Pitt County Schools is implementing a new practice in an attempt to decrease the amount of discipline referrals in its schools.

Trauma-informed practices take into consideration adverse childhood experiences or ACEs that can affect physical, mental or emotional health, according to Karen Harrington, director of student services.

Examples of ACEs include having a household member in prison, having divorced or separated parents or living with an alcoholic or drug user.

“Most people have at least one risk factor,” Harrington said. “Anyone experiencing four or more ACEs in their childhood are more at risk for long-term physical and mental problems.”

A 1998 Centers for Disease Control study looked at 17,000 people and found that more than two-thirds had an ACE score of at least one; 87 percent of those had more than one.

“ACEs impact health through toxic stress,” Harrington said. “Think about a time where you had a lot going on. Maybe you made mistakes. Those are times when you’re experiencing toxic stress.

“Think about our students who are exposed to toxic stress,” she said. “A student under toxic stress doesn’t have as much executive functioning (as a student with minimal stress). The temporal lobes, which govern emotions and social interactions, don’t function as well either. If the brain is functioning well, you use your ‘upstairs brain.’ In times of stress, you use your ‘downstairs brain.’ This makes students highly emotional with dysregulated responses.”

Teachers see the effects of trauma every day, Harrington said. Students with high ACEs scores are more likely to be retained, have lower test scores and have higher rates of absences.

“We find that a lot of (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) students, especially black males, have had significant trauma in their lives,” she said. “Doctors label them as ADHD, but that may not be right.”

Using trauma-informed practices teachers can help students learn to build resilience.

“Trauma impacts the whole school,” Harrington said. “Ashely and Buncombe County have done a lot of work around these issues.”

The Asheville-Buncombe method combines a lot of the initiatives Pitt County Schools already is using, according to Harrington. It combines school-based mental health, soft skills, effective community collaboration and discipline practices that meet students’ needs.

Asheville-Buncombe County Schools has seen an increase in self-esteem and academic scores while seeing a decrease in suspension rates and mental health symptoms, Harrington said.

“At this stage, we’re working on awareness,” she said. “We’re making sure everybody is aware of trauma-informed practices and simple things to do in the classroom. As we give more training, administrators will implement more specific practices.”

Pitt County Schools received a grant through the Pitt County Coalition on Substance Abuse to train faculty and staff in trauma-informed practices. Students with high ACEs scores are more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol as adults due to not having the necessary resilience skills. By training educators to teach students resiliency, it may result in lower rates of drug addiction, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Author Annette Breaux was quoted as saying, “Everyone in the classroom has a story that leads to misbehavior or defiance. Nine times out of ten, the story behind the misbehavior won’t make you angry. It will break your heart.”

The focus this year is to build awareness in staff and community partners, Harrington said. The the schools will build upon this foundation.

“We’re not asking students, ‘Why are you like this?’ but ‘What happened to make you act like this?’” Harrington said. “That simple reframing can change everything.”

Resilient Kids, a community response conference for administrators, civic organizations and other community partners, is scheduled for March 14-15.

For more information, visit easternahec.net.