How a U.P. Head Start Program is Helping Kids Overcome Trauma

Julie Bitely

| 3 min read

Little girl holding teddy bear with back to camera.
Temper tantrums and emotional outbursts can be normal for young children, but Cheryl Mills, executive director and Head Start director, Baraga-Houghton-Keweenaw Child Development Board, Inc., said she’s noticed a trend developing in the last few years that went beyond typical toddler and early childhood behavior. Students were coming to BHK Head Start sites unable to emotionally regulate themselves. They had difficulty interacting with adults and Mills suspected that early childhood trauma was to blame. The Upper Peninsula counties BHK serves covers a wide swath of rural geography. Meaningful employment that pays a decent wage can be hard to come by, opioid and alcohol addiction have hit the region hard and accessing mental and behavioral health services is difficult considering how far away families might need to travel to do so. About 63 percent of the children who attend BHK come from families whose income was below 100 percent of the federal poverty level. An additional 27 percent are on some type of public assistance. When kids are exposed to stressful situations in childhood, it can weaken their developing brain and permanently set their body’s stress response system on high alert. Without intervention, lifelong repercussions to learning, behavior and both physical and mental health can develop. Based on her observations and those of colleagues from around the state and at the local intermediate school district, Mills knew intervention was sorely needed at BHK. A $65,000 grant from the Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan Foundation is helping BHK implement the evidence-based, trauma informed Watch Me Shine program, to help build supportive, responsive relationships between children and caring adults. Training BHK teachers to recognize trauma in kids and to then identify ways to build relationships that help those kids feel safe is a large part of the program that started at the beginning of the 2018-2019 school year. The training is helping teachers understand why certain students might not respond to classroom instruction or discipline in ways they’d anticipate and helping them to be more effective and flexible in their approaches. “We’re building awareness among adults that the way kids are behaving is sometimes the only way they know how to communicate that something is unsettled in their lives,” explained Tracy Newton-Cadeau, mental health and disabilities coordinator, BHK. “A lot of the behaviors we see are fear-based.” BHK is also working through intervention plans with parents so that they can implement supportive strategies in the home. “I’m a strong believer that if you can help the parents, they can help the children,” Newton-Cadeau said. That might mean helping parents address the source of trauma a child has been exposed to through referrals to counseling or other types of community resources or programs. As the program progresses, Mills hopes to build awareness about the effects of childhood trauma in the broader community, so a stronger support system is put in place to help kids and their families build resiliency, whether they come through BHK’s doors or not. “I don’t see the substance abuse and the drugs and all the challenges that families are facing going away anytime soon,” Mills said. If you found this post helpful, check these out:
Photo credit: Ahmet Yarali

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