Image of brightly colored blocks against a white background.

Starfish Family Services Addressing Childhood Trauma in Metro Detroit

This is the second in a three-part series about the ways early-childhood trauma impacts health later in life and how organizations in Michigan are addressing the issue. Read the first post here

Despite their tiny frames, kids have big, sometimes out-of-control feelings. When those emotions erupt in not-so-appropriate ways, the outbursts can fray the nerves of teachers and caregivers.

At Starfish Family Services, efforts have been underway to not only address the behavior, but to understand why it’s happening in the first place and to respond in a way that recognizes the underlying current of trauma that infiltrates the lives of the kids the organization serves. The non-profit organization works with children and families in the metro Detroit area through early childhood education, behavioral health services, and community and parenting classes.

Starfish serves a population where adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs, scores are significantly higher than the national average, meaning the kids they teach and care for have seen more trauma in their short lives than many of their counterparts in other parts of the state and country.

Studies show that one in four children experience trauma by preschool, but key adults in a child’s life can be trained to be a buffer against traumatic experiences. To that end, Starfish has been implementing evidence-based Trauma Smart training for all staff, which has been recognized as an effective tool in helping children and the adults who care for them address the negative impact of violence and trauma. A $50,000 grant from the Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan Foundation is helping the organization measure the effectiveness of the work, which has found broad support from many philanthropic organizations.

In classrooms run by Starfish Family Services, staff have made an empathetic shift in how they deal and interact with outbursts, particularly for kids with recurring behavioral issues. Children who act out aren’t immediately labeled as “bad”, rather, caregivers are taking the time to put themselves in the child’s shoes and consider what they might be going through outside the classroom.

“We are helping to create a place that feels safe, where children in the classrooms are able to learn,” said Brianne Twombly, trauma manager at Starfish Family Services.

Students might not have enough to eat at home. Their family might be going through a difficult time due to drugs, crime or abuse. They might simply not feel safe. Staff have made the shift to look for and recognize trauma in the lives of their young charges and respond accordingly. The coping mechanisms they use to overcome trauma at home might not be the best response to use in the classroom, which needs to be recognized by their teachers.

“This child is doing the best that they can given the current situation,” Twombly said.

Mental health experts have been working with teachers to help shift their thinking about what causes behavioral problems in the classroom. Additionally, parents can take advantage of classes to learn strategies that can help them break negative habits they learned from their own parents and realize they’re not alone on their parenthood journey. The hope is that more resilient adults will lead to more resilient children.

“If you are the adult in the situation, you need to be seen as in control and be able to regulate your own emotions in order to help children learn,” Twombly said.

As part of the Trauma Smart approach, caretakers take a pre- and post-training Attitudes Related to Trauma-Informed Care (ARCTIC) survey to assess how the lessons are sinking in.

“We’re looking to see that there has been a change in what their beliefs are around that,” Twombly said.

She’s encouraged by the cultural shift she’s observed as the program continues to grow. Faculty feel more equipped to meet children where they are and effectively deploy the Trauma Smart training, which is trickling down to the children they serve.

“I think we have noticed changes in the classrooms and with the kids,” Twombly said.

Come back tomorrow to learn about Family Futures in Grand Rapids and how that organization is conducting research into whether or not parents with higher ACE scores end up raising children disproportionately affected by developmental delays and how to break that cycle.  

If you liked this post, you might also enjoy:

Photo credit: Marco Verch

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *