PRESENTATION SUMMARY: Adverse Childhood Experiences and the Public Schools’ Interventions
Presented by: Dr. Dena Landry, Ed. D, BCBA, NCSP, Coordinator of Psychological Services/Section 504 for Collier Public Schools
Janet Hoffman introduced our highly credentialed and very experienced guest speaker, Dr. Dena Landry, who has over thirty years of experience as a School Psychologist, and since 2016 has served as Coordinator of Psychological Services in Collier County.
Dr, Landry began with a sobering Power Point slide describing the magnitude of the problem; 25% of children and adolescents experience a significant mental health condition during school years, 50% before age 14 and 75% before age 24. Adverse Childhood Experiences (abuse, neglect, and family dysfunction) harm the cognitive, social and emotional functioning of children and upset the safe environments they need to thrive. The “ACES” Questionnaire lists nine descriptors: Physical abuse; emotional abuse; sexual abuse; an incarcerated household member; someone chronically depressed or mentally ill in the household; mother is treated violently; one or no parents; emotional or physical neglect. When one or more of these conditions exist, significant negative consequences occur, from childhood through adolescence and into adulthood. Fifty-one percent of children with 4+ ACE scores have learning and behavior problems in school, versus only 3% with no ACE score. The consequences of these experiences are significant, with higher risk of failing, doing poorly, being suspended, referral to special services and increased likelihood of failure and drop out.
Having painted a picture of the enormity of the problems for students experiencing various forms of trauma, she turned her focus to multiple slides of “Encouraging News”: a plethora of interventions aimed at addressing the issues in multiple ways within the school environment. She also noted that the Parkland school shootings accelerated their implementation.
A key strategy is the adoption of Five Social Emotional Learning Priorities throughout the school system. First, every new student has check ins with school counselors. Secondly, if a student has had a traumatic event, a “Handle with Care” icon goes out to all those involved with that student; while the event specifics are not shared, all are alerted. This icon stays on the chart typically for two weeks, or can be extended. Third, for elementary students there is a “Buddy Bench” where a child sits if they want someone to play with; and other students serve as ambassadors willing to do so. For the secondary level it is called We Dine Together. Fourth, Social Emotional Learning videos are shared throughout the school, and finally, a student survey at the end of the year is given to get an overall read on how the students are faring emotionally and socially.
She also identified a host of other programs, including the availability of Crisis Intervention Teams (e.g. if a student or teacher has died); nonviolent crisis intervention training to diffuse disruptive behavior; a required six hour class for teachers on “Mental Health First Aid” to address mental health crises; on line role play modules to help build skills to better support students whose behavior might be related to distress or trauma; Behavior Threat Assessment Team in each school to examine threats (mandated by FL law); Mental Health curriculum (five hours) requirement for students in grade 6 - 12 for increased awareness about mental health.
Dr. Landry closed her remarks, indicating there has been a paradigm shift in the schools, from “What’s wrong with you?” to “How can we help?”
QUESTIONS & ANSWERS: The Q & A provided even more insight on the topic. Following are some of the members’ inquiries.
Q. What is Section 504? A. It is the section of the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) that requires K - 12 schools to make reasonable accommodations where there is documented impairment. The impairment can be physical or mental.
Q. Are all schools, including charter schools required to use these approaches? A. If there is a mandate in Florida law, then yes.
Q. What is giving rise to increasing mental health issues? A. Some can be attributed to increased awareness and less stigma, but also there is more stress and anxiety, exacerbated by social media platforms offering a nonstop channel with risk for harm to sensitive young people.
Q. Are these interventions common? A. While some are mandated, Dr. Landry feels that because Collier County’s school administration is very supportive more supports are in place.
Q. Is training in SEL available for parents? A. We hope to initiate this more formally post COVID. At this point we provide awareness fliers to the families.
Q. What family environments are most prone to have mental health issues? A. Poverty; homelessness (including migrant workers); qualification for free school lunch program; changing schools; drug addiction in the home; as well as any of the other “ACES”.
Q. How do you become aware of threatening behavior? A. Often students report on their peers if they see a concerning post on Social Media. Additionally, the school’s software includes alerts when threatening phrases for words are used on devices provided by the school. And the adults within the schools are more conscious of concerning behaviors.
Q. Have you been able to quantify or measure the impact of these intervention strategies? A. Not sufficiently. At this point we are relying mostly on anecdotal information, in addition to numbers tracking of mental health services we are required to report to the state. We need more study to determine their long-term effects.