Program helping youth deal with trauma sees 'unheard of' success

A program that helps young children deal with trauma has been successful in Connecticut but is used in just 39 of more than 600 elementary schools, a June report said.

The report from the Child Health and Development Institute of Connecticut, or CHDI, said 93 percent of children who begin Bounce Back finish the program — a much higher rate than children who attend programs in their communities.

Children who participate also show a 75 percent reduction in PTSD symptoms, the report said.

“That’s almost unheard of in terms of a success rate,” said Bethany Zorba, program manager for the state Department of Children and Families.

CHDI, funded by DCF, provides training, consultation and data reporting for Bounce Back at no cost to participating schools. Districts that implement Bounce Back also can earn a small stipend based on performance.

The hope is that children who can address and cope with trauma they’ve experienced will attend more school days and perform better academically.

“There’s a lot of stigma and a lot of fear of talking about trauma with children,” said Jason Lang, vice president for mental health initiatives for CHDI, an independent nonprofit.

Lang said the “long list” of possible traumatic events includes physical abuse, sexual abuse, the death of loved ones, domestic or community violence, parents who are incarcerated or abusing substances, car crashes, fires and bullying.

“We don’t like to think about how common it is that children — including young children — are exposed to traumatic events,” he said. “But unfortunately it is pretty common.”

In general, about 20 percent of children in Connecticut schools have “a mental health need,” said Tim Marshall, director of community-based services for DCF. About 10 percent have a need that qualifies as “serious,” he said.

Carrie Rivera, a lead school psychologist for New London Public Schools, said Bounce Back works in part because it challenges the modus operandi of suspending or expelling children for bad behavior.

Bounce Back includes 10 group sessions with children, one to three parent sessions and up to three individual child sessions. Children learn about common reactions to trauma, relaxation strategies and coping and problem solving skills, among other things.

“When someone engages in something that’s breaking school rules, there’s an opportunity to correct their behavior,” Rivera said. "Suspending or expelling a student is not teaching them or others the appropriate thing to do."

Rivera said Bounce Back is available in all four of New London’s elementary schools, each of which has a health center operated by Child and Family Agency of Southeastern Connecticut.

New London was fortunate, Rivera said, because, while staffers had to go through Bounce Back training, the infrastructure was there.

But training for Bounce Back is extensive and the curriculum intense. Some schools don’t have any staffers with enough time to take it on, Lang said. Others don’t yet understand that addressing mental health can improve academics.

“We know children who don’t get help when they need it are likely to continue to suffer and the health and mental health consequences persist throughout adolescence and into adulthood,” he said. “One of the misconceptions is that a child who is a victim of trauma is doomed to some lifetime of unhappiness, but that’s not the case at all.”

Groton Public Schools also offers Bounce Back. Like New London, it does so through its school-based health centers. Also like New London, it does so as part of a comprehensive, all-ages effort to identify and address children who have experienced trauma.

“The stigma, that’s the big issue,” said Susan Austin, assistant superintendent for Groton Public Schools. “We don’t think twice about going to the doctor if we have a sore throat or continuous migraines or diabetes. But when we need mental health care… we don’t make enough time for ourselves for that.”

Bounce Back is coming to schools in Waterford and Norwich this fall, and Marshall — DCF’s director of community-based services — hopes it keeps expanding.

“In a dream world, a fantasy world, every district would be trained and know how to do (Bounce Back) and offer group sessions,” Marshall said. “That’s lofty, but we’re starting one school, one building at a time, and we will keep going.”

l.boyle@theday.com

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