"It's not rocket science; it's brain science," said Marjorie Fujara, a pediatrician at Stroger Hospital in Chicago and child abuse specialist, speaking about how "toxic stress" affects children's brains.
Fujara addressed a crowd of Elgin Area School District U-46 parents, teachers, administrators and community members Wednesday at Larkin High School. Experts discussed how to help students cope with the traumas that affect learning after the airing of "Paper Tigers," a 90-minute documentary on the topic.
Poverty, poor living conditions, violence or substance abuse in the home, and other social dangers cause children to be in a constant state of "fight, flight or freeze," Fujara said.
Children struggling with adverse childhood experiences often have behavioral, social and emotional issues that could lead to problems later on in life, she said.
"The outcomes aren't that surprising," she said.
Yet, communities often don't address the causes but rather focus on dealing with the symptoms, experts say.
For that reason, the Illinois Education Association and the Illinois Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics are urging schools statewide to partner with their communities to create trauma-informed learning environments.
"We are trying to bring awareness and education around what is happening with children that actually affects their ability to learn," said Audrey Soglin, Illinois Education Association executive director. "We are not saying these kids cannot learn. We're saying we need to pay them the attention and give them the support to help them learn. Dealing with those experiences early, we have an opportunity to break that cycle."
A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study on adverse childhood experiences determined "toxic stress" negatively affects the brain and learning, which can translate into health problems as adults.
"We are constantly seeing kids come in and out of our offices at the high schools,"said Mike Grondin, U-46 social worker and a leader with the Fox River Valley Initiative. "It's not just one defining event. It's just an ongoing event that continues to happen and they don't bounce back at all, because they don't have the support to bounce back. We have to find a way to reach them so they can be successful."
Adrienne McCauley, organizer for the Fox River Valley Initiative, said 70 percent of women in prisons have suffered adverse childhood experiences, and 30 percent of prisoners have mental health issues.
Early detection of such problems can help divert people in the long term from a life of crime and prison, McCauley said, adding the key is having enough community support and organizations willing to work together to address these issues.
Training teachers on building resiliency is the next step, said Kathryn Castle, Elgin Teachers Association spokeswoman.
"Our teachers are facing a lot of the same reactions to stress on a daily basis," Castle said. "We're starting with the research ... conversation ... trying to understand it before we fix it."
Teachers at Abbott Middle School in Elgin have volunteered for the training, which will take place in January.
"We may open it up to the entire district," Castle said. "Professional development for our teachers comes first, but we have to bring the community in."