Building a United Front Against Childhood Trauma

By Cody Kornack, Senior Manager of Congressional Affairs & Opioid Campaign Manager, NHSA

Head Start programs are ceaselessly evolving and staff are continually adapting to best meet the most pressing needs of the children and families they serve. Often, this means that they are on the frontlines as communities change, new challenges arise, and local economies shift. In some communities, this means programs increase mental health services to respond to a rise in violence; in others, this means buying additional buses to reach families impacted by gentrification. In others still, Head Start programs are adapting their services as they grapple with how to best address the impacts of addiction on both caregiver and child.

By recognizing and becoming vocal supporters of effective legislation, like the RISE from Trauma Act, the Head Start community can make its voice heard in Congress and reinforce that we must create better opportunities and outcomes for children who have been exposed to trauma.

Over the years, we have seen what happens in a community when it is flooded with opioids, when methamphetamines take hold, or when alcohol addiction goes unaddressed. Crises like these command the attention and collaboration of many. The medical community cannot address addiction alone; neither can the criminal justice system, education, or the child welfare system. In 2017, the National Head Start Association convened a working group of Head Start practitioners from around the country to quite simply learn, “What is it that you’re doing to address addiction, and what do you need to do it better?”

The working group had a powerful response. All confronting different addictions and challenges, they all had the same answer: It’s about working with the whole family, realizing their strengths and believing in their futures, and addressing childhood trauma every step along the way.

Long-term results require a comprehensive approach. It means collaborating within communities and across systems, so we sought to find out what Head Start’s part is in this work. The result: a policy report written by and for Head Start practitioners, and detailing proven best practices.

For one Head Start program, they saw 100% of the children significantly improvement in their drug-impacted symptoms, with 53% showing resolution. For the mothers who became pregnant again while their older, substance-impacted child was enrolled, 88% gave birth to a full-term, drug-free, and healthy second child.

Another Head Start program has implemented a trauma-focused approach with year-round preschool classes that are designed to be a safe and supportive environment, where self-regulation, connections, and problem-solving are developed and practiced. A standardized assessment shows 70% of children went from having an identified need at enrollment to being on-target or showing strengths in the areas of self-regulation, attachment & relationship-building, and initiative.

Three common elements exist across Head Start programs that have led the way in addressing trauma:

  1. Increased mental health consultation
  2. Trauma-informed care training for all staff and
  3. Lower ratios and more individualized care during in-class time

Research shows that these practices yield major cost savings to individuals and society at large. However, the reality is that the majority of Head Start programs are unable to provide services like these. Limited resources and increasing challenges have put known, effective practices out of reach for many Head Start programs. Others have started with limited resources but know more could be done with a greater investment in the community.

This month, Congressional champions took momentous steps towards doing just that.

The RISE (Resilience, Investment, Support, and Expansion) from Trauma Act is a bipartisan, bicameral bill that seeks to empower communities responding to trauma. Six enlightened members of Congress from all over the country — U.S. Senators Dick Durbin (D-IL), Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV), Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), and U.S. Representatives Danny Davis (D-IL-07) and Mike Gallagher (R-WI-08) — have come together to forge a path forward.

The passage of last year’s SUPPORT Act, the federal legislation responding to the opioid crisis, was a critical beginning, but it was just that — a beginning. The RISE from Trauma Act builds off the remarkable progress that Congress made last year and focuses on building a trauma-informed workforce and sharing resources to deeply impacted communities. Moreover, in doing so, the bill answers the very needs that Head Start has so acutely identified around training and community collaboration.

The National Head Start Association is proud to support the RISE from Trauma Act — a critical effort that stands to have a substantial, visible impact on the Head Start community, including its staff, children, and families. As a country, we have a long way to go to holistically and effectively address the far-reaching impacts of childhood trauma. By recognizing and becoming vocal supporters of effective legislation, like the RISE from Trauma Act, the Head Start community can make its voice heard in Congress and reinforce that we must create better opportunities and outcomes for children who have been exposed to trauma.

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National Head Start Association

NHSA is a nonprofit organization committed to the belief that every child, regardless of circumstances at birth, has the ability to succeed in life.