Transformational efforts are underway in Hawaii to establish an integrated and coordinated trauma-informed program that promotes safety (physical and emotional), wellness, and resilience with children in schools.

Through a SAMHSA grant, the program increases awareness of mental health issues among school-aged youth; provides training for school personnel and other adults to detect and respond to mental health issues in children and youth; and refers children, youth, and families who may have behavioral health concerns to local services. The program also supports activities, services, and strategies to decrease youth violence and promote the healthy development of children and youth. Funded by SAMHSA’s Now is the TimeProject AWARE (Advancing Wellness and Resilience in Education) State Educational Agencies Cooperative Agreement (referred to as NITT-AWARE-SEA), the program has two components:

  • address the mental health needs of children, youth, families, caregivers, and communities; and
  • offer Mental Health First Aid/Youth Mental Health First Aid through state and local training programs.

Schools in Hawaii are organized as one district, which helps administrators have a unified approach to informing and administering the NITT-AWARE-SEA grant. Efforts such as training school staff on Youth Mental Health First Aid are easier to accomplish because schools operate from the same system and administration. The centralized system also helps in the management and administration of culturally-sensitive approaches.

“There is no majority ethnic group in Hawaii. In fact, 17 different languages are spoken on the islands,” said Gordon Miyamoto, Acting Director, Project HI-AWARE with the Department of Education. “We have to be culturally-sensitive, trauma-informed, and respectful of the many different values so that our schools have a productive, safe, and welcoming atmosphere.”

One of the schools in Hawaii where school transformation is taking place.

One of the schools in Hawaii where school transformation is taking place.

“In Hawaii, Ohana (family) is very important. Our educational system works with that philosophy in mind. Everyone is family so we all take care of our kids,” said C.J. Rice, the Department of Education’s Youth Mental Health First Aid (YMHFA) Training Coordinator.  “This is demonstrated in the broad range of people that are trained – administrators, teachers, school health aids and nurses, school counselors), police and security staff, Kupuna (elders and grandparents), and families. By teaching everyone skills to notice when a child is having a mental health crisis or if something else is wrong, and giving them healthy approaches that will help, everyone stays connected and supported.” Ms. Rice coordinates 22 active instructors that are specially trained to address the cultural and community-specific needs of each island and each community in Hawaii because they want their efforts to be sustainable. Her team has trained 450 people so far in 2016.

For instance, if a teacher is struggling with a student who is disruptive and angry, the school team can be assembled to assess the student’s needs. Because the team – perhaps the teacher, school counselor, principal, security person – has trained together, they understand what to look for and how to respond in a trauma-sensitive way. Instead of considering “what’s wrong with this student,” they ask “What is this student trying to tell me through behavior and what happened that upset the student?”

The Now Is the Time Technical Assistance Center provides training and technical assistance to support Project AWARE State Education Agency (SEA) Leads and Local Education Agency (LEA) Leads, like the one that exists in Hawaii. The SAMHSA grant supports NITT-AWARE-SEA work in 20 states. The technical assistance center offers a range of training opportunities to build new skills and promote best practices, including:

  • Trauma-Informed Care Implementation and Project AWARE – Provides an overview of the theory and research upon which trauma-informed practices are developed. Grantees also learn how to identify trauma-informed practices and are given guidance on how to create and enhance trauma-informed organizational practices that support healing and resilience.
  • Using an Interconnected Systems Framework (ISF) in Now is the Time Project AWARE – Provides training and strategic planning on what an Integrated Systems Framework is and how it can benefit State Education Agency (SEA) leads, Local Education Agency (LEA) leads, YMHFA coordinators, evaluators, and other relevant staff.

Although it will be some time before states fully establish school-based improvements that stem from this effort, early evaluation and anecdotal evidence is showing positive results. “We’re changing school culture,” said Mr. Miyamoto. “We have a better understanding now of what children have experienced and how that affects their learning. It’s not only helped us work more effectively with students, but with their parents as well.”

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