Heather Smith of South Portland helps refugee children fly kites at Fort Williams Park in Cape Elizabeth in this July 4, 2019, file photo. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty | AP

In the last couple of decades, Maine’s schools have felt effects of childhood trauma brought on by the effects of rural poverty, the opioid crisis and increased urbanization in some parts of the state. This summer, Portland welcomed an influx of asylum seekers from African countries — many were families with school-aged children, whose migration story included multiple traumatic experiences. As student populations with diverse needs continue to increase, Maine should prioritize training a K-12 workforce with trauma-informed practices to increase equitable learning outcomes for students who have experienced adverse childhood experiences, or childhood trauma, especially for immigrant, refugee and asylum-seeking students.

As the number of students from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds entering Maine’s K-12 public schools continues to grow, school leaders and educational communities must be prepared to meet the unique needs of these students. Immigrant children and families often acquire traumas in their new communities due to discrimination, acculturation and racism — in addition to the traumas they may have experienced in their home countries. Schools need to consider the social and environmental stressors that affect the children of the immigrant families they serve and use research-based interventions to assist students in their development.

For immigrant students, adjusting to the social and cultural behavioral expectations of a classroom, coupled with the long-term effects of adverse childhood experiences or intergenerational trauma, often means they struggle to meet academic expectations. As a result, mental and emotional challenges often manifest in behaviors such as aggression, difficulty controlling behavior and trouble paying attention. A culturally responsive, trauma-informed approach could help reduce disciplinary incidences, which only cause additional stress to students.

Trauma-informed practices emphasize the need for integrated approaches to responding to students with a history of childhood trauma. These practices integrate mental health supports, personal empowerment, and community collaborations to help increase positive student outcomes. Training all staff and personnel working with students in K-12 settings to use trauma-informed practices is a positive step toward equitable access to learning for students with trauma who often lack the self-regulation and resilience necessary for success in school. Training initiatives should pay special attention to include and respect positive cultural beliefs and language when addressing the unique experiences with which immigrant students, children of immigrants and students from historically marginalized communities are challenged. This would ensure students feel their identities are valued and celebrated and can be a source of strength.

By addressing the importance of properly training professionals to understand the long-term effects of childhood traumas, educational professionals can mitigate those effects and avoid further traumatizing students. Maine’s Legislature has taken positive steps to respond to this issue through a task force with LD 1168, a Resolve to Improve Maine’s Response to Childhood Trauma. This legislation has the potential to support school systems in meeting the unique challenges of many diverse student groups who have experienced childhood traumas.

If Maine is going to take actionable steps to address inequity in its communities and schools, it should also better address the impacts of race, socioeconomic class and culture in conjunction with efforts to train educational professionals and leadership to respond to childhood trauma. Policies should include language emphasizing a deliberate and intentional attempt to address the systemic disparities often resulting in inequitable access to positive educational experiences for immigrant and refugee students who have experienced childhood trauma. Legislators should continue to enact policies to bring long-term, systemic changes to the ways our communities respond to the social and emotional needs of these diverse children and their families.

Andrea Mercado is a K-12 educator with the Lewiston Public Schools and doctoral student at the University of Maine. This column reflects her views and expertise and does not speak on behalf of the university. Her column is a guest contribution for the Maine chapter of the national Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear in the BDN every other week.