Worcester Early Education Pilot Shows Success Addressing Impact of Trauma

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WORCESTER – A pilot project in Worcester focused on reducing racial inequities and better-supporting children in early education settings who have experienced trauma shows significant results, suggesting a new model that could be adopted in early education settings across the state and country. View the executive summary here.

The “Building Resilient Children” project emerged out of a partnership between Senator Harriette L. Chandler, the state Office of the Child Advocate, and Commonwealth Medicine/UMass Medical School. The project provided training for early childhood educators in Worcester on trauma and racial inequities as well as coaching on best practices for addressing challenging behaviors, establishing classroom structures that support children, and building childhood resilience.

The pilot project has led to significant reductions in challenging behaviors likely related to trauma as well as to harmful responses to those behaviors, such as expulsions and suspensions. For example, after two coaching sessions, the percent of coaches reporting that at least one child had been expelled for challenging behavior dropped from 16% at baseline to 4% at follow up.

Participants in the project have also reported that they have greater confidence in understanding trauma, supporting children with challenging behaviors and helping them develop resilience and heal from trauma.

“Experiencing trauma – such as abuse, neglect, or the impacts of neighborhood poverty or systemic racism – can have a lifelong impact on a child’s health and well-being,” said Senator Harriette L. Chandler (D-Worcester). “Yet if we can better identify and provide support to young children who have experienced trauma, we can change the entire trajectory of that child’s life.”

Young children who have experienced trauma may exhibit challenging behaviors in a classroom. This, in turn, can lead to children being suspended or even expelled from pre-school. This response happens far more often to children of color, who are removed at nearly 4 times the rate of white children.

“Young children communicate through behavior, and sometimes that’s the only way they have to tell us that something is wrong. Although every child acts out sometimes, if a young child is repeatedly exhibiting challenging behaviors, there’s probably an underlying issue that may need to be addressed,” said the state’s Child Advocate, Maria Mossaides. “By training early educators to recognize the signs of trauma and how to respond appropriately, we can better address these children’s needs while also addressing an early source of racial inequity in our system.”

“This pilot shows that investing in trauma and racial equity trainings can reduce negative outcomes in the classroom and promote resilience for vulnerable children. It is a model that can be spread throughout Massachusetts as we move toward becoming a trauma informed and responsive state,” said Audrey Smolkin, project lead and director of Child and Family Policy at UMass Medical School.

Building Resilient Children emerged as a response to the high rates of trauma in the identified Worcester pre-schools. The pilot sites chosen for the program served populations of primarily at-risk children whose families rely on income-based government-subsidized childcare and supportive childcare for children receiving services through the Department of Children and Families due to child abuse or neglect. Families typically are working in low to moderate paying jobs or are in education or job training programs.

The project concluded in June. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, any direct coaching work was paused until project staff can safely provide on-site observation and coaching in early education classrooms. In the meantime, to support the expansion of this work statewide, the project team has prepared materials available to all early childhood education settings including key recommendations for training and coaching on trauma, including racial equity. The team is also available to present its findings to policymakers and early childhood educators, virtually.

About Commonwealth Medicine

Commonwealth Medicine is the consulting and operations division of the University of Massachusetts Medical School. It draws on the academic knowledge and public health service expertise of Massachusetts’ only public medical school to provide comprehensive, innovative healthcare and policy solutions. Commonwealth Medicine is guided by a mission to empower its partners – state and out of state agencies and healthcare organizations – to transform lives by optimizing the effectiveness of healthcare initiatives that assist the underserved in their communities.