Eulanda Thorne and her children (L to R) Sarah, Joshua, Leah, Emmanuel
When school counselor Eulanda Thorne discovered the science of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) in 2018, she felt as if she were on fire. “I felt that I had missed a vital part of my education. Anyone who is in college for social work or teaching, a class on ACEs and trauma should be a required course.”
Without an understanding of ACEs, she says, “I would think the students who are sent to me are being defiant or rebellious.” Instead, she helps the children change their behaviors with the tools she’s acquired in several rounds of trauma training sessions.
Her long journey to incorporating ACEs science in her work began with 14 years of teaching second grade in low-income, inner city schools in Eastern North Carolina. It was there she realized that students couldn’t learn when they faced trauma every day of their lives. Her students often lacked sleep and came to school hungry.
In 2017, the single mother of four quit her teaching job and started a master’s program in counselor education at East Carolina University. In May 2019, she earned her degree while working as an intern counselor at Martin Millennium Academy in Tarboro, NC, a public K-8 school. All students, starting from kindergarten, enter a Spanish immersion program, and are fluent by the time they graduate.
Despite its high academic standards, “the trauma at this school is disheartening,” says Thorne. Her perspective on and ability to handle trauma, however, radically changed in October 2018 after she attended a two-day training program run by the Rural Opportunity Institute (ROI), also in Tarboro, which was founded by two Teach for America alums trained in human-centered design at IDEO and Frog in Silicon Valley.
Vichi Jagannathan and Seth Saeugling started ROI in 2017 to provide free trauma training to leaders throughout Eastern North Carolina, where they had previously taught and developed deep relationships with the people and culture in this part of the country. Their two-day training program, Reconnect for Resilience organized by Resources for Resilience, helps educators and counselors identify behaviors caused by ACEs and develop tools to help people, especially children, overcome their effects.
Thorne’s principal at Martin Millennium suggested she take the training. That’s when she first learned about ACEs science and the landmark CDC-Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experiences Study.
The Adverse Childhood Experience Study (ACE Study) is based on a survey of more than 17,000 adults and was led by Drs. Robert Anda and Vincent Felitti. The study linked 10 types of childhood adversity — such as living with a parent who is mentally ill, has abused alcohol or is emotionally abusive — to the adult onset of chronic disease, mental illness, violence and being a victim of violence. Many other types of ACEs — including racism, bullying, a father being abused, and community violence — have been added to subsequent ACE surveys. (ACEs Science 101; Got Your ACE/Resilience Score?)
“Many students who have been labeled with behavior problems may actually be struggling to deal with trauma,” she says. “It is my job to support them and to share resources and tools to support their capacity for well-being. I can now share strategies to help myself, students, and colleagues manage stress and/or anger, and help them handle adversity and remain connected during tough times.”
In her work – Thorne is the sole counselor for 600 students – she first teaches a student to “sense in”, that is, to tune into and acknowledge her or his physical sensations. “A main tool is a rapid reset; to quickly calm down or pull it together when feeling out of balance,” she explains. This tool is used to help reset one’s nervous system and to overcome an automatic brain response that takes over as a result of reactions to previous trauma. A final step is “to restore, to move from a feeling of shame to one of being understood.”
Although she recently received approval from her principal to integrate ACEs science into her counseling, she hasn’t yet started educating students or their parents. Last month, she began what her principal is referring to as training for “resilience and trauma-informed practices” for all teachers and staff of Martin Millennium Academy.
Part of this training will be to teach the teachers not to make students feel shame, and instead to help build resilience in students and staff. “Teachers,” she adds perceptively, “don’t realize they are also dealing with their own ACEs.”
Training parents and the community at large is in the future, although it will be difficult to get parents to participate in socioeconomically disadvantaged areas. She says she might try offering pizza or spaghetti dinners as a way to get parents to sign up for the evening trauma-informed training sessions.
Thorne was so moved by what she learned during the first trauma-informed training course in 2018 that she returned in February 2019 to take the same training a second time. She took the course again, she says, not for her students, but for herself and her kids. She wanted to learn how to become a better parent to her four children, so they could overcome the trauma they experienced during the 13 years she spent in an emotionally abusive relationship with their father.
“I had developed some serious health issues as a result of the trauma endured during the marriage,” says Thorne. “Being trained in ACEs and trauma-informed practices has enabled me to gain resources to overcome the negative effects of the trauma from my past.”
Apparently, her training paid off, because all three of her children — ages 17, 16, and 15 — were accepted as honor roll students in Wilson Early College Academy, which offers a rigorous five-year academic program starting in 9th grade. Upon completion, a graduate can enter college as a junior, which can save Thorne money and her kids, valuable time. Thorne’s youngest daughter is a member of the Junior National Honor Society, and her 12-year-old, who goes to school with her every day, also made the honor roll. Thorne and her kids have family meetings every week to check in and talk about what’s happening in their lives.
“I want my children to build their resilience just as I have,” she explains. “I want to teach them how to maintain balance in their lives during difficult or stressful periods of time. In addition, I hope to help protect them (and myself) from the development of some mental health difficulties and issues.
“Since learning this work, there has been a true paradigm shift in my way of thinking about my own life and my children’s lives, as well as the life of everyone I encounter. A person’s prior experiences are like the foundation of their life. It’s the basis of who they are — even if you can’t see it. This awareness is essential to personal growth, building relationships, resilience, and living one’s life to the fullest!
“My life (and my children’s) has been positively impacted in a profoundly meaningful way.”