Paper Tigers

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What are paper tigers? Well, they refer to a byproduct of trauma. When kids grow up in environments where toxic stress is an everyday occurrence, their brains wire to keep them in a constant state of fight or flight. They are perpetually on edge, vigilant in assessing their surroundings for dangers, real or imagined. The imagined dangers are paper tigers, not real but emanating from traumatic experiences and just as threatening as a raised fist or an unwanted touch.

The documentary Paper Tigers depicts a school in Walla Walla Washington where teachers and leaders have found a new way to reach and teach kids who see paper tigers around every corner. Instead of responding to acting out teens with punishing discipline, they seek to understand the adverse childhood experiences or ACEs that effect their students and get in the way of their learning.

More than two decades ago, two respected researchers, clinical physician Dr. Vincent Felitti and CDC epidemiologist Robert Anda, published the game-changing Adverse Childhood Experiences Study. It revealed a troubling but irrefutable phenomenon: the more traumatic experiences the respondents had as children (such as physical and emotional abuse and neglect), the more likely they were to develop health problems later in life—problems such as cancer, heart disease, and high blood pressure. To complicate matters, there was also a troubling correlation between adverse childhood experiences and prevalence of drug and alcohol abuse, unprotected sex, and poor diet. Combined, the results of the study painted a staggering portrait of the price our children are paying for growing up in unsafe environments, all the while adding fuel to the fire of some of society’s greatest challenges.    (http://kpjrfilms.co/paper-tigers/about-the-film/)

Adverse Childhood Experiences include eight experiences that impact future health and longevity of children. They fall into three categories: Abuse, Neglect and Household Dysfunction. The eight ACEs are physical, emotional or sexual abuse, physical or emotional neglect, and whether mental illness, the incarceration of a relative, domestic violence, substance abuse or divorce are present in the home environment. The more ACEs present, the worse the outcome.

That’s the bad news.

The good news is that something can be done. Trauma informed therapy and emotionally responsive teaching are two interventions that can buld resiliency in children facing traumatic stress.

Last night I had the pleasure of sitting on a panel made up of policy makers and practitioners  who work tirelessly to address the inequities that perpetuate toxic environments for large numbers of our country’s children. The US rates number two in developed countries for  how many children live in poverty, second only to Romania. In my eyes that is nothing short of a crime. Poverty is the single highest variable coralated with ACEs.

We screened the movie for a standing room only audience at the Grace Church School in Cooper Square in lower Manhattan. Moderator Andrew Solomon, the Pulitzer Prize finalist and author of Far From the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity, led us in a lively discussion of the film, fielding questions from an audience of parents, teachers and community leaders.The event was sponsored by many schools and community organizations, including The First Presbyterian Church, Go Project, St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church, NIP Professional Association, Academy of St. Joseph, Prevent Child Abuse New York and the Corlears School. The room was filled with caring citizens who want to see change. Teachers spoke about their own trauma in working with troubled children in broken schools with no resources or administrative support.

Joy Farina Foskett, the organizer of this important event, reminded us all that ACEs cross all socioeconomic boundaries and exist in every culture. Some of the panelists themselves spoke to the ACE of divorce in their own families. We listed some valuable resources in the program: community organizations, websites and books. Included in the list are “Divorce is the Worst” and “Death is Stupid”, two great books by Anastasia Higginbotham, that help adults open up important conversations with children who may suffer alone through painful ACEs. Kathleen McCue’s “How to help Children Through a Parent’s serious Illness” is another great resource to assist parents and teachers.

Trauma informed, emotionally responsive teaching seems like a no brainer. It doesn’t cost more money, and it prevents costly medical care, incarceration and strengthens our country’s most valuable asset, our children. If it worked with teens who’d already been labeled as unreachable and no good, how much more could it do within early childhood settings? In Early Intervention?

We were all left with one question on our minds. Why isn’t every school in the country following in the footsteps of Lincoln Alternative High School? What are we waiting for?

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