Growing up as the eldest daughter in a family of three girls and three boys in Nairobi, Kenya, Becky Ndung’u and all her siblings attended school, which is mandatory for children ages six through 14. Her parents—both farmers and her father also a lifelong government accountant—were committed to providing all their children a good education.
Her education began in a public school, followed by a private high school. Our conversation was conducted in English, but Ndung’u is also fluent in her native languages, Kikuyu and Kiswahili.
After graduating from high school, the young scientist earned a “higher diploma”—equivalent to a bachelor’s degree—in analytical chemistry in 2000 at what is now the Technical University of Kenya and then went on to earn a higher diploma in soil science in 2003 at what is now the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology.
Not able to find a job in her field, she opted to work in schools as a science lab assistant, organizing and teaching lessons in biology, chemistry, and physics. She also prepared students for the exams they needed to matriculate from secondary schools.
She recounted that during this time, she was often asked to teach biology and chemistry when the teacher was absent. As a result, she says, “I learned a lot about how school systems work, their challenges in terms of teachers being overworked, discipline in learners, poor academic performances, and the struggles of parents to pay school fees.”
From Science Assistant to Educational Psychologist
But she had no desire to become a teacher herself. “I wanted to help the schools but not as a teacher,” she explains. “My focus was helping learners improve their academic performance and acquiring the discipline to avoid dropping out of the school. But in Kenya, there is no provision for educational psychologists in the education system.”
After earning a diploma online in educational psychology and emotional intelligence at the University of Ireland in 2020, she started working on her own as an educational psychologist. She acquired students by word of mouth from parents. “Amazingly,” she said, “I was able to help kids with behavior problems, learning difficulties, poor academic performances, and learners with special needs.”
Before learning about the science of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), Ndung’u’s knowledge about emotional intelligence (EQ) opened her eyes as to why children acted out and misbehaved in the classroom.
She recalls having to remove two sisters, ages six and eight, with severe dyslexia from the classroom because they couldn’t read at their grade levels. She used her EQ skills to get the sisters to open up and talk about their issues. She also involved their parents so that they could understand what their children were experiencing and to explain what needed to be done. She secured the students a special needs teacher, who home-schooled them for eight months. Later, they were both successfully integrated back into the schoolroom.
Learning About ACEs
While working with children, the trauma educator heard a talk by Dr. Angie Yonda-Maina, director of Green String Network, a nonprofit dedicated to peacebuilding through practices related to trauma, justice, spirituality, and security. Ndung’u was struck by a poster presented in the doctor’s talk that included a reference to ACEs.
[The term ACEs, or adverse childhood experiences, comes from the landmark Centers for Disease Control and Prevention/Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experiences Study, which tied 10 types of childhood trauma —such as experiencing or witnessing abuse, neglect, or having a parent with mental health or addiction struggles—to health problems in adulthood in 17,000 adults. The study found that ACEs were remarkably common, with most people reporting at least one ACE. People who have four or more different types of ACEs —about 12 percent of the population—have a 460 percent higher risk of depression and a 700 percent higher risk of becoming an alcoholic, compared with people who have no ACEs. ACEs are one part of PACEs science, which includes the epidemiology of ACEs, how toxic stress from ACEs affects the developing brain, how it affects short- and long-term health, the epigenetic and systemic consequences of toxic stress, and resilience science…how the brain and body can heal. PACEs Science 101; Got Your ACE/Resilience Score?)
Her reaction was immediate.
“I was amazed that I finally had a name for all the difficulties I was encountering in my work.”
“I explored more about ACEs science online,” she recounts. That’s where she met Emily Santiago, director of the Center for Cognitive Diversity, affiliated with California State University, East Bay, and UC Berkeley. Ndung’u received a scholarship to study for a certification as a trauma-informed specialist and is now halfway through the 10-month program.
In the next three months and afterwards as well, she plans to transform a public school in rural, low-income Kenya from “traumatizing to trauma informed.”
When she posted her school project on Twitter, she says, “The response was overwhelming. Teachers responded, community-based organizations, parents, too. This is when I knew I had a calling to teach more about ACEs. Even our villages ought to know about ACEs and childhood trauma.”
She also said that PACEs Connection has been a resource. “It’s where I learned how to analyze ACEs scores and read the ACE survey by Dr. Nadine Burke-Harris. I also learned about what California is doing through PACEs-informed education.”
Trauma Informed Schools Kenya
Ndung’u launched her startup, Trauma Informed Schools Kenya, in January 2022. It is the only trauma-informed education program in Kenya. She is looking for partners in mental health to help her train more teachers about ACEs and, more generally, to create mental health awareness in schools.
She said she’s received many positive responses all over Kenya from individuals, teachers, schools, mental health advocates, community-based organizations that are involved in mental health awareness in schools. “They want to learn about ACEs and trauma informed education.” A group in Uganda is also requesting ACEs training.
She’s using social media frequently to post about ACEs. (Her Twitter handle is @traumasch_ke.)
And the trauma educator is forming a team of teachers—Trainer of Trainers (ToT)—comprising counseling psychologists as well as parents and community organizers in the mental health field as well as special needs teachers to help her develop a curriculum on creating effective mental health awareness in Kenyan schools. In the works are plans to organize seminars, workshops, and conferences to train teachers about PACEs. She also wants to have the ToT encourage schools to form mental health clubs for students.
The ToT team will be taught about PACEs, drawing from resources about trauma education in California schools through videos on PACEs Connection. Future plans include creating a teacher wellness center and a wellness app, which will provide teachers and staff quick access to learn more about childhood trauma and compassionate ways to mitigate it.
To learn more about how you might help Trauma Informed Schools Kenya get off to a successful future, click here.