RTSC // Newsline Articles

By Jane Crecco, Training and Support Specialist – Recruitment Training and Support Center (FCSN)

stressed_childThe first Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study was conducted by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Kaiser Health Plan between 1995 and 1997. Since then, it has become widely accepted that stressful and traumatic childhood experiences are indicators of social, emotional, and cognitive impairments. Recent breakthroughs in neurobiology have confirmed that ACEs disrupt and alter the early development of a child’s “brain architecture.” In the long-term ACEs impact a number of health outcomes and increasingly negative social fallout.
In the last couple of years, new risk factors have been added to the list of specific adverse family experiences (see, in particular, the National Survey of Children’s Health1 ). Perceived discrimination, being a witness or victim of neighborhood violence, and socioeconomic hardship were all added to the ACE survey questions. The data collected are troubling and profound.

New research in epigenetics is also adding to the mix of distress for children with multiple ACEs. Epigenetics is the process by which outside experiences alter gene expression. Recent research shows that a stressful upbringing changes the structure of multiple genes. This change is passed on to subsequent generations, even those without ACEs. This can negatively impact the stress response of developing children.2

A new policy brief published by The Future of Children: Princeton-Brookings3 discusses some promising new programs aimed at helping families facing chronic stress, particularly those in areas of high poverty or homelessness. The data show that this is necessary. In 2012, more than six million (22%) of children under age six in the United States lived in poverty. Almost 50% of all children lived in low-income families (income less than 200% of the federal poverty level).

These programs embrace a safe and supportive early environment for children at risk for ACEs. Home-visitation programs, starting during early pregnancy, offer great hope. Pediatricians can establish their offices as “medical homes” to ensure that young families have a primary source of care in which periodic health and behavioral assessments take place. Money is needed – ongoing federal assistance can significantly ease the financial stress of young families. High quality child care is also essential. Head Start-Trauma Smart, a new initiative being piloted in Kansas City, is showing tremendous success by providing at-risk kids access to warm, responsive, child-centered teachers who provide safe, supportive and predictable environments in early learning.

These programs demonstrate the views of one of the original ACE study researchers. Robert Anda recently commented on new findings based on his work, stating that, “until now, the persistent effects [of ACEs] were ‘hidden’ from the view of both neuroscientists and public health researchers. This is no longer the case. In fact, with this information comes the responsibility to use it.4”


1The NSCH is a telephone survey conducted by the National Center of Health Statistics at the Centers for Disease Control under the direction and sponsorship of the federal Maternal and Child Health Bureau. Child and Adolescent Health Measurement Initiative (2013). “What’s new in the 2011/12 National Survey of Children’s Health?” Data Resource Center, supported by Cooperative Agreement 1-U59-MC06980-01 from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Health Resources and Services Administration.

2Dubovsky, Steven, M.D. “Emerging Perspectives: Epigenetics-A Mechanism for the Impact of Experience on Inheritance.” NEFM Journal Watch Psychiatry. October 18, 2010.
3Ross A. Thompson and Ron Haskins, “Early Stress Gets under the Skin: Promising Initiatives to Help Children Facing Chronic Adversity,” Policy Brief Spring 2014, The Future of Children Princeton: Brookings, Princeton, NJ, Spring 2014, http://www.futureofchildren.org

4Robert Anda, “The Health and Social Impact of Growing Up With Adverse Childhood Experiences: The Human and Economic Costs of the Status Quo.” A complete bibliography of ACE Study publications is available online at http://www.cdc.gov/nccdphp/ace

By Emily Gaudette, Project Associate – Recruitment Training and Support Center for Special Education Surrogate Parents (FCSN)

Elementary school aged granddaughter and grandson reading with grandparents The Recruitment, Training and Support Center (RTSC) for Special Education Surrogate Parents (SESPs), is proud to offer a new training program on complex childhood trauma for foster, kinship and adoptive parents. The program is designed to help parents better understand children who have experienced adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and how these events impact learning. This information can empower parents to become more involved with their child’s education and help change their life outcomes for the better.

The term “ACE” was coined by the Centers for Disease Control, based on study results which demonstrated a strong correlation between childhood maltreatment and the risk for negative health conditions. ACEs have a profound impact on the developing brain, and many children in foster care are affected by this condition.Training participants will discuss how childhood trauma affects classwork and social skills. They will also review the trauma-sensitive IEP, and receive support in writing effective goals for social/emotional learning. The curriculum also reviews discipline in schools, including suspension.

RTSC is pleased to collaborate with the MA Department for Children and Families in offering these trainings. For more information on the RTSC’s trainings for foster, kinship and adoptive parents, contact Jane Crecco at jcrecco@fcsn.org or (617) 399-8341. To register for a particular session, contact Emily Gaudette at egaudette@fcsn.org or (617) 399-8342.

Jane Crecco, MA, MSEd; Training and Support Specialist; Recruitment, Training and Support Center

On July 1, 2014, Chapter 222 (An Act Relative to Students’ Access to Educational Services and Exclusion from School) will take effect. This will end the era of Zero Tolerance for school discipline in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. The law was signed by Governor Patrick on August 6, 2012 and applies to all students in general and special education.

Zero Tolerance is a phrase coined by the U.S. Attorney General in the late 1980s to refer to federal policy during the War on Drugs. The term spread to schools in the early 1990’s as an attempt to curb the violence of drugs, gangs, and weapons. By 1993 zero tolerance policies had been adopted across the country. They often included not only drugs and weapons, but smoking and school disruption. President Clinton signed the Gun Free Schools Act in 1994. This required a one calendar year expulsion for possession of a firearm and the referral of students to the criminal or juvenile justice system. Local districts extended the law to include drugs, alcohol, swearing, threats, and anything close to a gun or other weapon (nail files, bubble guns).

As the decades passed and data was collected on zero tolerance policies, counter-productive trends emerged. The hallmarks of the policy became school exclusion, suspension, and expulsion. Other disciplinary options were infrequently used. It became obvious, especially to civil rights advocates, that low-income students, minorities (especially African-American boys), and students with mental health and social-emotional disabilities were overly represented in the data.

It became apparent that there was little evidence to show that suspension or expulsion improved student behavior or increased school safety. 40% of suspended students had been suspended before. The primary predictor of suspension was a previous suspension. Zero tolerance became a tool to “push out” low-achievers and so-called troublemakers. Most would drop out, and many entered the school-to-prison pipeline.

Research began to show that certain preventative discipline techniques were better at creating safe schools. The first workshops on Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports (PBIS) were held in 1999. PBIS used a systems approach to discipline. It promoted alternatives like bullying prevention and conflict resolution. Peer mediation, better classroom management and early identification and intervention were also prized. Evidence showed that this approach worked, and worked well. The Technical Assistance Center on Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports was established by the Office of Special Education Programs, US Department of Education. The Center gives schools information and assistance in identifying, adapting, and sustaining effective disciplinary practices.

Fifteen years later, Massachusetts will become one of the first states to enact a new law changing how discipline is meted out in schools. The following is a summary of Chapter 222:

Any student excluded for more than 10 consecutive school days is entitled to educational services so they are able to make academic progress during that time, within a school-wide educational service plan developed by the principal

Students suspended for 10 or fewer consecutive days will also have the opportunity to make academic progress during suspension
Data on all exclusions, regardless of duration or type, will be reported to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. Schools will be investigated for significant numbers of exclusions
School officials must exercise discretion and consider ways to re-engage students. They must avoid using suspension or expulsion until other options have been employed
No student shall be excluded for more than 90 school days
Due process and appeals will include the student and the parent and/or guardian
Students who have not graduated and have 10 consecutive absences will have an exit interview in order to consider alternative education or other placements
What does this mean for Massachusetts schools? While all school districts must abide by the law, some may choose to revise their Codes of Conduct and be done with it. The Boston Public Schools have already revised their lengthy Code of Conduct and are in the training and implementation stages of the law. The district has chosen to take a big step and embrace a paradigm shift towards safe, supportive, and positive discipline. Hopefully, other school districts will make the same shift.

The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education is now in the process of reviewing the regulations that will drive Chapter 222. Public hearings will take place this December. New regulations will be released in the New Year.

1Russell J. Skiba, “Zero Tolerance, Zero Evidence: An Analysis of School Disciplinary Practice.” Indiana Education Policy Center, Policy Research Report #SRS2, August 2000.

2Thomas Mela, having led the coalition of advocates that promoted Chapter 222 and having worked closely with legislators to secure enactment, outlines changes in Mela, Thomas, “New school discipline/dropout reform law.” August 7, 2012, www.massadvocates.org/documents/SummaryofChapter222oftheActsof2012.pdf

Emily Gaudette, Recruitment Training and Support Center (RTSC)

The second annual conference for Special Education Surrogate Parents (SESPs) and their professional partners welcomed 150 attendees and exhibitors on October 23rd 2013. Hosted by the Federation’s Recruitment, Training and Support Center (RTSC), “Getting Better All the Time: How SESPs Can Help Youth Attain Positive Life Outcomes” demonstrated a focus on older students in state custody who have experienced complex neurological trauma.

Keynote Jodi Rosenbaum Tillinger advised that youth be directly involved with the shaping of their educations. The sentiment echoed RTSC’s recent webinar series on transition services for youth who have experienced trauma, available on the Federation’s YouTube channel. Rosenbaum Tillinger further described More Than Words, a nonprofit bookstore and training program for youth who are homeless, court-involved, out of school or in state custody.

On a panel hosted by More Than Words, four teenagers outlined their current academic and vocational pursuits. Each time a student described his or her efforts to obtain their GED, reach Youth Partner status at More Than Words, or apply to college, the ballroom filled with applause.

Among featured speakers were members of the Massachusetts chapter of Foster Care Alumni of America, including RD Rohnert. Rohnert described his emotions while growing up in the system, noting the reunion with his adult siblings as one of his fondest memories.

Notable speakers also included Marty Mittnacht, State Director of Special Education Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (ESE) and Susan Stelk, Education Director at Department of Children and Families (DCF).

Breakout talks included Thomas Mela of Massachusetts Advocates for Children on Chapter 222, further explored by Jane Crecco in this issue of Newsline. Michelle Banks, of DCF, and Jennifer Leonard of The Skills Library, presented sessions on services for teenage youth and building career readiness. Finally, the session presented by the Federation’s Julie Sinclair, Director of Parent Training and Information Center, included a workshop on social-emotional IEP goals for children with trauma in their pasts.

The need in Massachusetts for special educational decision makers for students in state custody is so great that the tasks ahead can feel insurmountable. However, the hopeful atmosphere at the RTSC conference, as volunteers asked questions of their state leaders and shared triumphs, indicated a changing tide. Supported by the knowledge and expertise of SESPs and their partners, our youth in state custody are working toward success.

gothic girl

This is the fourth in a series of articles on the four opportunities to advocate for trauma-sensitive individual supports for a child: sharing information; trauma-sensitive evaluations; trauma-sensitive team meetings; and the IEP. Helping Traumatized Children Learn, written in 2005 by the Massachusetts Advocates for Children in collaboration with Harvard Law School and the Task Force on Children Affected by Domestic Violence, is the current definitive work on inculcating trauma-sensitivity into the educational system.

In the last three articles, we have stressed the importance of the Four Domains for Success for children who have experienced complex childhood trauma. These include Relationships, Self-Regulation, Academic Success, and Physical Health. Individualized Educational Plans (IEPs) offer the opportunity to provide supports and opportunities to bolster these areas of strength.

Relationships for traumatized children can be a tricky business – many have a deficit of skills in the area of relationship building with peers and those in authority. They may see friendships or nurturance as a trap, something that won’t last, and best to be avoided lest they be emotionally dangerous. In order to overcome these fears and anxieties, the child must learn new ways to approach relationships. On page 3 of the Massachusetts IEP form, there is a section known as “PLEP B” or “Present Levels of Educational Performance: Other Educational Needs”. This section allows an IEP Team to take a look at the impact of a disability on student performance from the non-academic standpoint. This includes extra-curricular activities, communication, behavior, and nonacademic activities. These are all areas where children interact with other children (recess, lunchroom, hallways, after school activities) as well as adults. They are also the areas that are most confusing and least successful for traumatized children. But they could also be used as platforms to learn new skills and new ways of looking at the world as less than terrifying. Social/Emotional goal writing should be an opportunity for an IEP Team to get creative. How about making sure a student has a safe person to ask for help? Is it the school nurse, a favorite teacher or administrator, a trusted friend, or maybe an older sibling? Can she have access to this person in times of uncertainty? Can this person give her guidance and assurance that things are safe here, and that recess and lunchtime can be fun?

A lack of behavioral self-regulation is most typically the response of a traumatized child to a confusing or potentially unsafe situation as seen through their trauma lens. It follows that if a child is feeling safe, s/he will be able to muster the neurological control to stay regulated and do the right thing. If an adult senses that a child is becoming dysregulated, then the adult has the responsibility to make sure that the child can find safe haven; a place where s/he truly wants to be (not a “time out” or seclusion room). Most times this is a place that is sensorially soothing with some minimum activity, like taking a walk outside with a trusted mentor. The “PLEP B” goal of the child learning to identify their physiological response to stress and anxiety AND the response to calming activities such as a walk, would allow the student to focus neurologically on academics rather than taking up brain time on stress and anxiety.

Being physically healthy is the result of being mentally, emotionally, and socially healthy (see the ACE Study)1. Being emotionally healthy leads to academic success. And for those kids with the invisible disability of having suffered complex childhood trauma, the IEP process can give them a chance to begin to heal.

Janie Crecco, Training and Support Specialist,
Recruitment, Training and Support Center at FCSN