TOPICS > Education

Giving traumatized kids a head start in healing

July 24, 2014 at 6:30 PM EDT
Every year, thousands of children in the U.S. are expelled from school before they reach Kindergarten. Special correspondent Molly Knight Raskin reports on a program in Kansas City, Missouri, that’s trying to stem the trend by looking beyond the classroom to the issues these children face at home -- and helping them to feel safe.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Every year, thousands of children in this country are expelled from school before they reach kindergarten. In fact, studies show that preschool children are expelled at significantly rates than those in kindergarten through 12th grade.

Special correspondent Molly Knight Raskin reports on a program in Kansas City, Missouri, that’s trying to stem this trend by looking beyond the classroom to the issues these kids face at home.

MOLLY KNIGHT RASKIN: In many ways, Desiree Kazee, is a typical 5-year-old girl. She’s bubbly, bright and affectionate. Her favorite color is pink. And she enjoys drawing and dancing.

But, two years ago, when Desiree began preschool at a Head Start program near her home in Liberty, Missouri, she didn’t seem to enjoy much of anything.

RENEE SILVER, School Therapist: She was a very angry child. She would tantrum, she would scream, she would whine, she would complain of things bothering her that might not normally bother a child.

MOLLY KNIGHT RASKIN: Renee Silver is a school therapist who worked individually with Desiree.

RENEE SILVER: She wouldn’t take no for an answer. She would want to do things when she wanted to do them. She did everything she could to try and gain control.

MOLLY KNIGHT RASKIN: In most classrooms, Desiree’s behavior would be met with harsh discipline, but in this Head Start school, the teachers don’t punish kids for acting out. That’s because all these children, including Desiree, have experienced at least one traumatic event in their short lifetimes.

JANINE HRON, CEO, Crittenton Children’s Center: This would be separation from parents. This would be incarcerated parents, substance abuse or untreated mental illness in the home, witnessing violent interactions, being abused themselves.

MOLLY KNIGHT RASKIN: Janine Hron is the CEO of Crittenton Children’s Center, a psychiatrist hospital in Kansas City. In 2008, Hron and her team developed Head Start Trauma Smart, an innovative program that evidence-based trauma therapy into Head Start classrooms.

The program was created in response to the pervasiveness of trauma in the Kansas City area. Of the 4,000 kids in Head Start, 50 percent have experienced more than three traumatic events.

JANINE HRON: This is not a one-and-done kind of a bad experience. This happens over and over and over, and it becomes rather a lifestyle of trauma.

MOLLY KNIGHT RASKIN: Studies show that one in four preschool-age children experience a traumatic event by the start of kindergarten. Because so many of these children respond to traumatic stress by acting out, they prove a challenge to teachers and caregivers, who find that traditional methods of, like scolding them or putting them in a time-out, don’t work. In fact, these methods often makes things worse, leading to suspension or expulsion.

Avis Smith, a licensed social work at Crittenton, explains why.

AVIS SMITH, Crittenton Children’s Center: Their behaviors are so extreme, that the adults don’t know how to keep everybody safe.

MOLLY KNIGHT RASKIN: In Head Start Trauma Smart, safety comes first. Molly Marx has been teaching in the program for five years.

MOLLY MARX, Teacher, Head Start: The first thing you have to do is make them feel safe. And if you’re not making them feel safe, they are not going to learn or improve. So, most of how we teach starts with complete social-emotional. I am here. I will keep you safe. Help me keep it that way.

WOMAN: This is where I would like you to sit today to make sure your body is safe.

MOLLY KNIGHT RASKIN: In training programs held year-round, Head Start Trauma Smart teachers learn to validate extreme emotions referred to as (INAUDIBLE) feelings using calm and quiet voices. They are also armed with practical and cognitive tools to help kids soothe themselves.

MOLLY MARX: In our room, the safe spot is in a really quiet corner, and it’s filled with kind of pillows and blankets. And then we have a calm down box. There are several sensory things that they can play with. We have squishy balls. We have sunglasses.

MOLLY KNIGHT RASKIN: All of the methods are aimed at quieting a tidal wave of emotions that often overwhelms these kids. Neuroscientists have found that trauma causes arrested development in children’s brains. This leaves them vulnerable to triggers that adults around them often don’t see.

AVIS SMITH: It might be a smell. It might be a touch. It might be a sound that that child experienced during that traumatic event that is a reminder for that child of what happened.

MOLLY KNIGHT RASKIN: This is the case for Desiree, who suffered traumatic events, including the incarceration of her mother and the death of a close family member. Desiree was also the victim of abuse.

The incident was so traumatizing that her father, Derek Kazee, said he saw a total shift in her personality.

DEREK KAZEE: Before everything, like, she just — she was a people person. She loved being around people. After the experience happened, she tended to turn off. She didn’t really want to be around adults. She didn’t want to be around kids. She just wanted to be at home, her safe spot.

MOLLY KNIGHT RASKIN: Derek Kazee says it wasn’t until she began the trauma program that Desiree finally felt safe enough to go to school and to share her experience with the adults there. One of them was therapist Renee Silver, who works with kids individually to reinforce the self-regulating techniques of Head Start Trauma Smart.

In one activity, Silver applies lotion to Desiree’s hands.

RENEE SILVER: I’m going to get your pinkie and your ringy and your middle.

How often do kids get that nurturing, where each finger is individualized and pointed out, and they’re getting that focused attention, where nothing else matters? And so it really helps the kids. They — it’s almost like they melt.

MOLLY KNIGHT RASKIN: And it’s not just teachers and therapists who practice these techniques.

AVIS SMITH: Bus drivers, cooks, everyone who is in the life of that child.

Derek Kazee says he often works with Desiree at home, where they both use calm down stuff like counting and deep breathing.

DEREK KAZEE: Go ahead.

She tends to just walk away and calm herself down. And usually, like, before the program, she would just, you know, have a tantrum. Now she’s more in control of her feelings and her emotions. As a parent, it makes me completely happy.

MOLLY KNIGHT RASKIN: Head Start Trauma Smart is still in its early stages, but it’s already showing promising results; 100 percent of the children enrolled have moved on to kindergarten. It’s this kind of success that Hron says she hopes will boosts the program’s growth nationwide.

JANINE HRON: If we can pull this off across the country, the dividends will be phenomenal.

MOLLY KNIGHT RASKIN: Some of the Head Start Trauma Smart results are harder to measure. But to those who care for these children, they are impossible to miss.

DEREK KAZEE: All right.