COVENTRY — As the new school year kicked off this week, so did a three-year initiative to educate the entire town in addressing the various effects trauma can have on the community and its children.
“The goal is to become a resilient Coventry,” Bob Robillard, Coventry’s director of human services, said of the initiative, which grew out of an awareness of the traumatic effects things like poverty, domestic violence, homelessness and divorce can have on children.
With support from a $440,356 grant awarded earlier this year by the Rhode Island Foundation, the town over the next three years will move to implement a long-term, town-wide plan for making Coventry a trauma-informed community, able to identify and address trauma in both children and adults.
“My hope is that this successfully enables the town to be stronger and serve our families better,” Robillard said. “I’m excited about this. It’s something that I feel very strongly will be a benefit in the long term.”
In its first year, the grant will cover training in trauma-informed care for teachers and other school support staff, with clinical staff given an advanced training.
“It’s really adding to people’s repertoire of skills,” Robillard said, noting that the initiative fits nicely with the multi-tiered support systems already in place in schools across town. “It really matches the overarching goals of the school district already.”
Led by the nonprofit Family Service of Rhode Island, the training will feature several elements, ranging from identifying, assessing and treating traumatic stress, to being culturally responsive. There will be another training, as well, on the importance of self-care in addressing vicarious trauma for those who’ve been exposed to students’ trauma.
The training will ultimately teach community members how to view situations through a trauma-informed lens.
“Once you look through that, and you have that training, it’s hard to not look through it,” said Robillard, who added that the initiative will also include revising school policies and practices.
Robillard pointed to an explanation by The National Child Traumatic Stress Network, which states that in order for a school to reach its goal of guiding students to educational achievement, it must first ensure they feel “safe, supported and ready to learn.”
According to the network, schools should recognize that mental health and wellness are “innately connected to students’ success in the classroom and to a thriving school environment.” It adds that becoming trauma-informed should be an essential piece to an education system’s overall mission.
In a letter sent this week to families, Superintendent Craig Levis echoed some of that.
“Having supportive adults in children’s lives who understand trauma and can respond in a way that helps them feel safe and accepted can be a game changer,” Levis wrote, adding that research shows that some two-thirds of young children have been exposed to at least one traumatic experience.
A steering committee of parents, students and other “champions” at each school will help paint the picture of trauma-informed care in Coventry, Robillard said, and will ultimately help to build resiliency in town.
But it isn’t only members of the school community that will receive training. Robillard emphasized the importance of the trauma-informed initiative being “a cohesive collaboration between all community membership.”
“It’s really a systemic change to look at how our community deals with trauma,” Robillard said, added that it was a joint effort between school and town departments to apply for the grant funding. “A lot of the data shows that if you implement a change in a single part of the system, it’s not very successful for the long term.”
The grant in its second year will cover trauma-informed care training for all municipal employees who interact in any capacity with children — for example, first responders and employees of the recreation and human services departments — and in the final year it’ll cover similar training for youth leaders and coaches.
Community involvement is crucial to successfully establishing Coventry as a trauma-informed town, Robillard said.
One key step to involving the community, he added, is to partner with families “to provide support so that their kids are successfully educated and are ready to learn when they come to school.”
“I just think it’s important that as a community we’re responsive to trauma,” he continued.
Focus groups of students, parents, teachers and other community members will also welcome community input and help ensure that the program isn’t prescriptive, Robillard said, but instead owned by the entire community.
“And the only way that happens is that we have to involve as many people as we can to get as many points of view in the conversation,” he said.
The town during the third year of the grant will also host a “trauma summit,” inviting other Rhode Island towns to learn from Coventry’s experience implementing town-wide trauma-informed care.
As the only town in the state to have received funding to launch the initiative — and, in fact, one of very few municipalities nationwide to embark on becoming a trauma-informed community — Robillard said one of the goals is for Coventry to be able to share its experience with other towns.
“I think a lot of school districts struggle with these issues,” he said. “Our goal is to share what we learned — pluses, minuses — so that this could be implemented in other districts.”
The initiative officially launched Tuesday with a 30-minute presentation by Family Service of Rhode Island during the first day back for school faculty.
“There’s a difference between saying [to school employees], ‘you do important work,’ and supporting it by educating them and giving them something to add to their tool belt,” Robillard added. “Their work is not only valued, but impactful.”
And a decade from now, Robillard said he hopes to see all parts of the community working seamlessly together for the benefit of the whole community.
“People have asked, ‘what do we do? How can we better service our kids and our families?’” Robillard said. “Trauma is a complex problem, and not one part of the community has the solution.”