Albemarle group forms to study childhood trauma

When young children go through long periods of stress and trauma, the effects go deeper than just their emotional wellbeing; the experiences have a lasting effect on how their brains develop, according to research.

This year, a group of Albemarle County schools and social services officials, researchers and criminal justice professionals has convened to study how local schools and governments can respond to and mitigate the effect of childhood trauma.

Convened by Gloria Peña Rockhold, community programs manager for Albemarle County Public Schools, the advisory group has so far met twice.

“This conversation is more of a global conversation, not just school bound,” Rockhold said. “It does affect all aspects of the community, and we all need to be on the same page in order for all of us to be able to move forward with initiatives that will actually cause change to happen.”

Research by the Centers for Disease Control on adverse childhood experiences — abbreviated as ACEs — shows that the stress they cause can lead to poor health, low educational achievement and early death.

ACEs cover a wide range of negative experiences — from parents getting divorced to abuse, neglect and domestic violence — but research has shown that childhood poverty is the most common, followed by divorce, according to a 2014 study by Child Trends.

“Poverty is the factor that is most related to trauma, hunger, housing and security, malnutrition, lack of supervision, potential for abuse, systemic and secondary post-traumatic stress disorder,” Rockhold said. “All of these things are coming into the classroom.”

The goal for Albemarle’s Bright Stars coordinator, Ann McAndrew, is to form a community that is better equipped to help children with challenging or stressful home lives.

“Here is the great news about the brain: it is malleable,” McAndrew said. “Any time a child has a relationship with an adult that is healthy and supportive, they are laying the groundwork for healing.”

As young brains become accustomed to reacting to stress — essentially entering fight-or-flight mode — they lose their ability to absorb and retain lessons at school, and can have behavioral issues.

“The problem is that when you are in a situation that causes your body to go into fear or fight or flight … it causes the brain to release chemicals that take your prefrontal cortex offline,” said Kristin Jamison, a developmental scientist and director of the Charlottesville-based Loop Center for Social and Emotional Development.

The prefrontal cortex manages decision making, social behavior, personality expression and planning. When the brain is in fight-or-flight mode, the prefrontal cortex shuts down to allow the body to respond quickly to stimuli.

Repeated stress and trauma, Jamison said, cause the brain to rely on reactions rather than reasoning and planning, which in a school environment can lead to behavior issues and an inability to effectively learn.

Childhood stresses can lead to a higher likelihood that an individual will be incarcerated as they get older.

“A common thread through many of the interviews I conducted was that many of the individuals I interviewed had significant trauma in their backgrounds,” said Neal Goodloe, a retired probation officer and criminal justice planner for Jefferson Area Community Corrections. “As criminal justice has evolved, professionals have made an effort to understand the traumas affecting those individuals.”

A better understanding of the effects of trauma could help communities save money, Goodloe said.

“One of the things that I want to be able to explore in the next year or two is the cost to the entire system of providing services for people with significant trauma in their backgrounds,” he said. “And then I would hope that leads to a conversation about how the social services providers can better provide services for those people.”