Every day teachers see students who cannot focus, seem emotionally exhausted, are disruptive, or have problems learning. They may unknowingly be dealing with a child who has been exposed—once or repeatedly—to trauma at home.
The frequency of children experiencing family violence and related trauma seems to be an epidemic:
- An estimated 26% of children in the United States will witness or experience a traumatic event before the age of four.
- As many as one-third of children are exposed to intimate partner violence during childhood or adolescence.
- Almost one in ten American children saw one family member assault another family member.
Trauma doesn’t necessarily have to be violent. Non-violent trauma can be in the form of a parent having a medical emergency and being taken by ambulance to the hospital in the middle of the night or unexpected family death. In some cases, trauma involves law enforcement, while in others, it does not.
Research shows that trauma negatively affects mental and physical well-being, healthy relationships, academic success, and behavioral outcomes. Toxic stress can even have long-lasting effects on brain development, affecting attention, decision-making, learning, and other areas critical to educational success.
Giving the School a Heads Up When Students Have Experienced Violence or Trauma
Schools often remain in the dark when students have experienced an event such as domestic violence, a drug overdose, a crime, or an accident. For example, a police officer might respond to a domestic violence call. If a child is present but doesn't seem to be physically harmed or in danger, the officer leaves the premises without reporting the incident to DCF. The next day, the child acts up in school and is punished--possibly traumatizing him further.
Instead, imagine a different scenario. A child has witnessed domestic violence that has been reported to law enforcement. Police must notify the school before the next day. Then, if the child acts up, the school is prepared to respond using a trauma-sensitive approach. This ability to address the effects of trauma among students appropriately and in real-time is happening increasingly in school communities through a partnership model called “Handle With Care (HWC).”
Handle With Care Offers a Simple and Immediate First Step
Based on an initiative piloted in West Virginia in 2013, HWC is a school-community partnership program. It’s a simple concept in which local police confidentially notify the school the next day after encountering a child at a traumatic scene. The information is limited to the child’s name, age, and the message “Handle With Care.”
An alternative “soft” approach can be implemented when law enforcement is not involved, or the state doesn’t have a formal HWC partnership program. In these cases, schools can provide parents or guardians with a quick method for submitting a “handle with care” request directly to the school when a child has been exposed to trauma, such as a parent having a heart attack or a non-reported domestic situation. Mobile or digital technologies can be used to expedite such requests.
Formal or soft HWC programs alert and prepare educators to provide trauma-appropriate interventions if the identified child has academic, behavioral, or emotional problems that day. The improved collaboration and communication of HWC also connect families, schools, and communities to mental health services for children experiencing trauma and violence.
Putting the HWC Model to Work
When schools implement the HWC mode, administrators, teachers, nurses, counselors, and other personnel receive training to help them assess the child’s mental health needs, provide support, or refer them to a mental health provider if necessary. Teachers also incorporate interventions such as sending the child who is acting out to a counselor instead of the principal, providing extra time to do a project, or postponing a test.
If identified children continue to have behavioral or emotional problems in the classroom, the school may refer them to outside counseling agencies. Mental health professionals can then assess the child’s needs, perform psychological testing, offer treatment recommendations, and provide status updates to key school personnel, as authorized by the child’s parent or guardian.
The Future of Handle With Care
Handle With Care has taken off among school districts across the county. As of May 2022, at least 33 states containing districts using the law enforcement model of HWC. Five of those—West Virginia, Nevada, New Jersey, Kentucky, and Oklahoma— have statewide systems in place implementing the model.
Other states and districts can implement the soft approach using technologies like HELPme from STOPit Solutions, a mobile app that provides centralized resources to notify, act on, and report student safety issues.
Using the HWC model as a guidepost, districts, law enforcement, other first responders, community agencies, and families can take a step closer to improving the academic, social-emotional, and behavioral outcomes of children most at risk. Other tools, including technology and mobile apps from STOPit Solutions, can provide additional ways to help parents, schools, and the larger community battle violence and help students reach their full potential.