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Afterschool programs and a trauma-informed approach [Afterschool Alliance]


“A trauma-informed, culturally responsive lens must be a part of everything we do.” This statement by Laura Norton-Cruz, Director of the Alaska Resilience Initiative, sums up the key message of last week’s Senate Afterschool Caucus briefing for Congressional staff which focused on “Afterschool Programs and a Trauma-Informed Approach.”

On Wednesday, Sept. 11, the Senate Afterschool Caucus* — in partnership with the Afterschool Alliance, Alaska Children’s Trust – Alaska Afterschool Network, American Institutes for Research (AIR), America Scores, Association of Chamber of Commerce Executives, Boys and Girls Clubs of America, California AfterSchool Network, Coaching Corps, Communities In Schools, Forum for Youth Investment, Girls, Inc., National 4-H Council, National Recreation and Park Association, National Summer Learning Association, Schools Out Washington and the YMCA of the USA — held a briefing in Washington, DC, on the importance of implementing a trauma-informed approach, how afterschool and summer learning programs are incorporating such an approach, and the supports needed to sustain these efforts. More than 40 Hill staffers and representative of national and local education and health organization attended, with an additional 25 attendees joining in by livestream.

Moderator Tiffany Miller, chief of staff and vice president of Policy for Communities in Schools, opened the session by outlining what is at stake when we talk about trauma and Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). As Tiffany explained, “Trauma induces powerlessness, fear, hopelessness, and a constant state of alert.” Trauma and ACEs affect the developing brain and body – leading to short- and long-term negative effects. To address children dealing with trauma, it requires a comprehensive approach along a continuum of supports that reflect the diverse needs of each child and population. “While afterschool and youth-serving organizations are not a magic wand to prevent or respond to trauma,” Miller said, “the role they are playing nationwide is a critical one – and one that too often gets overlooked.”

Alison Dymnicki, principal researcher at the American Institutes of Research (AIR), followed Tiffany by discussing how high-quality afterschool programs are uniquely positioned to provide trauma-informed care through four key elements of support, which were reiterated throughout the briefing. Those are building trusting relationships with caring adults, providing opportunities to learn social-emotional skills, a safe and supportive environment, and trained trauma-informed staff.

Laura Norton Cruz went on to share how Alaska and the Alaska resilience Initiative made trauma-informed care a priority in her state by passing one of the country’s broadest statutes on trauma-informed care in 2018. In doing so, Alaska is now positioned to provide more sustainable funding, ensure consistent messaging across youth-serving agencies, garner cross-sector buy-in, and enforce a legal impetus to ensure they are holistically addressing childhood trauma in their state. Laura concluded by emphasizing, “Policies are important for shaping the funding streams, mandates, and supports that help shape these [afterschool] programs, and programs like these must be a part of this conversation.”

The briefing concluded with Erin Spaulding, senior vice president of Youth Development and Family Strengthening at Old Colony YMCA; and Elena Gustafson, MSW, MPH, Girls Inc. coordinator YMCA Minneapolis, who spoke from the afterschool providers’ perspective of what a trauma-informed approach looks like in practice.

Erin described that taking a trauma-informed approach at the Old Colony YMCA meant fundamentally shifting their mindsets and treating a trauma-informed approach as one of their “core values.” Erin went on to talk about how this shift affected how their staff looked at youth and behaviors, saying, “It is our job to understand their behavior. Their behavior is language – and that young person is trying to tell us something. It’s our job to figure out what is the root cause, so we can better serve them.”

Elena shared how Girls Inc. works to create a supportive environment for young women by creating a space they can feel comfortable in, surrounded by peers and role models they can relate to. “We see youth coming out of their shell and flourishing because of those connections,” Elena explained, “and from forming those positive healthy relationships with peers and adults they make in the program.”

As each panelist explained, a trauma-informed approach requires a total commitment from every stakeholder from top to bottom. High-quality afterschool programs are modeling what this should look like – including trauma-informed staff trainings, culturally-responsive practices, and a robust SEL curriculum for students to feel safe and supported – but a greater investment is needed to ensure every program can provide high-quality trauma-informed care. The Afterschool Snack blog previously covered federal legislation that supports afterschool and summer learning programs taking a trauma-informed approach.
*Here is the link to the video of the briefing:

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