performing schools, were three key areas identified as barriers to providing every child in North Carolina the opportunity to reach their full potential through equal and meaningful public education.

In line with the recommendations of the Study Group’s Committee on Trauma & Learning, the Project will utilize two action strategies: 1) professional development for educators to increase their understanding of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), the potential trauma response students may experience, and resulting impacts on student learning and behavior, and to introduce interventions that can restore students’ sense of safety and agency, and 2) a structured program in partner LEAs to create inclusive learning environments that build student resilience as an alternative to removing students from classrooms.

The CDC-Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) Study showed that, too often, students arrive at school besieged by the neurological effects of traumatic experiences. High levels of stress hormones over prolonged periods causing chemically toxic effects on regions of their brains that deal with problem-solving and decision-making. As a result, students may experience a trauma response that causes them to “fight” (defiance; aggression), “take flight” (absenteeism; dropouts), or “freeze” (shut down; withdraw). Unfortunately, schools and school systems typically focus on student behavior itself, instead of scrutinizing and responding to aspects of students’ experience that shape their behavior.

“Too often, teachers and school leaders respond to misbehavior by asking, ‘what’s wrong with you?’ when instead they should be asking, ‘what happened to you?’,” Poston said. “The result is that students are often punished at their most vulnerable moments, when in fact they are most in need of understanding, support, and help in building new coping skills. That’s what this effort is designed to do.”

The full Study Group Report can be found online at https://www.ncforum.org/educationalopportunity/. The site contains video presentations and other materials from the study. The Trauma & Learning Committee Report can be found at https://www.ncforum.org/committee-on-trauma-learning/. A PDF of the report can be accessed at https://www.ncforum.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/Study-Group-XVI-Full-Report.pdf.

As full program funding is realized, the Public School Forum plans to implement the whole-school model in up to six school districts (18 schools) over a three-year period. The initial school districts will be announced soon. In each of the six partner LEAs, three elementary schools will be selected that serve predominantly low-income children and have high rates of child welfare involvement. The Duke Center for Child & Family Policy will lead the program evaluation. The Public School Forum’s long-term goal is to demonstrate the effectiveness of the approach and seek statewide scale-up options.

The Forum Project Team includes Joe Ableidinger, Senior Director of the North Carolina Resilience and Learning Project; James Ford, the Forum’s Program Director; Lauren Bock, the Forum’s Research Director; and Elizabeth Jones DeKonty, the Forum’s Trauma & Learning Fellow. Ms. DeKonty joins the Forum team this month following several years as Program Manager of the North Carolina Child Treatment Program at the Center for Child and Family Health in Durham, North Carolina. At the Center she managed training on responses to chronic stress and conducted clinical therapy with young children who had experienced trauma.        

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