Sonoma County Office of Education

Mental Health Experts, Educators, Community Come Together for Conversation About Toxic Stress

06/09/2023 -

Nadine Burke Harris Conversations in CommunityTwo nationally recognized experts helped lead a conversation organized by the Sonoma County Office of Education about childhood trauma and toxic stress, their effects on educational outcomes, and resilience and healing.

Former California surgeon general Dr. Nadine Burke Harris led off Thursday’s event in Rohnert Park, called Conversations in Community, by detailing her work around what are known as adverse childhood experiences, and how they can affect a range of health and educational outcomes.

The reason these experiences have such a wide range of effects on developing children is because of the way our bodies respond to stress, said Burke Harris, who lives in Sonoma County. Early humans’ stress responses tended to be related to rare, imminent threats to physical safety, such as from a predator like a bear, she said. But children who experience toxic stress in the form of adverse childhood experiences have their stress responses triggered repeatedly.

“The problem is what happens when the bear comes home every night,” Burke Harris said. “And this biological response that was designed to be activated once in our lives to save us from a mortal threat happens over and over and over.”

Adverse childhood experiences fall into 10 categories, including experiences such as being exposed to substance abuse, mental illness, or various forms of abuse, as well as having a member of a family who is incarcerated. Research has found that the more different types of such experiences a child is exposed to, the greater their risk is for homelessness or substance abuse, as well as physical outcomes such as heart disease, cancer, or Alzheimer’s, Burke Harris said.

Dr. Bruce Perry, a best-selling author who specializes in neurobiology and spoke via Zoom, discussed the ways in which childhood trauma can manifest in the classroom, creating symptoms similar to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Students with adverse childhood experiences may require a greater number of repetitions of classroom content than their peers, which means it becomes easier for them to fall behind in school, he said.

In her opening remarks, Sonoma County Superintendent of Schools Dr. Amie R. Carter addressed the numerous collective traumas the region’s schoolchildren have experienced since 2017, from large scale natural disasters such as wildfires and floods, to the COVID-19 pandemic, and social issues such as racial injustice and widening economic disparities. She said both Burke Harris’s and Perry’s work had greatly informed her approach as an educator and administrator.

“My brain was being cracked open,” she said of her first exposure to this research and why she wanted to bring the two experts together for a conversation. “It was offering me a whole new way to address what I saw in (students’) behaviors and what I saw in our educational system.”

Both Burke Harris and Perry emphasized the important role educators and people who work in schools can play in combating and mitigating the impacts of toxic stress. Even though educators are not mental health professionals, they have the ability to create safe, stable, and nurturing relationships and environments when students are at school, which have been shown to be the best way to reduce stress levels.

“You don’t have to do it all,” Burke Harris told the educators and school staff among the audience of about 300. “But when you have the foundational understanding, when we are all on the same page about what we’re doing … then we can make a profound change in the outcomes for our kids.”

Conversations in Community Crowd WebBurke Harris’s and Perry’s keynote speeches were followed by a joint conversation in which they addressed questions from the community, including what tangible actions might help foster the environments that students need to feel safe and supported. Each emphasized the need for more, deeper engagement with students and school families.

“Many of the kids who struggle the most in school have parents who struggled in schools,” Perry said. “The adults don’t feel safe or welcome at school.” He emphasized the need to work to bring those families into the school community because, “We know that the more adults who are in the school, the more it feels like a community space.”

Each speaker also emphasized the need to recognize and respond to the needs of teachers, who have been exposed to many of the same community and social traumas as their students.

Thursday’s Conversations in Community was the first of several planned events around the subject of youth mental health. Participants were invited to take home a copy of a recent book by either Burke Harris or Perry. People who work in educational settings will be invited to the next event, a book discussion, on Aug. 2 at the Sonoma County Office of Education.