‘Handle With Care’ helps schools help children
You look out the window one evening and see first responders at your neighbor’s house. What’s going on? Your next thought: What about the children who live there?
First responders are trained to work with children at the site of an incident, but the impact of a traumatic event can be felt long after it’s over. The next day or a few days later, children will go to school. And what happens then?
Maybe they couldn’t sleep because of the incident or the emergency response. Maybe their routine was upended and they left for school without breakfast. Maybe homework was forgotten. Maybe they are so upset about the incident that they can’t focus on schoolwork.
Now thanks to Handle With Care, public school personnel receive a heads up that a child needs to be handled with care. No details of the incident are shared to preserve the child’s privacy.
Launched in January 2019, Handle With Care is a new initiative of the Child Advocacy Center of Frederick County, Frederick County first responders and Frederick County Public Schools. The program is supported with funding by the Governor’s Office on Crime Control and Prevention and is being implemented in many counties across the state.
More than 360 notices were sent on behalf of children in the first nine months of the program. Almost 60 percent of Frederick County public schools have received at least one notice during this time.
Once the notice is received, school personnel observe the child for a stress response. This bit of information helps them distinguish between a child who needs a nap and one who needs a reminder to get to bed on time.
There isn’t one way to respond to a child in need. School staff can offer things as simple as extra food and time for reflection in a quiet schoolroom, extra time to complete homework, or a delay in testing. Or the child may need therapeutic intervention — with a range of options in between.
Handle With Care helps school staff be trauma-informed and shifts the mental framing from “what’s wrong with you?” to “what happened to you?”
A Handle With Care notice is sent for children who are present at an overdose, death, crime of violence, structure fire with displacement of the family, search warrant or if the child is subject to emergency petition. Officers also have the discretion to send a notice for incidents that are not on the list.
As Tien Ung, a researcher at Harvard Center on the Developing Child, explained at a recent workshop in Frederick, trauma “shatters our basic assumptions that the world is benign and good, the world is explainable and predictable.”
Frederick County Public Schools staff see Handle With Care as a way to enhance the feeling of safety in their schools. Supervisor of Behavioral Health and Student Services Janet Shipman explains, “It’s our job to help children feel safe. Sometimes school is the one place they truly feel safe.”
Children’s Brains Are Built Not Born
Children’s brains develop in the context of positive serve and return activities with a family or community caregiver. The child “serves” by reaching out for interaction (eye contact, facial expressions, gestures, speech or touch, etc.) and a responsive caregiver will “return” their serve with attention (speaking back, playing with or sharing a toy or a laugh).
“In a very young child, the brain is making one million neural connections each second. That’s one million at the snap of a finger,” according to Ung.
Science shows that children who are immersed in positive relationships with plenty of back and forth with adult lay pathways in their brains that are strong and are the building blocks for self-regulation later in life.
“At a certain point, the brain shifts from expanding the number of neural connections to pruning the number of neural connections,” Ung said. “It prunes away those connections that are less strong. Research shows that it’s harder to rebuild those connections later in life.”
Children also rely on caregivers for another important physiological function — calming their stress response.
Stress is not all alike. Some stress is positive, such as nervousness or anxiety when making new friends or learning a new skill. But stress that is unrelenting and intense means the body and brain are constantly bathed in stress hormones that disrupt brain architecture and function.
“A caring adult intent on a positive relationship with a child can help turn a traumatic incident into an experience of tolerable stress rather than toxic stress,” explained Hannah Barber, another researcher with the Harvard Center on the Developing Child who participated in the recent Frederick training session.
This is where Handle With Care really comes into play giving school staff another toolkit in their roles as community caregivers for children, helping turn traumatic incidents into experiences of tolerable, rather than toxic stress.
Pilar Olivo, MPA, is the ACEs Liaison at the Child Advocacy Center of Frederick County. She leads the Frederick County ACEs Workgroup and coordinates Handle With Care Maryland in Frederick County. She worked with the Interagency Early Childhood Committee to bring Harvard Center on the Developing Child to Frederick County for We Design: Applying 21st Century Science to Improve Outcomes for Children.