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Afterschool and ACEs: How Alaska promotes a trauma-engaged response

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Afterschool and ACEs: How Alaska promotes a trauma-engaged response

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and we’re highlighting the ways afterschool programs support children and young people as they face challenges including trauma, ACEs, substance use, and beyond. Read the full series here.

This is the second of a two-part series on preventing and responding to substance use and trauma in Alaska. The first part of the Afterschool Alliance’s conversation with Thomas Azzarella can be found here.

Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACEs, are stressful or traumatic life events, such as abuse, neglect, or growing up with substance abuse, mental illness, or a parent in jail that children experience before the age of 18. Studies have found that ACEs can be directly linked to an increased risk of numerous health outcomes, including chronic illness, depression, anxiety, PTSD, and risky behaviors, including drug and alcohol abuse and unsafe sex. And unfortunately, ACEs are all too common among all populations—according to a study conducted by the Center for Disease Control, almost two-thirds of study participants reported at least one ACE, and more than one in five reported three or more ACEs.

Rates are even higher for specific populations and in specific geographic regions. In Alaska, for example, the state’s ACE score results are much higher compared to the study’s five-state average, especially in three categories of adverse experiences: incarcerated family member, household substance abuse, and separation and divorce. These high rates of ACEs have been found to have the same negative health and economic impacts on the Alaskan population: decreased mental and physical health, decreased wage-earning potential, lower educational attainment, and increased smoking and alcohol use.

However, while the risks associated with ACEs are incredibly high, there are ways to combat or mitigate the effects of ACEs for those who have experienced or are at risk of experiencing childhood trauma, by building protective factors and increasing resiliency skills. And that is where out-of-school time programs fit into the equation, according to Thomas Azzarella from the Alaska Afterschool Network.

“One of those key protective factors is really being there in times when families need support the most. That is what afterschool does: we provide support for the family in times of need, we help reduce the stress that families feel about juggling between work and childcare, and we help connect parents to help build that greater family resilience protective factor.”

Not only is the afterschool space well-positioned to holistically support families by guaranteeing a safe and nurturing out-of-school time environment, but it also allows (and requires) staff to be on the frontlines of addressing trauma that youth may be facing in their lives.

In 2018, the Alaska Afterschool Conference hosted a trauma-engaged training session, led by Jennifer Smith from the Wisconsin Afterschool Network, who shared her model for a comprehensive training on trauma-engaged care in response to ACEs. On the second day of the conference, a 7.1 magnitude earthquake hit Alaska that had devastating and long-lasting impacts around the state. Suddenly the theoretical trauma-responsive supports were about to become very hands-on.

Watching the afterschool field respond to the experience, guiding and supporting students through a traumatic experience, Azzarella asks, “How do we as providers have the same response that we did to a major earthquake? How we help the young people manage and understand the world around them, when they face an earthquake every day?”

Since then, Azzarella is part of a team in Alaska that developed a framework called “Transforming Schools: A Framework for Trauma Engaged Schools” that looks to start to answer this question. The framework offers guidance on how to begin to address ACEs at a systematic level.

A key aspect is understanding how afterschool staff are approaching youth and establishing a continuum from being trauma-informed to trauma-responsive to trauma-engaged. How are programs incorporating a lens of understanding trauma into their program?

“Frequently we refer to ACES as something that has happened, not something that is happening,” Azzarella reflects. “Instead of focusing on particular ACE scores when the child comes to us, we need to assume that all young people need the opportunities, relationships, and support to build protective factors for the present and the future. Whether that child has experienced trauma or has not, we know that a focus on relationships helps kids build resiliency to succeed and thrive. Social-emotional learning is not a curriculum you teach; it’s the way you teach curriculum, it’s the way to interact with young people.”

Maintaining this trauma-engaged perspective means examining all aspects of programming, from big picture items like planning curricula, to details like recognizing the impact that transition times or methods of obtaining students’ attention may have on them.

That includes considering the impact that trauma may have had on staff members working in afterschool programs.

“I think that’s one of the pieces of the equation that’s frequently left out. We really to look at a more holistic approach, not just what happened, but how can I help support that young person? Really, that also means paying attention to the staff. The adverse childhood experience study show that ACES or childhood trauma are more common than any of us ever thought, across socio-economics, across racial demographics, across a wide variety of variables. We need to recognize that our staff themselves may have experienced trauma, and that they carry that legacy into caring for children and working in the programs, potentially impacting their behavior. It could be retraumatizing them or the children they’re working with.

“Until we help that adult, that youth worker, that teacher understand their own emotional intelligence, and they understand how their own trauma or childhood upbringing has affected them, we are not doing justice to the kids we are serving. We need to stop and look at how we’re supporting staff wellbeing. How are we helping them heal from their own trauma? How are we helping them understand and discover their own emotional intelligence? There’s so much that our field can do right now to focus on ensuring the adults who are working with young people are trained, and proficient, and understand their own emotional intelligence and how trauma has impacted them. At that point we can move forward with the work we’re doing with young people, creating relationships with young people that is truly responsive, rather than reactive, to the needs of that young person.”

Furthermore, in shaping a trauma-engaged response plan, it’s essential to consider the impact that trauma has had not only on children and staff, but also, more broadly, on the community.

“For Alaska,” Thomas reflects, “we are working on understanding the impacts around historical trauma and how that has shaped and changed our communities and young people. Some of the amazingly promising practices we’re seeing in the state are around the resurgence of connecting Native young people and families to their cultural identity, in language, dance, traditional Alaska native ancestral knowledge that was and is so rich with resilience and healing.”

This culturally competent approach to healing past traumas that engages and employs community buy-in builds up supportive environments with an intentional approach. This is especially important in Alaska, where its unique geographical landscape presents numerous challenges in creating programming that is equally supportive of both the youth worker in Anchorage, their biggest city, and the youth worker out in Noorvik, a small village above the Arctic. When isolation can at times be the default, creating communities of support and connecting those communities to one another can be incredibly important in establishing a balanced response to trauma.

“When we get a whole community behind young people during out-of-school time, that’s when we have transformation. That’s when we’re able to see resilient communities. That’s when we’re able to help youth who have experienced trauma: they know that the community sees them, hears them, loves them.”

The Alaska Afterschool Network is one of 50 statewide afterschool networks established by the Charles Stewart Mott Foundationto foster partnerships and policies to develop, support, and sustain high-quality opportunities for children and youth.

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