Grant aims to build trauma sensitivity in schools

By Rivkela Brodsky
November 1st, 2016

Providence Children &Youth Cabinet – a coalition of organizations, systems, residents and youth organized around community-generated priorities in Providence, R.I. – received a $1.8 million grant to build trauma sensitivity in schools.

“This is a really exciting opportunity for us,” said Rebecca Boxx, director of the Cabinet. “It builds on work we have been doing in Providence for several years now. We have had a focus that was really elevated by our community to address the symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder and trauma in our neighborhoods and schools. This will allow us to use evidence-based programs in the school setting and also take an innovative approach to engaging youth and families in those therapeutic interventions, using performing arts and provide professional development and training all personnel and faculty at schools for becoming trauma sensitive and trauma aware.”

The program, “Building Trauma Sensitive Schools” kicked off in October in three middle schools in Providence thanks to the five-year grant from Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. The Providence & Youth Cabinet is one of 56 across the nation to receive a similar grant.

The program focuses on the behavioral link between elevated levels of trauma among students ages 11 to 14, and their chronic absences, delinquency and suspensions, according to a news release on the award.

It will strive to increase the capacity of the school district and community organizations to implement trauma-sensitive, evidence-based programs and prevention services, according to the release.

The program will concentrate on 3,000 students enrolled in middle schools in the South Side, West End, and Olneyville neighborhoods. “Those are neighborhoods where there are elevated symptoms of PTSD for the youth that live in them,” Boxx said. These neighborhoods record the highest rates of engagement with the child welfare system, childhood poverty, parental incarceration and incidences of school suspensions and absenteeism in the city, according to the release.

The Cabinet has previously spent some time surveying youth so that they had a data set to look at to determine neighborhoods where youth are dealing with higher levels of trauma.

“We administered several years ago a survey to young people in 5th, 6th, 8th, 10th and 12th grades and went through a community engaged process to analyze that data and where we wanted to prioritize our efforts moving forward,” Boxx said. “We identified those priorities and we identified potential programs and support we want to see. One of them is the evidence-based program for this grant: Cognitive Behavioral Intervention in School.”

Matthew Billings, project manager at the Children & Youth Cabinet, said it’s important to address trauma in youth. “We have a youth trauma crisis. It’s not unique to Providence or the neighborhoods we’ve identified, but it’s elevated there,” he said. “There are broad research-based applications that tell us that 20 percent of youth have experienced some sort of trauma in their lives. When we piloted this program, as high as 90 percent of the kids we were testing were showing signs as experiencing at least one significant trauma that would classify them as having PTSD.”

Often trauma is not discussed in schools, Billings said. “We call them behaviors or discipline referrals,” he said. “But there are these core behaviors or core experiences that cause those behaviors at schools. It’s not a youth coming to school saying ‘I’m going to act out today,’ but it’s his or her experiences outside of school – it’s stress and anxiety; it’s something that triggers a trauma.”

One of the goals of the grant is get people talking about trauma. “Trauma is so often dealt with outside of schools in a traditional therapeutic setting,” Billings said. “We will be bringing that treatment into schools and making it engaging and okay to talk about.”

Another goal is to measure the trauma youth are experiencing inside and outside of schools and what it means to bring trauma treatment into the school, he said.

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