Julie Kurtz hasn’t stopped creating ways to build and promote resilience in herself and others who have experienced trauma since she left her family home for college at age 18. Although she experienced four types of adversity during her childhood, the CEO of the Center for Optimal Brain Integration has traveled a complex journey to mitigate those adversities by recognizing her own internal resilience, building skills to buffer her toxic and traumatic stress, uncovering her voice through therapy, increasing self-reflection and self-awareness, and identifying social-emotional coping skills.
Because of her own adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), she was inspired to get into the work she’s doing today. She wanted to use her own healing journey as platform to give every child and adult a voice.
The term ACEs comes from the groundbreaking Adverse Childhood Experience Study (ACE Study), first published in 1998 and comprising more than 70 research papers published over the following 15 years. The research is based on a survey of more than mostly white, middle- and upper-middle class 17,000 adults and was led by Drs. Robert Anda and Vincent Felitti. The study linked 10 types of childhood adversity — such as living with a parent who is mentally ill, has abused alcohol or is emotionally abusive — to the adult onset of chronic disease, mental illness, violence and being a victim of violence. Many other types of ACEs — including racism, bullying, a father being abused, and community violence — have been added to subsequent ACE surveys. (ACEs Science 101; Got Your ACE/Resilience Score?)
The ACE Study, an epidemiological analysis of childhood adversity, is one of the five parts of ACEs science, which also includes how toxic stress from ACEs affects a child’s brain, the short and long-term health effects of toxic stress, the epigenetics of toxic stress (how it’s passed on from generation to generation), and research on resilience, which includes how individuals, organizations, systems and communities can integrate ACEs science to solve our most intractable problems.
“When I went to college and left my family,” Kurtz says, “I spiraled down to a very low place and got myself help. Therapy helped me unravel the story that lead me to rebuild my future of healing socially and emotionally.”
She adds that “trauma became a thread of my existence but did not define who I am. I began to understand my personal triggers and find ways to cope and manage in a healthier way.”
Since graduating from college 30 years ago, it’s evident that Kurtz has made remarkable progress in healing. She co-authored two books for early childhood educators on trauma-informed practices. As CEO and founder for the Center for Optimal Brain Integration she has led efforts to train more than 10,000 educators, parents, and clinicians throughout the U.S. in trauma-informed care and ways to develop resilience. She helped develop and direct WestEd’s Trauma Informed Practices for Early Childhood at the Center for Child & Family Studies, and helped start a certificate program in trauma-informed practices in early childhood at DeAnza College in the SF Bay Area on early childhood mental health and trauma informed practices. That’s not all: She also helped develop policies and programs to identify trauma and develop resilience at many nonprofits, including First 5 Santa Clara County, Kidango and the Fred Finch Youth Center in Oakland, CA.
The Center for Optimal Brain Integration focuses on early childhood and K-12 educators. They also do trainings integrating ACEs science for clinicians, therapists and parents, but their specialty is training educators. The center’s trainings consist of several core modules and spotlight modules. The most popular series are modules 100, 200 and 300. Module 100 includes half a day with an overview of the neurobiology of trauma, the ACEs study, and Dr. Nadine Burke-Harris’s TED talk. The second half of the day participants learn key strategies for developing resilience and strategies to support children who have experienced trauma. Module 200 then goes deeper into ACEs science and practicing the key strategies for building resilience learned in module 100. The 300 module promotes self-care and is based on their second book.
She recently released an app called Trigger Stop, Sensory and Emotional Check-In designed for children ages three to eight to promote sensory and emotional literacy as well as to support self-regulation. There’s a free 22-minute video and 16-page user guide on how to use the app on the center’s website.
The app works by allowing a child, when they are triggered, to nonverbally express sensations and emotions that they may not be able to articulate with words. That’s because the primitive part of their brain hijacks their thinking brain to fight, flight, or freeze. Trigger Stop uses feeling faces and a color-coded thermometer to depict what zone the child is in: Calm/Green, Flight/Orange, Fight/Red or Freeze/Blue. Within the color zones are sensory images to describe nonverbally the sensations that are happening in their body, so the red zone might depict a volcano, the blue zone an iceberg, the orange zone a rocket ship, and the green zone a rainbow.
“People love using it to teach children sensory and emotional literacy,” says Kurtz. The app can be downloaded for Android and iPhones. There’s also a free paper version — just fill out and make a request using the contact form on www.optimalbrainintegration.com.
Kurtz says she has spent a lifetime learning about trauma, but didn’t put it into practice until 10 years ago, when she was working at WestEd with its then new director, Dr. Julie Nicholson, who became her mentor and is now chief strategy officer for the Center for Optimal Brain Integration. It was Nicholson who introduced her to the ACE Study and ACEs science. Together, they co-authored two books, Trauma-Informed Practices for Early Childhood Educators: Relationship-Based Approaches that Support Healing and Build Resilience in Young Children andCulturally Responsive Self-Care for Early Childhood Educators. A third book, to be published in 2022, is titled Creating and Sustaining Trauma-Responsive and Healing Engaged Early Childhood Organizations, Schools and Systems.
"Because of my own ACEs,” says Kurtz, “I was inspired to get into the work I am doing today."