An Initiative to Improve Health in Schools Puts Trauma Front and Center



A recent initiative from America’s Promise Alliance—an organization best known for its efforts to boost high school graduation rates—supports work with communities to improve health in schools. Addressing trauma will be a major focus of that work, which is backed by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and reflects growing interest among funders and nonprofits in this area.

The organization is working on six community-led projects to make schools more healthy. Communities identified their own challenges and proposed solutions. Of the six communities, four are addressing trauma and mental health in schools.

Communities in Crook County, Oregon, Jacksonville, Florida, Staten Island, New York and St. Louis, Missouri, are working to bring trauma-informed practices and mental health resources to local schools with support from the alliance’s Every School Healthy initiative, which launched late last year. Each community identified challenges themselves and gets $300,000 to put solutions in place.

In Crook County, the nonprofit Better Together Central Oregon and six other community organizations are partnering with the school district. As part of the work, school staff will learn trauma-informed approaches. The organizations also plan to increase the mental health resources schools offer, and engage youth and community voices to reduce the stigma around mental health and promote positive interactions between students and adult educators.

In Jacksonville, the Partnership for Child Health is working with schools and the rest of the community to integrate trauma-informed and child rights-based approaches to improve the health of the whole child. The work is set against a backdrop of a rising murder rate in the city. Of the 100 murders in the last year, about one-quarter of the victims were under 21.

In New York, the Staten Island Partnership for Community Wellness is working with North Shore schools to empower students, parents and faculty to advocate for healthy schools. The approach allows students to lead the work by identifying health disparities in their schools and communities. For this grant, students settled on mental health as an area for schools to improve.

Finally, Alive and Well Communities in St. Louis works to promote trauma-informed practices at an institutional, community and national level. The nonprofit argues that the effects of trauma prevent schools from being environments that support the health and well-being of staff or students.

The emphasis on trauma and mental health didn’t originate with America’s Promise Alliance, said Nico Connolly, the alliance’s director of strategic initiatives and partnerships. It came from students, educators and communities themselves.

The alliance started with an intentionally broad request for proposals that asked communities to come up with ideas to make schools healthier. Poverty, racism and trauma were the most common themes cited in applications, Connolly said.

To ensure the grants accounted for those most affected by school culture, America’s Promise paid young people to review applications and share their thoughts. “Part of going where young people point you leads you to trauma-informed care,” Connolly said.

Increasingly, mental health, trauma and its consequences are rising to the attention of community advocates and foundations working in both health and education.

America’s Promise Alliance is best known for its work to increase high school graduation rates. The organization hopes to get national graduation rates, which hover around 84 percent, up to 90 percent by 2020. The nonprofit receives support from the Robert Wood Johnson and Ford foundations, along with several corporate funders, including State Farm, AT&T and Boeing.

Related: Extra Help: Behind a New Targeted Push to Boost High School Graduation Rates

A lot of progress has been made in the last several years, but big disparities remain for minority and low-income students. So the alliance has become more targeted and innovative in the final stretch. The Every School Healthy initiative addresses the link between circumstances outside of school and academic performance and achievement.

Through the alliance’s work, the organization found that “the reason young people were leaving high school was rarely academic outcomes,” Connolly said. As reasons that kids drop out, he cited health issues, adverse childhood experiences (as childhood trauma is often called) or caring for a sick family member. Health and education inform and reinforce each other, he said.

In the foundation world, Robert Wood Johnson (RWJF) is at the cutting edge of work that’s linking trauma to long-term consequences. The funder is especially interested in childhood trauma’s effects on long-term health, and how to undo those consequences.

Related: Lasting Damage: The Public Health Funder Linking Childhood Trauma and Illness

So it may come as no surprise that RWJF is involved here. The foundation provided America’s Promise Alliance with a $6 million grant that’s funding the initiative. The six communities identified the challenges they wanted to address themselves and America’s Promise Alliance picked the grantees, so RWJF did not play an active role in driving the focus of these grants.

However, Jennifer Ng’andu, the foundation’s interim program managing director, said that the concern about trauma and children’s social and emotional development is in keeping with what the foundation has heard in conversations with kids, families and educators across the country.

“We’re seeing recognition and a growing demand to not only take into account book smarts and academics in a child’s well-being, but the whole child’s social and emotional development,” Ng’andu said. She leads RWJF’s work with children and families.

When kids come to school with the emotional baggage of trauma, it is difficult to learn and thrive, she said. RWJF has worked to make schools healthier for years as part of its “Culture of Health” work.

A lot of that work has centered on getting healthier food into school cafeterias and making sure kids have the time and space for play and physical activity, but it’s expanded to include initiatives like Every School Healthy that take a broader approach to kids’ well-being.

This isn’t the only area where RWJF supports work looking into trauma. The foundation is also interested in the relationship between adverse childhood experiences and complex health problems later in life.

Unaddressed trauma can lead kids to adopt risky behaviors like smoking, drinking and drug use to cope with their circumstances. Down the line, those kids are also more likely to develop cancer, diabetes and heart disease. It’s those types of health problems that account for a disproportionate amount of healthcare spending, relative to the number of people they affect.

Because these issues are so difficult, some have shifted their efforts to preventing them before they start. The silver lining in all of this is that researchers have found that relatively straightforward strategies can build kids’ resilience and blunt the effects of trauma. Things like positive interactions with a trusted adult and lessons that teach kids how to stay in control of emotions go a long way toward building a child’s resistance to trauma’s effects.

Another tactic is to make sure that systems don’t further traumatize kids with adverse childhood experiences. That can mean providing additional social and emotional support when a kid acts out, rather than punishing them with a time-out or suspension.

That’s why initiatives like this one that bring a trauma-informed approach to schools can be so life-changing for kids who have experienced trauma. When teachers know what trauma looks like, they can address it and make sure the child gets the support she needs.