This is the second in a series of three blog posts written by students in the Urban Education Policy program cohort who completed research projects in the summer 0f 2017. 

About the Series | Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | UEP |

Part 2: UEP Research Sheds Light on a Trauma Epidemic among Students

1622 Katja HamlerKatja Hamler

Katja Hamler is a master’s degree candidate in the UEP program. 

This is the second in a series of three blog posts on student research and the Urban Education Policy Program.

Over the past several years, social and emotional well-being – a variety of skills including self-management, relationship building, and self-awareness – has arisen as a prevalent topic within the education field. A growing body of that work has focused on trauma in urban schools. Some studies have found that as many as 34% of students had experienced at least one traumatic event (Gonzalez et al. 2016). Traumatic experiences can include a variety of situations, including food insecurity, natural disasters, domestic violence, and gang violence.

As a student in the UEP program, I participated in a research practicum with the Children and Youth Cabinet (CYC) – a leader in supporting all students in Providence Public Schools in the field of social-emotional well-being, one of its three main priorities. In the 2015-2016 school year, the CYC piloted its Building Trauma Sensitive Schools Initiative, funded by the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) (CYC 2016). The SAMHSA grant allowed the CYC to implement the evidence-based program – Cognitive Behavioral Intervention for Trauma in Schools (CBITS) – to support students who had experienced traumatic events, through group therapy sessions during the school day (CYC 2016).

1625 Molly Donovan, Kate Donohue, Lindsay Lanteri, Katja HamlerThis summer, my teammates, Kate Donohue, Molly Donovan, Lindsay Lanteri, and I partnered with the CYC to evaluate the efficacy of the CBITS program and identify potential supplemental programs that address trauma in youth. Our team collected data through a variety of sources, including interviews with field clinicians and other experts, student satisfaction surveys, and teacher surveys. In this piece, I will outline two of our key findings.

We found that trauma is prevalent among youth in Providence. Some of the most prevalent circumstances, as measured by a self-reported Youth Experience Survey (YES) that is part of the CBITS program, include the loss of a loved one, witnessing and experiencing physical violence, and separation from parents or caregivers. Perhaps our most compelling finding was that students who took the universal screener (when clinicians screened an entire classroom of students) experienced trauma almost as frequently as students who were referred for the program (see Figures 1 and 2).1 This finding was particularly thought-provoking because it demonstrated that the trauma epidemic in Providence may be even more prevalent than the CYC had previously estimated. When we established this finding, as an elementary school teacher in Providence, I pictured my classroom and wondered how many of my students may have experienced trauma.

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Another noteworthy finding was that there were mixed results of program effectiveness. Student satisfaction, measured by a survey, was extremely high. In fact, 55% of respondents did not have anything negative to say about the entire program. However, evaluation results did not yet provide strong evidence for program efficacy. One key indicator of student growth is the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire (SDQ) that students take prior to and following enrollment in CBITS. The SDQ consists of 25 questions in which students determine the extent to which a statement about their psychological attributes is true. Out of 47 respondents, 27 students reported an increase in strengths, and 30 students reported a decrease in difficulties. Approximately 60% of respondents showed the desired result.  Both field clinicians and the program director of CYC, Matt Billings, alerted us that a potential cause for these moderate improvement results is co-occurring or recurring trauma. According to clinicians who lead CBITS group therapy programs, several students experience ongoing trauma, which negatively influences the potential impact of CBITS on a students’ social and emotional well-being.    

As an educator, I am aware of traumatic events that my students have experienced and I have witnessed, first-hand, how those experiences impact their ability to focus, self-regulate, and develop relationships. Supporting students’ emotional and behavioral needs is a pivotal part of educators’ job – and policy can and should do the same. While the majority of trauma-based research has been done in urban schools, it is imperative that all schools and policy-makers alike work to address their students’ social and emotional needs, regardless of the demographics of the students and families they serve. Social and emotional well-being ought to remain in the forefront of educational research so that all students can come to school ready to learn and become change agents in their communities.

Further Resources

Providence Children and Youth Cabinet: http://cycprovidence.org/

Cognitive Behavioral Intervention for Trauma in Schools: https://cbitsprogram.org/

Trauma and Learning Policy Initiative: https://traumasensitiveschools.org/

The National Child Traumatic Stress Network: http://nctsn.org/

Footnotes

1 To measure the number of times a student has been exposed to different types of trauma, CBITS uses an "A" screener, in which students answer yes or no to questions about a series of traumatic exposures such as being physically injured by someone or losing a loved one.

References

Providence Children and Youth Cabinet. 2016. “Building Trauma Sensitive Schools: Project Narrative.” Internal document; proposal to Providence Public School District. Providence, RI: CYC, Brown University.

Gonzalez, A., N. Monzon, D. Solis, L. Jaycox, and A. K. Langley. 2016. “Trauma Exposure in Elementary School Children: Description of Screening Procedures, Level of Exposure, and Posttraumatic Stress Symptoms,” School Mental Health 8, no. 1:77–88.