‘Resilience’ Film Focus On Toxic Stress
By Dianne Alward-Biery
Cleaver Staff Writer
Copyright Clare County Cleaver
HARRISON – Area educators, health care providers, students and others who have a vested interest in the current and future welfare of their communities attended the March 15 screening of the documentary film “Resilience: The Biology of Stress & The Science of Hope” and the panel discussion afterward. Those purpose-driven professionals came to Mid Michigan Community College to share what they know and to learn what they could about how to shift the course of children whose difficulties stem from ACEs [adverse childhood experiences].
Hosting and serving as discussion panel facilitator was Marc Wills, special education director at COOR (Crawford, Oscoda, Ogemaw, Roscommon) Intermediate School District. Wills, who is a master ACE trainer, said his ISD had been on its journey to build awareness and address toxic stress among its students, as well as the secondary stress adults endure.
His introduction began with a short story designed to create connection and relevancy to the “Resilience” film, which had three main focus points. One: neuroscience: how the brain works and how is it wired, particularly when people are exposed to or endure toxic stress. Two: the ACE study and how that can inform educators in school-based systems, with child welfare systems, social services, and ultimately the health care systems.
“And looking at how they can connect that in conjunction,” Wills said. “Working with our partners and other community-based agencies, including law enforcement, to help reduce the risk and help prevent that next ACE score.”
He said the third section talks about protective behaviors, where people can start talking strategies and what can be done as a community to mobilize resources.
“Right here in the audience, you are the resource,” he said. “It’s how you build those connections and relationships to make our children’s future – and the second generation and the third generation – a brighter and healthier future for them.”
Wills then initiated an activity by reciting the history of one child, and asking the audience to take note of the number of traumatic events listed. Those events covered an extensive range of physical punishments, familial upsets, difficulties and tragedies, parental kidnapping, divorce, as well as both parents dying of cancer, sibling diagnoses of clinical depression, one of whom committed suicide. The audience reported hearing from 10 to 25 different adverse events.
Wills said the variance in totals goes back to individual perceptions of what trauma is. He then revealed that the person described was himself, that it was his story.
“What we’re focusing on and what got me to where I am today is resilience,” he said. “It’s the hope. It’s that support system, that one safe person inside or outside a school system that helped me feel safe and build that connection.”
Wills went on to say that trauma crosses any socio-economic status, that all are impacted by trauma, and that schools are working to build primary prevention plans aimed at reducing the risk of the next ACE score.
The film itself described in detail the studies done by Rob Anda, M.D., Centers for Disease Control, and Vince Felitti, M.D., Kaiser Permanente. They came to realize the statistical relationship between adverse childhood events and their resultant trauma, and health issues in adulthood. Understanding what toxic stress is and the fact that children have not yet developed the necessary coping mechanisms, leads to understanding the cumulative effect such stress wreaks on the body.
The studies used a list of questions about life events and health history which enabled the researchers to establish that specific numbers of adverse childhood events would equal a specific percentage of likelihood that given health maladies would manifest in later life. Those scores also bore out a direct correlation to the likelihood of ending up on the wrong side of the law and incarceration.
All the studies and numbers create an obvious funneling back to the beginning of the score card: childhood. That is where the toxic stress has to be prevented from taking hold in the first place. Unfortunately, the answer is not so simple as a happy kindergarten classroom. For children, toxic stress is much like being in a constant state of adrenaline-driven fight-or-flight with no way to control the situation. It was stated in the film that the body needs some stress, but that constant adrenalin and cortisol all day long takes a toll on the body. Hence the phrase, the mind forgets but the body remembers. The film also said such stress can lead to cognitive impairment.
It was noted that resilience is not inborn, but is built over time, and that it is hard to plan for the future when a student finds it hard to get through a single day.
Sources of toxic stress can come in a major way from the adults in a child’s life, and a critically important step in stopping a child’s stress is to help parents manage the stresses and difficulties in their lives. The ACE program takes an intergenerational approach with programs all over the country swinging into action, because untreated ACEs are generational and, if not dealt with, will continue.
It was noted in the film that once a parent is aware their stresses are washing over onto the child, they may well step up and try to better manage their lives for the sake of their child.
The film also talked about taking action to protect children by calling the police and filing a report. It also urged people to recognize that kids have stress, and that they act out because they can’t articulate the problem.
One film participant asked “Why are we waiting for them to fall apart? We need to be where the kids are.”
It also was noted that symptoms often don’t show until fourth grade.
One curriculum tool a teacher in the film used with her small students was “The Legend of Miss Kendra” wherein a concerned adult would ask children if they were OK, and encouraged them to tell her anything that concerned them. She would ask specific questions, such as “Are you being hurt?” and deeper questions as well. By using that example in story form, it made the children aware they could speak to their teacher or other trusted adult about any harm they were experiencing.
The film spoke to growing awareness and being trauma informed, being able to say “It’s not what’s wrong with you; it’s what happened to you.”
Also noted was the beneficial effects on ACE scores when adults received support with their stress issues, and as one speaker said, “This is public health information everyone in the country should have and understand.”
A brief sampling of the “Resilience” film may be viewed at www.resiliencemovie.com.
ACEs A ‘Hot Topic’ In Education
Panel Brings Expertise to Discussion
By Dianne Alward-Biery
Cleaver Staff Writer
HARRISON – The “Resilience” film discussion panel included Deputy Nick Oster, schools liaison officer; Michelle Ambrozaitis, Clare County Prosecutor; Martin Combs, Clare-Gladwin RESD special education director; Betsy Ulicki, Michigan Department of Health and Human Services; Andrea Andera, Hillside Elementary principal; Rosalyn Kindell, Northern Michigan Mobile Child Advocacy Center preventive education coordinator; and Hollie Nash, NMMCAC family advocate.
Wills said the ACE initiative had been rolled out in Michigan three years ago to business community members, non-profits, health care systems, corrections and social services.
“With that, they started connecting those dots,” he said. “So, just in year three they’re starting to connect with our school-based systems. We’re in that infancy of building awareness and different counties are in different stages of implementation. ACEs doesn’t define us, it is a tool.”
Andera added that an element of great importance is the one caring person, building a connection with them and asking what could they do “right then”?
The panel fielded various educators’ questions regarding how to best use the ACEs program, how to seek out support for their efforts, ad how to manage giving special care to the child acting out due to toxic stress while still being responsible for educating the rest of the students in their class.
Responding to the question: When a child is recognized with ACES, how is it handled? Wills said “Shifting the mindset…you’re not what problem you have, it’s what happened to you.”
Combs said, “We have to get better systems in place.”
Ambrozaitis spoke of the Handle With Care program which addresses how a child is handled at school after an upsetting incident the prior day. “The school will get a note to alert them that the child had an adverse event.”
Oster said a message goes out to HWC@Clareco.net which gets a message to the principal, who in turn informs teachers.
The next question sought opinion on zero tolerance for bad behavior in schools, and how can extra care and understanding be afforded a child when their behavior would ordinarily fall into a zero tolerance category?
“We have to be cognizant of what’s happening in our society,” Andera said. She also reiterated the need to shift mindsets to “It’s what happened to you.”
Combs said that data shows zero tolerance doesn’t work as well. “Healing the harm they’ve caused goes along with this initiative,” he said.
Nash spoke of the need to be informed about how trauma to the brain affects behavior, and the importance of keeping frustration levels down and using motivational interview techniques.
It was also noted that it takes about 20 minutes until an event is toxic, and that children choose a negative action to keep themselves safe.
The next question asked how likely is it a curriculum like Miss Kendra’s could give a child the ability or avenue to communicate their problems? The questioner said the Child Advocacy Center is great, but a lot of kids aren’t going to make it there.
Kindell spoke of her program, Lauren’s Kids, which she has introduced to first and third grades. She said the program has three elements: video, journals and an activities center, with the themes centering on cyber bullying and empowerment.
Raising the next question was a woman who would be graduating this year and taking a position in education. She asked, as a rookie teacher, how could she encourage her new school system to pursue the ACE initiative?
Andera was quick to say she should raise awareness. “Just start talking about it. This is the hot topic in education.”
Another teacher said she had a recent incident with trauma student behavior, saying other students in the class are getting traumatized also, an asked for a strategy for the remaining students.
“There are times when we need to keep kids safe,” Combs said. “One caring adult makes the difference. If the child is put out of school they will be without support, and they’re still in our community. Sometimes we have to make sure our children are safe.”
Wills spoke of the Primary Prevention Plan and Support Plan.
“What we focus on we get more of,” he said. “We have to catch them being good, because it takes seven positives to counter one negative.”
Also touched on was the importance of letting people/parents know it’s OK to ask for help. Wills said transportation is an issue in some rural areas, and so is finding who they can turn to for help.”
“It’s Ok to say I can’t do this on my own,” Wills said. “There is also social media and online group support.”
The next question, “How can communities and educators emulate the strategies in “Resilience?” drew some truly impassioned responses.
“Be a mentor!” Andera said. “We have Big Brothers Big Sisters programs in this area and I have kids on waiting lists for years. We don’t have enough men volunteering in our communities to be positive male role models. We don’t have enough women who are out there and able to give up that time. If you have the time, I would rather have that than your money. Please come and have lunch with a child once a week for an hour. Give of your time.”
“Reach out,” Nash said. “Bust stigmas, show people that everybody needs help once in a while. Don’t make it taboo to go to Community Mental Health to get help or to go to a parenting class because you need some tips. Be comfortable yourself reaching out and model yourself for those who might be afraid to.”
“If you could take one thing away from tonight and the things that you’ve learned from this movie, it’s you’re my future jurors,” Ambrozaitis said. “You are friends and family of my future jurors. And if Nassar didn’t teach us anything [else] in Michigan, you need to believe kids! When they come to you and say ‘I’m being abused,’ you need to believe them, and you need to help them, and you need to support them. So when they come into court and they sit there and tell 12 people they have never met before about the things that this adult has done to them – that we wouldn’t want to talk about if it was a good experience with other adults, strangers – believe them.”
The closing panel comment came from Deputy Oster.
“One of the things I’ve seen over the last eight years is that we don’t really get anything accomplished unless we kind of step out of our silos of our different entities,” he said. “It’s when we come together, put our heads together … and surround a child who has maybe been sexually abused and we bounce ideas off each other and find the best way of caring for that child. I think that’s when we actually go somewhere. The other thing …. you could fill an auditorium like this, and you’ve got some momentum going right now and some forward movement, and we don’t want that to get quashed. If we keep the momentum going and do what’s best for these kids, I think we can really get somewhere.”
Wills urged attendees to consider five people they thought would benefit from the ACEs program, and in a month choose a short-term goal for sharing the information, then a year hence to decide what to do with the information to strengthen partnerships and create some synergy among the communities in Clare and Gladwin counties.