Richard Church

Johnson City Schools hosts summit on emotional challenges facing students


Johnson City Schools is hoping to be on the cutting edge of providing their staff with the tools they need to help students deal with the different adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) they encounter. As a part of this, the district hosted its inaugural Tri-Cities Regional Education Summit on ACEs - Trauma-Informed Care on Monday.

The event, which was organized by Liberty Bell’s Richard Church and sponsored by Ballad Health, delve into many of the obstacles that ACEs and childhood trauma present to students and the negative effects those obstacles can have on a child’s ability to learn.

Church said that informing staff about how to deal with ACEs is of upmost importance, especially when trying to make sure that every student is prepared for postsecondary opportunities.

“We’ve got to make sure that we keep our students of greatest need in school and on task,” Church said. “The one way to do that is to change our mindset and flip our lens a little bit and that is what we are hoping to do. About 40 percent of students in Johnson City Schools have multiple adversities like poverty, abuse, neglect; there are a gamut of things that they experience. So we want to make sure that our teachers, and teachers in the surrounding communities, are as prepared as possible to deal with those students.”

ACEs can include things like physical and emotional abuse, neglect, caregiver mental illness and household violence. Studies show that the more ACEs a child experiences, the more likely he or she is to suffer from things like heart disease and diabetes, poor academic achievement and substance abuse later in life.

On average over 1,600 Johnson City Schools’ students are seen by a Frontier Health Specialist at their school to deal with mental health issues each year.

“That might make you think, ‘What’s going on in Johnson City?’, but if you go across the nation, those numbers really aren’t that odd,” Johnson City Schools Supervisor of Safety and Mental Health Dr. Greg Wallace said. “The difference is that we have things in place to support those students.”

Niswonger Children’s Hospital CEO Lisa Carter took time to speak with the group and was complimentary of the district and the steps they are taking to help students cope.

“The thing that we are seeing with these kids will absolutely affect them later on, unless we mitigate those risks and unless we change the patterns and get these kids in a different place,” Carter told the audience. “No one can do this alone; it’s going to take school systems, healthcare, law enforcement and our entire community and region to collectively make a difference in the lives of these kids.”

Johnson City Board of Education member Kathy Hall also took time to speak to the group, commending them on taking time to try and understand each and every one of their students.

“More and more of our students are coming to us with events in their lives that have deeply affected them, sometimes we know about them and sometimes we don’t, but either way, those events come into the classroom with that child,” Hall said. “Understanding the difficulties that those events cause is as important as understanding a learning disability.”

Church started visiting individual schools to speak about trauma informed practices earlier this year and later got the idea to host a summit in order for others to share their experiences.  He said there are no easy answers on how to solve this epidemic, but if teachers and staff are trained on proper practices, they will be ready to deal with the cases as they come.

“If you take care of kids, the other stuff will always happen,” Church said. “You don’t teach language arts, you don’t teach social studies, you don’t teach math, you teach kids.”

The different sessions offered included a Brain Architecture Session led by Stephanie Ledford  and Lesley Bowen, which delved into how brain architecture is established in early life and is the foundation for life-long learning, behavior, and health.  It also addressed how “chaos” in the formative years can have lasting impacts that educators can help address.

Another session, led by Science Hill counselor Holly English, dealt with toxic stress and looked at the three types of stress and how toxic stress derails healthy development.

Church led a Serve and Return session that examined how stable, caring relationships, and “serve and return” interactions begin to positively impact brain architecture and mitigate much of the damage of toxic stress.

Liberty Bell assistant principal Jennifer Moore led a session entitled Responding vs. Reacting that focused on the paradigm shift school professional must have to “respond” effectively to students of trauma and not “react” out of a lack of understanding.

A session entitled “Wearing Your Cement Shoes, Self Care” was led by Liberty Bell counselor Seth Johns. He examined how having plans of care for the adults can be the most beneficial things for students. He discussed things like compassion fatigue, employee wellness, self-care planning at a school level, and allow real facilitation and reflection.

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