School-based group therapy helps youth deal with traumatic experiences
A screech pierced the din of normal Milwaukee traffic and commerce, as a woman and a child walked home from a Milwaukee school. Rubber burned as a speeding car’s brakes did what they could to stop the vehicle as it hurtled toward the crosswalk. But the brakes were applied too late, a delayed decision by a drunk driver. The child would be okay, but the woman would not make it to the hospital.
Karen*, a La Causa Charter School student, was in Mexico with her mother when she heard the news. The victim was her grandmother. Karen never got to say goodbye.
Tim McGuire, Social Services Program Manager at La Causa, is not naïve about the challenges faced by many of the children attending the school.
“Shocked isn’t the right word, but I was surprised at the level of trauma that the kids at La Causa Charter School had, which spanned from near-death drowning experiences to home invasion with guns to homicide,” McGuire said.
Researchers are finding compelling evidence that these kinds of traumatic experiences impact youth, and that the effects can linger throughout the lifespan. Addressing these traumas can allow kids to focus in the classroom and develop socially and emotionally into more mentally and physically healthy adults.
La Causa , Inc. received funding from the Healthier Wisconsin Partnership Program in 2009 to implement a school-based mental health program focused on helping students deal with the serious traumas they had experienced in their young lives.
“The program started because of a need we identified,” Chyra Trost, La Causa’s Director of Social Services, said. The name, Nuestros Ninos, Nuestro Futuro, is Spanish for Our Children, Our Future.
“The name speaks to the project because addressing traumatic experiences at a young age allows children to grow up healthier,” Trost said. “The research says that if you [address trauma early], children’s chance of succeeding as adults increases dramatically.”
In order to achieve these results, Trost and her team selected a California-based model to implement.
“CBITS is the model, and it stands for Cognitive Behavioral Intervention for Trauma in Schools,” McGuire said. “We chose it because it is a school-based intervention with evidence showing it to be effective. It was also researched with a population similar to what we have in our charter school.”
“The basis of the intervention,” McGuire said, “is how thoughts affect feelings and behavior, and to really get into those negative ways of thinking. The kids really worked at it and they embraced the activities like the Fear Thermometer. There was also a real embracing of the group model and interaction with the clinicians and peers,” McGuire said.
“Also, as part of the desensitization process, the kids have to pick something that is similar to the traumatic event, and then create less scary versions of it,” project partner Julia Dickson-Gomez, PhD, Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Medicine at the Medical College of Wisconsin, said. “For example, if a child saw someone getting shot in the park, that would be the scariest event for them. Driving by the park with their parents, or going to a different park, that is the child’s homework and it helps reduce his or her fear.”
La Causa Charter School’s staff members could see how participating in the intervention helped the students.
“I’ve interacted with teachers, and with the school counselor at La Causa,” McGuire said. “I’ve heard on many occasions that they could see a difference in the way the kids behaved. And they also enjoyed receiving the information on how trauma affects behavior.”
In addition to work with the kids, project partners also sought to change the school by educating teachers and parents.
‘The whole process,” Trost said, “is to make the school and the families more aware and more ready to look at things differently. The individual kids are part of the project, but so is the environment.”
Dr. Dickson-Gomez led the evaluation of the group therapy and trauma-informed environment’s effectiveness. The research component she installed analyzed how the intervention impacted participating students. Her findings of reduced Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder symptoms and symptoms of depression gave weight to the teachers’ observations.
“She is a great partner,” Trost said. “Her team did a wonderful job with the research piece, making sure the consent forms and explanations were in as common of terms and language as possible. We value the research because of the results that we can show regarding our outcomes.”
Mental health outcomes like these represent more than an approach that works. These outcomes represent lives changed, and are underscored by another research project Dr. Dickson-Gomez is working on in Milwaukee.
“Many of the qualitative interviews we’ve done with gang members in the past year reveal significant amounts of trauma in early childhood,” Dr. Dickson-Gomez said.
“You can’t help but think, what would have happened if there had been some way to address these traumas in school.”
Karen, as part of her intervention, wrote a goodbye letter to her beloved grandmother. In the note, she reflected on her grandmother’s influence.
“You always wanted us to be great people, to take care of ourselves, and to take care of our brothers and sisters.”
Karen followed with a promise to always meet the needs of her brothers and sisters. Karen is working hard to achieve that promise by improving her grades and employing coping strategies to reduce her feelings of depression. She even reported feeling some of the old happiness her friends used to bring.
While her healing journey is not over, she has come a long way. In her first session, she had reported a haunting goal: “I want to feel excited about life.”
With a growing recognition of the impacts of trauma in the education and social services sectors, the project partners are hopeful that programs like Nuestros Ninos, Nuestro Futuro will help children overcome their obstacles to find success and happiness in school and in life.
The future of children like Karen, after all, is our future. By addressing trauma in children, it can be a future with fewer dreams deferred, and many more dreams achieved.
*Name altered to protect the participant’s privacy.