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Sonoma Family Life Magazine

Teach about Trauma

By Steven D. Herrington, PhD

I’d like to tell you about one of the greatest obstacles to the health, well-being, and educational success of Sonoma County’s youth: childhood trauma. Statistics suggest that nearly one in five children in our county has suffered two or more of these negative experiences, which range from death of a parent to physical or emotional abuse at home to extreme bullying at school. Research tells us that this exposure dramatically increases children’s risk for behavioral problems in school as well as challenges later in life, such as missed work, alcoholism, diabetes, heart disease, and even early death.

These are grim facts. But this is a hopeful article. That is because such negative outcomes have been shown to be preventable. Simple things such as a strong connection to a parent, teacher, or other caring adult can mean the difference between a child who overcomes his or her traumatic experiences and a child who suffers lifelong harmful consequences.

As the Sonoma County Superintendent of Schools, my hope is that we as parents, educators, and community members can bring awareness about our power to change young lives for the better into our homes, doctors’ offices, and classrooms. To this end, I’d like to tell you more about the science around Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs).

Nearly two decades ago, a landmark study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Kaiser Permanente found that ACEs have a lasting impact on children’s physical and mental health. They also are surprisingly common; nearly two-thirds of about 17,000 surveyed adults experienced at least one.

While it’s easy to think that only a certain segment of children are impacted by trauma, research makes it clear that youth in our most privileged and least privileged areas are susceptible to ACEs.

Children who are exposed to four or more ACEs are 32 times more likely to have learning and behavioral problems. Mistreated children are also more likely than their peers to be held back a grade, have poor attendance, and be placed in special education classes.

Sadly, we can’t always prevent a child from experiencing trauma. But once we know it is happening, we can respond with empathy and take action to ensure the child recovers to live a long, healthy life. That’s where you, as a caring parent, family member, educator, or child caregiver, come in. Responsive caregiving, provided by trusted adults, can mitigate the effects of childhood stress, trauma, and neglect.

“Kids who do really well despite extreme adversity generally are able to point to somebody in their life who believed in them,” Brian Farragher, executive director of the Hanna Boys Center, said in a recent article published by the Sonoma County Office of Education (SCOE).

I’m proud that SCOE is participating in a new county initiative that strives to take the research on this matter and use it to help local children. The ACEs and Resiliency Fellowship is unique to Sonoma County. It seeks to give new tools to those on the frontlines—teachers, counselors, coaches, and nurses—to better help kids who have suffered traumatic experiences. If you have a group that is interested in learning more, consider setting up a training. More information about this collaborative effort can be found at

My hope is that anyone who works with children will be aware of ACEs and their impact on student learning and behavior. I also hope that school leaders will take a systematic approach to providing trauma-informed care. This includes, among other things: an investment in school leaders who are committed to trauma-informed care; professional development to help staff understand what trauma is and how it manifests itself; trauma-sensitive policies like Restorative Practices; and community collaboration.

Perhaps most important, schools need to be a safe place where students can heal, build resilience, and feel secure enough to learn. This includes taking measures to build student self-esteem; providing a predictable structure with consistent routines; and, above all, giving students a sense that they belong and are cared for. Thankfully, this is what great teachers have always done best. Let’s work together as a community to build on these solid foundations and ensure a brighter and healthier future for all of our children.  

Steven D. Herrington, PhD, is the Sonoma County Superintendent of Schools. More information is available here.