This post originally appeared as an op-ed in the NKY Tribune on August 13, 2022.

By Joseph Bargione and Jo Cruz

Most children returned to school this week. For many, they return with new backpacks and school supplies.

However for some, their backpacks also contain things we can’t readily see – Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). Traumatic experiences such as abuse, exposure to violence, parental mental health challenges, and negative community events, like the recent flooding and displacement in Eastern Kentucky, can have lasting effects without supportive intervention.

If these events occur in childhood, they can impact the child’s academic performance and physical and mental health during and after their school years. The latest data indicates that one in five of Kentucky children experienced two or more ACEs. Additionally, according to the 2021 U.S. Surgeon General’s Advisory report, young people have shown alarming increases in the prevalence of certain mental health challenges – challenges that are widespread, but are treatable and often preventable. This is especially urgent as the latest Kids Count Data Book reports that Kentucky children aged 3-17 encountered a 28% jump in anxiety or depression between 2016 and 2020

Dr. Joseph Bargione

These data demonstrate that support and access to prevention and intervention programs is critical in order for each Kentucky child to build resiliency and thrive.

The good news is that ACEs don’t write a child’s destiny, but are considered risk factors. There are strategies parents, educators, and other caring community members can employ to reduce the impact of trauma on children and help them grow up happy and healthy.

In fact, Kentucky schools have been focusing on combating ACEs and trauma since the passage of the School Safety and Resiliency Act in 2019. Most are aware of the part of the law that focuses on the physical safety of children and staff. What may not be as commonly known is the focus on schools building resilience in children and mitigating the effects of trauma.

Jo Cruz

The General Assembly continues to build on that important work, including requiring school districts to implement a Trauma-Informed Education Plan adopted by their local board of education. This year, with advocacy from Bloom KentuckySB 102 passed requiring districts to annually report the number of mental health professionals with the goal of a 250:1 ratio. HB 44 also passed providing districts the option to allow excused absences for student mental health days.

So, what strategies should we put in place for our children to build resiliency and reduce trauma? The Bounce Coalition, an initiative focused on building resilient children, families, and communities, offers these suggestions:

For Parents and Caregivers:

  • Be a role model by taking care of your own mental and physical health.
  • Help children develop strong, stable relationships with you, other supportive adults, and their peers.
  • Do your best to provide children with a supportive, stable home and neighborhood.
  • Ensure children have regular check-ups with a healthcare professional.
  • Look out for warning signs of distress, and seek help when needed.
  • Minimize access to means of self-harm, including firearms and prescription medications.
  • Be attentive to how children spend time online.

For Schools:

  • Create safe, affirming learning environments by implementing your district’s trauma-informed plan.
  • Learn how to recognize changes in mental health among students. Strengthen the risk assessment team to take appropriate action when needed.
  • Provide a continuum of supports to meet mental health needs, including integrating mental health days into your attendance policy.
  • Better utilize the Expanded Access Services program, which allows schools to leverage federal Medicaid dollars to provide behavioral and other health services, and ensure eligible children are enrolled in health coverage.
  • Protect and prioritize students with higher needs and those at higher risk of mental health challenges.
  • Expand the school-based mental health workforce and support the mental health of school personnel.

For community members and leaders:

  • Be a voice for mental health and resilience in your community.
  • Share how ACEs and trauma impact your community with your legislators.
  • Join Bloom Kentucky’s efforts to advocate for policies and practices that help every child thrive.

To quote President Franklin Roosevelt, “we may not be able to prepare the future for our children, but we can at least prepare our children for the future.”

Kentucky, let’s prepare our children for the future by filling their “backpacks” with all that they need to be successful in school and our communities.

To learn more about how to build resilience in children and combat ACEs in Kentucky, contact the Bounce Coalition. Joseph Bargione, Ph.D., is a Licensed Psychologist and Bounce Lead Trainer. Jo Cruz is a Bounce Lead Trainer.