In a room near the front entrance of John Moffet Elementary School in Kensington, a small group of parents and staff members watched as images of the interior of a brain flashed on a screen.
In the hallway outside, organizations that deal with childhood trauma gave handouts to passersby about trauma, ways to deal with it, and general parenting support.
It was the third day of a February workshop organized by Michele Messer, a School District of Philadelphia psychologist, and Sylvia Young, a nurse, for the K-5 school’s community.
They hope other schools will hold similar events, providing a familiar place to help parents and staff members learn about childhood trauma and brain development.
“We’re trying to find ways to extend this,” Messer said. “It’s about building the knowledge base.”
Moffet Principal Sarah Touma had wanted to increase knowledge of the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study, the groundbreaking 1990s research that changed the way childhood trauma and its effects on physical and mental health are regarded.
She said that’s in keeping with the school’s emphasis on teaching how the brain works, part of the Healthy Mindset approach to communicating with students. This method emphasizes a growth mindset – the belief that abilities can be learned and developed – over a fixed mindset – the belief that abilities are fixed and unchanging.
“We’ve focused on development of the brain this year,” she said. “We’ll ask, ‘Did your brain grow today?’”
At the Moffet seminar, Patricia Gerrity, associate dean for community programs at Drexel University’s 11th Street Family Health Services Center, went over research on adverse childhood experiences and how they play out in schools and homes.
She said a questionnaire about ACEs, given to people in her agency’s service area, indicated that half had had four or more such experiences – the level at which health problems become considerably more likely and the possibility of suicide increases by 1,200 percent.
Gerrity showed slides comparing the brain of a normal infant with one raised in a Romanian orphanage with little stimulation. The view from the top of the infant’s brain showed solid tissue in places where the orphan’s brain had gaps.
And she emphasized how memories are stored not just in the brain, but in the entire body, contributing to the adverse health effects of trauma.
She also differentiated among three levels of stress: positive, tolerable and toxic.
Positive stress, she said, might include preparing for an exam or a playoff game.
Tolerable stress, which is unlikely to cause lasting damage, might include the death of a grandparent or being in a car accident with no serious injuries.
Toxic stress might include violence, neglect or abuse.
At a practical level, Gerrity’s advice was less technical: Ask a child, “How are you feeling today?” or “What is your goal today – to make new friends?”
Young also suggested simply asking, “Do you feel safe?”
Tuma – who spent 17 years as a counselor in the District before becoming a principal – said the school is working closely with parents on how they communicate with their children.
At another presentation, Belinda Patrone, parent caregiver coordinator at the Children’s Crisis Treatment Center, discussed “creating positive, specific measurable rules,” emphasizing do’s rather than don’ts.
Paul Jablow is a freelance writer and former Philadelphia Inquirer reporter who contributes regularly to the Notebook.