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KC’s Trauma Smart program recognized nationally for helping young children

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- This is National Children's Mental Health Awareness Day. The federal agency that focuses on mental health today recognized a Kansas City program. Trauma Smart helps pre-school kids who've already had bad experiences in life.

It's noisy in a classroom at the YMCA Thomas Roque Head Start. But temper tantrums? A teacher says you won't see as many as you used to.

"Instead of lashing out, they're more like they want to talk about it," said Gina Johnson.

Johnson thinks it's calmer because of Trauma Smart, a program that recognizes children's behavioral health problems are often rooted in traumatic experiences. Three out of four kids in Kansas City Head Starts have already had at least one bad event such as their parents' divorce or witnessing violence or substance abuse.

Crittenton Children's Center, which is part of Saint Luke's Health System, started Trauma Smart eight years ago.

"We are training everybody, kids and the whole community around them, about how to relate to one another," said Janine Hron, the CEO of Crittenton.

One mother, Erica Fincher, recalled, "My son had started cussing, hitting, spitting, kicking, tantrums."

That was after Fincher and her children's father split up. She and her kids have learned through Trauma Smart to be attuned to feelings -- noticing, naming, validating and responding to them, and even anticipating them.

"I can turn around and be like -- 'I see that you both want that drink. Remember to take turns.' So like noticing it before it happens has been huge," said Fincher.

Head Start staff receive the training, too. There's a "calm down spot" where kids can express their feelings on a board or just practice deep breathing.

"We can, by strengthening the environment around them, move children into a normal developmental trajectory," said Hron.

Hron says Trauma Smart has reduced by half the number of Head Start kids needing individual therapy.

The program that started in K.C. is now in 26 Missouri counties, and will be in Wisconsin and Washington state starting this summer.