Take Action – New Jersey Education Association

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Adverse childhood experiences (ACE) are potentially traumatic events, such as separation from parents, violence, abuse, or neglect, that occur during childhood. Experiencing multiple or chronic ACEs can lead to toxic stress, in which the body’s stress response system is activated for an extended period of time. It can profoundly affect the development of a child’s brain architecture, causing lifelong damage to physical, mental and emotional health.

As educators and school staff, we can help children heal and build resilience by taking simple steps to reduce the impact of trauma. In this monthly series, “Taking Action,” I talk with educators and school staff about what they are doing to help all children thrive.

Dr. Barbara Prempeh, Psy.D.

Vice President, New Jersey Chapter of the Association of Black Psychologists
Psychologist at Newark Beth Israel Medical Center
Clinical Specialist at Montclair State University

By Amanda Adams

I recently spoke with Dr. Barbara Prempeh, a clinical psychologist known for her expertise in helping children heal through the juvenile justice system, trauma-informed care, crisis intervention , racial/cultural issues and resilience. Dr. Prempeh also teaches college-level psychology courses.

She urges educators, parents and law enforcement to go beyond simply acknowledging childhood trauma and do more to prevent it or, when it’s too late, help those who have lived it to heal.

Q. During the last school year, you were a counselor at a K-12 school in New York State. What did you learn about the challenges facing college students, especially students of color?

Over the past year and a half, while we have been in this pandemic, there has been a lot of talk about the need to understand that this is an emotionally difficult time for students, and also to understand the prevalence of social injustice and how we all got a first hand view. We had no distractions while we were in the pandemic and had no choice but to see what was happening on our screens and social media sites. The students also saw it with their own eyes, and we saw students protesting and marching alongside their parents.

It’s been talked about a lot, but I want to see action now that the schools are opening. Where is the action? My concern is that we can do a lot of talking and recon, but we stop there. It’s great to recognize. I’m glad that many places have acknowledged the racial trauma and the collective trauma that we are experiencing with the pandemic, but what is the action behind this? I really want to see schools emphasize their emotional support for students.

Q: What should schools be thinking about as they navigate another pandemic-affected year?

As we navigate this year, we must ask ourselves difficult questions such as how we will handle grief and loss given the high number of students we will have in classrooms who have lost a parent, a grandparent, aunt or community member to this COVID pandemic. What about classrooms where teachers aren’t there because they died of COVID-19? How do we approach this?

This is on top of the heightened anxiety the students experienced, perhaps lack of motivation, because for that year and a half things just weren’t the same, they couldn’t interact as much with their friends, or they missed out on the junior prom. What about the kids who were in eighth grade when the pandemic started, entered a new high school last year, and now they’re in second grade? Not only are they adjusting to being in a new building, but they are also adjusting to this new group of students.

Do schools run emotional support groups? Do they provide some type of psychoeducation to parents to educate them on how to support their children at home? I understand that some schools just don’t have the capacity or don’t want to add anything else to the school day, but we need to be creative in how we support students.

Q: Part of your career has focused on juvenile justice and you have spoken about the fact that most children in the juvenile justice system have a history of trauma. Can you talk about this crossroads?

This is where my passion has been. I started my educational journey focusing on juvenile justice and completed my doctoral internship in a juvenile detention and probation center. I have seen this statistic about abuse history with my own eyes with many of the children I have done assessments for. It changed my focus and made me want to help children in the juvenile justice system. I understood that to better help them, I had to better understand the impact of trauma.

This intersection is very important because it helps us recognize things that could be done earlier in children’s lives to actually reduce the likelihood of someone ending up in the juvenile justice system. The work around ACEs makes the connection between these negative childhood experiences and the long-term medical impact, but there also needs to be that second connecting piece of incarceration. There may be variables where a number of negative childhood experiences increase the likelihood of incarceration. This is where we see the two worlds come together. When you think back to the school-to-prison pipeline, you have to ask yourself, are there resources that kids with ACEs get or don’t? Are any disciplinary actions taken against children with a history of ACE? And do these things increase the likelihood of children ending up in the juvenile justice system?

The mindset shift needs to be that instead of handing out excessive suspensions and expulsions, what therapeutic resources do you put in place to stop this trajectory into the juvenile justice system? Instead of a suspension because the child is fighting, why not have him meet with a counselor or place him in a therapy program? That’s what I hope will happen as people learn more about trauma. They will look beyond observable behaviors to understand that you are not just seeing a present moment, but perhaps you are seeing a history of things presented to you.

Q. Why should educators take Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) training?

Educators should be trained on CEAs because this training will help them become better teachers for children who need more nurturing and care. By understanding how ACEs affect children, you will understand how a child’s mind, brain, and learning process can be altered when they experience a traumatic event.

There is a pronounced difference between a healthy brain and the brain of a child who has suffered a trauma. A child who has been traumatized has difficulty maintaining attention and engaging in complex tasks. Indeed, the child may have flashbacks or may be anxious and alert, and these things invariably impair their ability to engage in class. Thus, ACE training truly supports educators by helping them better understand the experiences of the children they serve and by equipping them to create programs or classroom activities that can be more supportive for all learners.

Q. What can educators do to transform their schools (or classrooms) into places of healing and connection?

When we think of educators transforming classrooms into places of healing and connection, we cannot overlook the importance of supporting educators and ensuring they feel emotionally healthy. Educators have been through a lot during the pandemic, especially considering the lack of control they had over their classroom environment and the disconnection of their students due to remote learning. All of this has resulted in the burnout of educators.

We need to give educators the tools they need to support social and emotional learning. We need to teach them that it’s okay to express emotions and talk about how they felt. In doing so, they can set an example for students and open the door to let them know that it is okay to talk about feelings and emotions.

We also need to think about our allies within the school system – connecting with the school psychologist, connecting with the learning specialist, connecting with the school nurse, connecting with parents to find additional support, because it really can’t all be on the teachers’ shoulders. So, the approach to creating healing-focused classrooms really starts with supporting teachers so they can better support students.

Q. Do you have any advice for educators or other school staff on how they can help children build resilience?

Often when we think about building resilience and helping children who have gone through negative or traumatic experiences, we feel like it’s a daunting task. In fact, it’s the little things that can make children feel connected to someone else. Something as simple as asking a child how their weekend was or what they did over the weekend can make a huge difference in a child’s life by allowing them to to feel connected to someone.

Having a consistent adult that they have a connection with makes all the difference for a child, as it signals that there is a connection and that there is someone who cares about you. So if something happens to the child, he knows he can come to you and get help from you.

By building supportive relationships with children, you can help reduce the impact of CEAs while building children’s resilience. To find out more, visit Actions4ACEs.com.

Actions 4 ACEs is a statewide initiative to raise awareness about negative childhood experiences (ACEs) and the role adults can play in reducing the impact of trauma and helping children heal. Actions 4 ACEs offers educators invaluable resources and materials to better inform, educate and activate.

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