Taking Action

Robin Cogan, School Nurse, Camden City School District

Interviewed by Amanda Adams

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

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

I recently spoke with Robin Cogan, a nationally certified school nurse currently in her 21st year as a New Jersey school nurse in the Camden City School District, and author of the blog The Relentless School Nurse. 

Q. How is this year different from previous years—what are some of things you are seeing in your school?

I have to take a deep breath to answer that question because this year is truly one of the most challenging school years I’ve experienced in my 21 years of school nursing and my 37 years as a nurse. Why is it different? Because this is the third school year impacted by COVID. Let’s say your kid this year is in seventh grade. Well, his last typical or normal school year was fourth grade—that’s the last year that was not impacted by COVID. So we are dealing with this extended period of uncertainty, this extended period of toxic stress where children have not had their typical developmental milestones. They haven’t had the rhythm and flow of the school calendar. On top of that, children move, children were displaced, children have lost parents, and we have lost school staff members. So we have had to manage so many aspects of COVID through the lens of this collective trauma that we have all experienced.

Q. Can you share a brief story about a specific instance where you saw a child who was struggling?

 I want to share a story that illustrates so many issues that ACEs address. A few years ago, I was a school nurse in a family school, a school that was pre-kindergarten through eighth grade. A lot of the social determinants of health that impact families’ lives played out every day in this school. 

 One of our students was 17 years old and in eighth grade. He was 6 feet tall and much older than the typical eighth grader, so he really stood out. He had been in a juvenile detention program for several years, and his father was incarcerated. So he came to our school, and I could tell he felt very much out of place and, typically, he kept to himself. One very rainy day, I ran into him in the hallway, where he was storing his bike. He was soaked from the late fall rainstorm. I quietly asked him if I could dry his clothes for him. He looked completely shocked, even stunned that I had offered to help him. “You would do that for me?” he asked. I reassured him that it was my pleasure to make sure he had dry clothes and gave him kudos for getting to school by bike on such a miserable day.

 We talked for the entire hour his clothes were drying. He opened up and told me his entire story; it’s a story I will never forget. This young man had faced so much adversity, enduring every single ACE—abuse, neglect, substance abuse, incarceration—more than any one person should have to endure. At that moment it hit me that I could be that one person to show this young man some nurturing and caring. I can’t say for sure how meaningful our encounter turned out to be for him, but it meant something to me. Even the smallest opening can be an opportunity to make a difference, and I will never pass that by.

Q. How can school staff help children bounce back from the trauma of the pandemic?

While we have all been through this tsunami that is the pandemic, we have been riding it out in very different boats. Some have been riding it out in a yacht—very comfortable albeit a little inconvenienced. Maybe their children weren’t at school, but they hired private tutors for their children. Others have ridden out the storm clinging by their fingertips to a buoy. Some families have ridden out this storm in a rowboat with a hole in the bottom. 

So, before we “bounce back from the pandemic,” we need to recognize the impact and give ourselves time to grieve and realize that life has forever changed from this experience. More than 140,000 U.S. children lost a primary or secondary caregiver because of the COVID-19 pandemic, with brown and Black children the most impacted. We aren’t going to simply bounce back from that; we have to walk through the healing process. We first have to acknowledge what we’ve all been through and then gain the tools to care for ourselves and the community. And it can’t just be about the children; if it’s never going to be about the adults as well, it will never be about the children. We all need support and time to heal.

Q. What can school staff do to turn their schools or their classrooms into places of healing and connection? 

If we are completely honest with ourselves, everyone is walking around with some baggage because most people have experienced some sort of trauma or adversity in their lives. We have to acknowledge that nobody gets through this life unscathed, and now we have this collective trauma of COVID. The truth is we don’t know the trauma that anybody else carries, so why not use the universal precaution of being healing centered, of being kind, of being understanding, giving people space, and understanding that all behavior has meaning. So instead of being punitive, we need to understand what is behind the behavior.

Q: How did you get involved in ACEs work?

We all have a story to tell. My family has a significant history when it comes to generational trauma, so I’d like to share that story with you. My father grew up in Camden, New Jersey, the city where I now work as a nurse. He had an idyllic childhood. In fact, he referred to the neighborhood in which he grew up as “Sesame Street.” Everyone knew their neighbor, and he lived a beautiful life—until one day when his neighbor, who had just returned from war, killed 13 people on my father’s block, including my father’s entire family. 

The trauma that he experienced for the next 60 years is something never really understood. He never talked about what happened. It was a terrible secret, and he kept it all inside. And so, I couldn’t really come to terms with who my father was until after he died. That’s when I finally understood what he had been through and how those events shaped him. 

That generational trauma seeped into the next generation, and when my father died of a hemorrhagic stroke on the 60th anniversary of the mass shooting, it was a wake-up call to me about how trauma can affect our health. So, through this lived experience, I became interested in generational trauma. Today, as a school nurse, I am in the relentless pursuit of serving our community, helping our children to feel safe and supported, and giving them space to heal from the trauma they have endured.

By building supportive relationships with children, you can help reduce the impact of ACEs while building children’s resiliency. To learn more, go to Actions4ACEs.com.

Actions 4 ACEs is a statewide initiative to build awareness about adverse 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.