Engaging students to triumph over trauma and ACEs

By Daniel Higgins 

You don’t know what happened; you just know that something is wrong. The student is suddenly “acting out,” causing disruptions in class, fighting with other students, or, conversely, shutting down and becoming completely withdrawn. Suspending the student does not help, and ignoring the behavior is unacceptable. To identify and compassionately address the root cause of some of these behaviors, educational communities throughout New Jersey need training to help students who are enduring adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). ACEs are stressful or traumatic events, including abuse, neglect, household substance use or parental separation. ACEs can also include exposure to chronic, toxic stress from historical and ongoing traumas due to systemic racism and poverty.  

ACEs affect children’s brain architecture and can have negative, lifelong effects on health and well-being. ACEs and trauma can inhibit a child’s ability to learn, develop language skills, create healthy attachments and form relationships. The good news is, if properly addressed, the effects of ACEs and the behaviors that come from traumas can be reversed and improved through healing-centered engagement strategies. 

A statewide program was initiated in 2021 to introduce a healing-centered engagement (HCE) model to address ACEs and trauma-informed practices in 26 pilot schools in New Jersey. It is spearheaded by lead partners NJEA, NJPSA/FEA (New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association/Foundation for Educational Administration), and the MHANJ (Mental Health Association in New Jersey).  

Students plant a new garden at Robbins Elementary School.

Dr. Mary Reece, NJPSA/FEA’s director of special projects, secured more than $1 million in grant funding for this project from the Burke Foundation, the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, the Princeton Area Community Foundation, and the New Jersey Pandemic Relief Fund. The diverse cohort, which first included the Ninth Grade Academy, Hedgepeth-Williams Middle School of the Arts, and Carroll Robbins Elementary School in Trenton, has expanded to 60 New Jersey schools that are currently undergoing this training for Year 2, including nearly all Trenton schools. 

Training for educators 

The model includes six hours of virtual training—two hours on ACE interface, which is provided by Amanda Adams, NJEA associate director for professional development and instructional issues, two hours on trauma-informed practices, and two hours on healing-centered engagement.  

In the first year of the program, the schools work with their coaches to develop a plan to address a particular problem as it relates to trauma. The plan is implemented in Year 2 with the help of a team made up of teachers, community partners and trusted messengers, such as a guidance counselor, vice principal or parent. The trusted messenger acts as a liaison between the coach and the school. 

Each school is given a coach who has been trained in both coaching techniques and in program content. They help teachers, administrators, staff, families and community groups work with students who are dealing with ACEs. The school must then develop a plan for moving forward with this information. In addition, selected educators receive training in Youth Mental Health First Aid through the partnership with MHANJ. 

From left: Robbins teacher Jaimie Sabadics, Principal Zebbie Belton, and teacher Jennifer Ayling.

The success of the first year of the program and the need for healing-centered engagement in Trenton Public Schools led Assistant Superintendent Dr. Channing Conway to expand the initiative throughout the district for the 2021-22 school year.  

“Everybody agreed that there was a need for this work. The pandemic only helped to expose some of the trauma that our students were already dealing with pre-pandemic,” Conway said. “Our kids coming back from the pandemic have experienced loss, potential food insecurity, shelter insecurity, as well as violence in the community or violence in the homes. So we wanted to make sure that we were equipped for dealing with those types of issues that our kids might be coming back to school with after being in isolation for 18 months.” 

The first part of the HCE initiative involves ACEs and their contribution to long-term and toxic trauma that can impact a child’s ability to be ready to learn and receive new information. The second part deals with trauma-informed practices, which focus on ways that schools can address the known traumas that are experienced by individual students or groups of children. The third part addresses healing-centered engagement, which involves the community understanding that the trauma that children experience can stem from issues that are inside or outside the home. The training helps all involved to mitigate the trauma that children are exposed to. 

Changing the mindset 

Jennifer Ayling, a teacher at Carroll Robbins Elementary School, which is now in its second year of the HCE program, says that the training has made a substantial difference in how the teachers approach students who are dealing with these issues.  

“The main thing that caught my eye was changing the mindset from ‘What’s wrong with you?’ to ‘What happened to you?’ and then ‘What is right about you?’” Ayling said. “We encourage each other and our students publicly so that everyone sees that school is a special place where the first priority is that you are safe and you are seen. Most times, children in crisis do not feel heard, so they get louder and they get more aggressive or they shut down.  

“We are always going to be working toward allowing the children to address the feeling, and if the feeling is OK, they learn to regulate it so that they can get to a healing place,” Ayling said. “We want them to be OK with who they are, because they don’t like themselves when they are upset. Self-harm and harm to others will never be acceptable, but when you identify and address how you feel, self-calming strategies, whether it is a breathing technique or a talking-down technique, can be applied. We can let them go to a peaceful place with the support of our counselors to redirect their emotions so they can express themselves and feel heard.” 

Robbins teacher Jaimie Sabadics assists students during a reading lesson.

Building a culture of trust 

The HCE process can change the culture throughout a school and help to build and develop a trust between students and teachers that can allow a student to better manage a trauma.  

“We had a student who lost his father about two years ago, and it really wasn’t shared with the school. He was not comfortable speaking about it, so he would shut down,” recalled Jaimie Sabadics, a Robbins Elementary teacher. “He would get very upset, so I started to pull him aside to what we call our peaceful place.” 

Sabadics said that the student was not comfortable at first to talk to her about something so personal. But as the weeks progressed, he began to open up. 

“I said, ‘I see that you are upset. Is it something you want to talk about? Or is it something that you want to take a moment on and then decide how you want to proceed?’” Sabadics recalled. “He told me he wanted to talk to me, and this was the first time we had made that progress. He just broke down crying and said, ‘I just miss my dad so much. My dad died, and I miss him so much.’” 

The ACEs team at Parker Elementary School. From left: Counselor Miriam Maldonado, Vice Principal Nadia Ramcharan, Asst. Superintendent Dr. Channing Conway, Principal Lorcha Lewis, NJPSA HCE Coach Denise King, and School Nurse Jacqueline Denton.

“He had not shared that with anyone, so, in that moment, because of this program, I was aware of how to handle it,” Sabadics said. “Yes, I’m seeing behaviors that we would not want to see in the classroom. Yes, it is interrupting instruction, and I might have handled that differently prior to HCE, but now I’m seeing the child as a whole. I see that he is having this emotional breakdown, and while it is coming out as aggression, there is something deeper behind that.” 

Sabadics notes that it was because they had a relationship—because she was taking that time to focus on him, even if only in a limited way—he was able to share something that he wouldn’t ordinarily share.  

“I’ve seen major progress since that day, and I know that this is thanks to the approaches that we learned with HCE,” Sabadics said. 

Addressing trauma immediately and for  the long term 

The healing-centered engagement program is also helping the entire community of Parker Elementary School deal with the recent tragic death of one of its students, a 9-year old girl senselessly shot and killed in downtown Trenton in March.  

“The fact that we had a coach and the fact that our school was trained in dealing with something like that, the impact was huge,” Conway said.  

Asst. Superintendent Dr. Channing Conway with Donshanique Kelley, a one-to-one aide and bus aide, and one of Conway’s former students.

Dr. Denise King, associate director of retirement services at NJPSA, who serves as the HCE coach for Parker Elementary, has been helping Principal Lorcha Lewis and the entire Parker community.  

“I reached out to our ACE trainers, our team, and soon they were able to provide a Padlet of resources that Parker could use immediately—resources for the community, resources for students, resources for the teachers, and resources for administrators,” King said. “I think that having that Padlet immediately and connecting with the Mercer Loss Coalition helped to support the needs of Parker school.” 

Padlet is a cloud-based software that, among other capacities, enables users to upload, organize and share resources. 

Lewis said that the resources were particularly helpful and that technology allowed her to share information with her entire community. As a result, people were able to make connections and get assistance. Still, the healing from such a tragedy is a long process and will affect different people in various ways.  

“It’s a rollercoaster. We still have a lot of trauma that shows itself on different points of the rollercoaster ride,” Lewis said. “Some days it’s really good, and some days it is not. And everybody is in a different spot. Sometimes they are in their valley, and sometimes they are at their peak. So we need to continue to make sure that our supports are in place for those ‘unpredictables’ and try to have and maintain some normalcy in school.” 

From left: NJPSA HCE Coach Denise King, Asst. Superintendent Dr. Channing Conway, Principal Lorcha Lewis and Vice Principal Nadia Ramcharan.

Lewis and King both praised the HCE program and stressed the importance of having this engagement in place so that a school is best able to handle such a devastating event.  

“If I could recommend this specific program to every school I would absolutely do it,” King said. “I have already reached out to a couple of schools because they need it. They just need the training and the connections and the resources to build a foundation for improvement for themselves and for their school community.” 

Lewis concurred.  

“It is a necessary prerequisite for training your staff,” she said. “I think that we are in a time when we should not take anything for granted about who our students are or who our staff are. It is one of those foundational courses of learning that every educator should have.”

Daniel Higgins is the Director of Strategic Communications for the New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association (NJPSA). He can be reached at dhiggins@njpsa.org or on Twitter @danhigginsnj.