March 4, 2019

3 Ways Schools Can Support Children Affected by the Opioid Crisis

Practical steps that schools can take to help children exposed to trauma.

In 2017, more than 72,000 Americans died from opioid-related overdoses, more than any other year on record. These overdoses have a profound impact on the victims’ families and communities, including children who have been traumatized by the consequences of addiction in their homes.

The impact of opioid addiction and overdoses on children is significant. In the long term, children are at increased risk of social and cognitive impairments and substance misuse, and they have a higher incidence of disease. In the short term, they struggle with emotional, social, and behavioral challenges; may develop mental health conditions such as anxiety; and demonstrate difficult behaviors at school.

So what can schools do to support the students who have been affected by the opioid crisis? Shai Fuxman, a public health researcher at Prevention Solutions@EDC, believes that schools are uniquely positioned to address the needs of this growing population.

“Schools can offer the safe and supportive environments and relationships that trauma-exposed children often lack at home,” he says. “They can also help to ensure that these children get the necessary services to work through these challenges, whether these services are provided at school or through referrals to outside agencies.”

But, Fuxman adds, for schools to effectively address the needs of students exposed to opioid-related trauma, they should focus as much on children’s psychological and emotional needs as they do on academic performance. He offers three practical ideas for making this happen.

1. Implement trauma-informed practices

Over the past decade, a growing body of research on the link between early childhood trauma and academic and health outcomes has emerged, paving the way for the development of interventions that promote healthy coping skills and behaviors.

Trauma-informed practices may include school campaigns to emphasize social emotional learning, investments in school counselors and counseling services, more intensive interventions such as psychological first aid, and community partnerships that address traumas to which students have been exposed. These practices can make a significant difference for children whose lives have been disrupted by the opioid epidemic.

Fuxman says that when considering a program, communities and schools should be sure to consider whether it is age- and culture-appropriate, feasible to implement, and can be readily infused into existing curricula and systems. Organizations that provide information on evidence-based, trauma-informed interventions include the Treatment and Services Adaptation Center, Education Law Center, and National Child Traumatic Stress Network.

2. Collaborate with law enforcement and community services

In many communities, partnerships between schools, mental health clinics, health care centers, and law enforcement are showing how to help children affected by the opioid crisis receive the services they need.

For example, in Frederick County, Maryland, the program Kids Like Us provides students affected by substance misuse with lessons, peer support, and art experiences to help them process and express their feelings. Led by school counselors and local mental health clinicians, the sessions reach more than 200 students each year.

In West Virginia, law enforcement officials now notify school officials when they become aware of a child who is being exposed to a traumatic event, such as a drug overdose in the home. The school then uses a trauma-sensitive curricula to support the affected student. By improving communication, this Handle with Care initiative is proving to be a model for how law enforcement and schools can work together to support students, and it is being replicated in other communities across the United States.

“Schools can’t be expected to meet all the needs of students affected by trauma,” says Fuxman. “But time and again, we see that students benefit when schools, law enforcement, and community services work together.”

3. Involve the whole school community

Implementing trauma-informed practices can’t be the responsibility of just one person or one team. Rather, every adult in the building—from the school secretary who greets the students in the morning to the coaches and instructors who work with them after the final bell—must understand and appreciate what it takes to be a trauma-sensitive school and the important role they play in this process.

To achieve this whole-school approach, Fuxman recommends that teachers and school staff be trained to recognize the signs of potential trauma. Training is important because not all students affected by trauma behave the same way—some may deal with their trauma by acting out, while others may simply become disinterested or detached.

“It’s important that all adults in the building be able to identify behaviors that may indicate trauma and know what to do when they see them,” says Fuxman.

He also recommends that schools change their approach to addressing difficult behaviors, from punishment to empathy and inquiry.

“If a student is misbehaving, try to find out what is at the root of the behavior,” he says. “This can be challenging when you are trying to manage a classroom full of students, but even if you can’t address bad behavior right away, make a point to connect with the student at a later time.”

There are no easy answers when it comes to supporting young people who have been affected by the opioid crisis, says Fuxman. But in schools, he sees communities that can support children in need—and help them begin to heal.