DECATUR – Amanda Ryder has seen the difference a trauma-informed perspective has made at Argenta-Oreana Elementary School, where she's the principal.
“We can see a shift in the culture within our building, in the ways that the staff interacts with students,” Ryder said. “Our approach with them has been different and in turn, we see better results with our academics, with behavior, with everything.”
The Trauma-Informed Partnership held a conference this month and invited other community entities such as first responders, churches, healthcare and community organizations, along with their existing partners in education, to discuss ways to pull together for greater effect.
The partnership includes the Education Coalition of Macon County, Southern Illinois University School of Medicine, the Illinois Education Association and the Macon-Piatt Regional Office of Education. The topics they addressed included learning about the effects of toxic stress and adverse experiences; awareness of how stress impacts the brain and communication; the role of the community in responding to stress; and ways to work together to help community growth and health.
Argenta-Oreana has been part of a pilot program to use trauma-informed practices in schools for the last few years, along with Franklin and Muffley schools in Decatur, Phoenix Academy, Sangamon Valley and Deland-Weldon. In those schools, staff work at seeing behind a student's behavior and attitude to the possible chaos that spurred them and use restorative circles to talk things out. A child can act out for many reasons, from an argument with another child to far more serious issues at home.
Children and adults exposed to high-stress situations for long periods can develop problems with both physical and mental health, and high levels of stress can change the actual structure of the brain. The Substance Abuse mental Health Services Administration, which awarded the grant for the trauma-informed training, estimates that six in 10 youth have been exposed to violence in any given year, and the costs to the nation's healthcare system due to violence and abuse is $333 billion to $750 billion annually.
Those who work with those children can also suffer from secondary effects of the trauma experienced by others, and part of the training for teachers and school staff was how to have empathy without letting others' pain overcome them.
The Rev. Joe Bowman, pastor of Heartland Community Church, attended the conference to learn about ways he, and by extension, his church, can have a greater impact on the community.
“We spend thousands of dollars every year to impact our younger generation (in the church) because we understand that's the future of our church particularly,” Bowman said. “That's also the future of our community. If we can work together to impact that next generation coming up, whether it be through education, or moral values and a spiritual connection with their creator, it's going to make our community much greater in the future.”
Southern Illinois University School of Medicine's Sameer Vohra, who is executive director of the Office of Population Science and Policy, was a keynote speaker at the conference. His department's mission is to find ways through research to create ways to improve the community.
“A lot of that has meant a partnership between medicine and things that medicine doesn't usually partner with -- education, the social service world – to have these types of partnerships that can lead to out of the box solutions that can improve communities and people's health,” Vohra said. “A lot of us work with children especially and what pathways we can create to help children succeed.”
One goal is social innovation, he said, which is a combination of partnerships like the conference began forging, as well as working with legislators for changes in policy that will affect communities statewide, he said.
Bowman said he was encouraged by the variety of organizations at the conference.
“If we can have more of that collaborative effort, we can make a difference in our culture and make a difference in our kids,” he said.