On Track to Graduate

Neuroscience transforms a Blood Reserve school

By Doug Horner

If you come on this side,” says Keyshaun Mountain Horse, “one of our students drew a design to intimidate our opponents.” The profile of a skull wearing a feather headdress is drawn in black felt pen on one of the robot’s side panels. The Blackfoot word “iikakiimat” is printed underneath in capital letters.

“It means ‘try hard’ in our language,” says Mountain Horse. Big wireless headphones drape around his neck and his hands are covered in some kind of green residue. “I was playing with slime,” he explains. “I can’t sit still. It’s kind of hard for me to concentrate so I just fiddle around with it.” It’s the end of October, 2017, and Mountain Horse is in his last year of high school. He turns 18 in less than a month.

The remote-controlled robot has six wheels and can climb ropes and shoot wiffle balls. It’s stored at the back of Kainai High School’s industrial bay. An array of wood- and metal-working tools occupy one side of the space. Two vintage muscle cars, in various stages of deconstruction, are parked at the back by the bay doors. Out those doors is a parking lot, a playground and then nothing but farmers’ fields and grasslands until the vaulting blue-and-white peaks of the Rocky Mountains.

Learning the connection between trauma and brain development is a way to get to the root of issues.

The Blood Reserve, Canada’s largest reserve area-wise, stretches from just south of Monarch and Lethbridge down to Cardston. Rolling hills provide sweeping views of farms, coulees, creek beds and mountains. Stand Off, the main hub for the community of 12,453 people, is a 20-minute drive south from Fort Macleod. The high school is another 20 minutes south and sits on the reserve’s western boundary.

Mountain Horse credits the extracurricular program and his team, the K-Bots, with the fact he’s on track to graduate in the spring. “It pushed me to stay in school, because back then hard times happened.” He says he began to lose interest in school after his grandfather passed away. Mountain Horse spent some time living with his grandparents and says his grandpa was always the one to challenge and encourage him. “He was my favourite person in the world,” he says. “He taught me how to do a lot of stuff.” Making new friends, travelling to compete in tournaments and the chance to work with his hands are what attracted Mountain Horse to the K-Bots. “Once I joined robotics, it changed everything for me.”

The school day at Kainai begins with walk club at 8:25 a.m. Teenagers in hoodies, skinny jeans and flat-brimmed hats lap the hallways together. “They’re chatting with friends, but walking and releasing some energy, so by the time they are sitting at their desks at 9:00 they are ready to work,” says Charlton Weasel Head, associate principal.

KHS offers dozens of programs, from after-school sports to robotics, tiny-home building and wilderness expeditions. These are designed to snag students’ interest, teach valuable skills and keep kids coming in the door. The school also offers services and resources that provide supports well beyond academics.

The elder-in-residence program started in the fall of 2016. A classroom was converted to a lodge, with a teepee-like structure built in the centre. Blood Tribe elders volunteer at the lodge, listening to students and sharing stories and traditional knowledge. KHS is a place to learn, but it’s also a place to feel safe and feel connected to Blackfoot culture and history.

Weasel Head explains that the cafeteria serves free breakfast and lunch and how, for some students, those might be their only meals that day. “They’re coming to eat, but then they’re also coming to school,” says Weasel Head. “You need to be mindful. You need to have self-care. All these other things around you have to be in place so you can be more focused.”

The dedication to find new and more comprehensive ways of supporting students is why KHS signed its teachers up for an online course in leading-edge neuroscience. Every Wednesday afternoon, from January 2017 to June 2017, teachers at KHS learned about and discussed the connection between trauma and brain development. “It’s another way for us to get to the root of certain issues. There is lots of poverty in our community. There are lots of different dysfunctions,” says Weasel Head. “As educators in our community, we have to be aware—how do we teach fully to students who are dealing with these situations?”

KHS was the first school in the province to take the Alberta Family Wellness Initiative’s (AFWI) brain story course in a coordinated way. “The teachers at Kainai really engaged with the information,” says Nicole Sherren, one of the course’s creators. “They saw how it was playing out with the students.” Sherren is the scientific director of the Palix Foundation, an Alberta philanthropic organization, and has a Ph.D. in neuroscience from Carleton University.

The Palix Foundation created the AFWI in 2007 as a way to support research and build awareness about how early life experiences shape people’s brains and influence health in later life. For the past several years, the AFWI has invited researchers at the top of their fields to Alberta to discuss their findings with people who work in government, healthcare, social services and academia. The brain story brings all that knowledge together and makes it accessible to the general public for free. Decades of research is condensed into 18 modules that can be reviewed in 30 hours.

“This information can truly be transformational,” says Sherren, a self-described “brain chauvinist.” The AFWI’s course unpacks the science around experience-based brain development, which challenges fundamental assumptions people have about personal responsibility. “If you can’t change, you just didn’t want it bad enough,” says Sherren, paraphrasing a nugget of folk wisdom that’s especially popular in a province founded on a pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps mythology.

In fact, our brains grow and develop not only according to our genes but in response to our environment. “Things like executive function, our ability to pay attention and remember and plan for the future and delay gratification; all of these are skills we need to learn,” says Sherren. “Those brain circuits are built in a back-and-forth, use-it-or-lose-it kind of fashion.” Positive, nurturing relationships are critical for developing the cognitive, emotional and social skills we rely on daily as adults. Relationships are also instrumental for helping children cope with stress. “If you don’t have adults in your life that can help you regulate your stress response system, it stays on and the body stays flooded with stress hormones.” This is called toxic stress, and it can also stunt or derail the development of executive functions.

It’s not news to say that someone with a difficult childhood will be less likely to succeed as an adult. It is news to report that a person’s brain is physiologically different because of specific challenges they faced as a child. And that those differences mean they are more likely to develop heart disease or cancer or a substance dependence or end up living on the street.

Dr. Vincent Felitti, at the time head of Kaiser Permanente’s department of preventive medicine in San Diego, and Dr. Robert Anda, an epidemiologist with the US Centers for Disease Control, first established the link between what they called adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and adult health in 1998. A team of Alberta researchers repeated the same type of survey in 2016 with 4,000 Calgarians and also found associations between ACEs and adult health challenges, including anxiety, depression, suicide, suicidal ideation and a variety of chronic diseases.

“It’s relevant to all sorts of physical health problems and all sorts of social problems, whether or not you end up in the criminal justice system, whether or not you end up being homeless, whether or not you end up going through a divorce,” says Sherren. A study published in early 2018 by the University of Calgary School of Public Policy surveyed 300 homeless Calgarians and found they were five times more likely to have suffered childhood trauma than the general population.

Ramona Big Head’s office is on the opposite side of the school from the automotive bay. The low-angle morning sun streams through her windows and illuminates the various posters and cardboard cut-outs of LeBron James, the NBA basketball player. “I’m just going to shut the door, otherwise it’s going to get crazy,” says Big Head. It’s her second month as principal, but she is no stranger to the school.

“I started my teaching career here,” Big Head says. She taught drama and English for 14 years, directing the first productions on the school’s stage, an activity she plans to revive with plays this winter and spring. For her Ph.D. from the University of British Columbia, Big Head is researching how theatre can strengthen a sense of identity for Kainai youth.

“For us, in our community, education is really about life and death,” says Big Head. “It really is. What we’re providing for them here is the opportunity to move on, to become self-reliant, to fulfill some dreams.” She explains how her main priority as principal is to improve student retention and attendance.

Big Head also describes the importance of taking an empathic approach to dealing with students that misbehave or act out. “Get them to regulate. Calm them down,” she says. “And then they go sit down, and when they do, that’s when you’ll hear other stuff. Things may be happening at the home.” Without that understanding of the child’s background, educators can be tempted to write a student off: Doesn’t want to work? Doesn’t want to listen? I don’t want him in my class.

Several teachers at KHS remarked on how the brain story course has not so much changed how they teach but rather how they approach disciplinary and classroom management issues. Greg Salmon, a science and gym teacher, described how he takes a more gradual approach first thing in the morning before tackling complex material. “Give the kids a chance to adjust to being in the school, which is a different environment they were in an hour ago,” says Salmon. He also doesn’t mind if students get up and go for a quick walk if they’re feeling overwhelmed. “That’s been a beneficial thing from that course,” says Salmon. “It’s that idea that, yes, there are things that are outside of your control, but there are things you can do in the classroom to try and set a tone for the day and try and keep things consistent so students know what to expect once they walk in the door.”

Our brains grow and develop not only according to our genes but in response to our environment.

In addition to the brain story course, Big Head explains how some KHS staff also draw on personal experience when it comes to understanding trauma. She points to a family portrait above her desk. Big Head is in the middle of the image, sitting between her two sons. Her four daughters stand smiling in a row behind them. She’s holding a photograph in her lap of a young woman. “That’s my oldest daughter,” says Big Head. “I lost her to suicide in 2006. This Saturday, October 28th, it’ll be 11 years.”

Big Head wrote a play as part of her thesis for a master’s degree in education from the University of Lethbridge. It was about the 1870 Baker Massacre, when the US army attacked a peaceful Blackfoot camp at a bend in the Marias River about 25 kilometres’ drive southeast of present-day Shelby, Montana. “Two hundred and fourteen people were massacred that day, January 23rd—middle of winter,” she says. One of the many children orphaned was Holy Bear Woman, Big Head’s great-great grandmother.

Writing her thesis and Strike Them Hard! The Baker Massacre, which she toured to New York and across Alberta and Montana, was part of what Big Head describes as a healing journey. “I talk about the pain of both: the historical trauma and the recent trauma.”

Annette Bruised Head was the principal of KHS for eight years before she became deputy superintendent for the Kainai Board of Education in early 2017. She worked with Weasel Head on how to pilot the AFWI’s brain story course with the high school’s teachers.

Bruised Head first learned of experience-based brain development in 2014 when Dr. Diane Benoit, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Toronto, presented the topic to first responders on the reserve. “It was very profound for me,” Bruised Head says. “I brought my mother to the presentation, and both my parents are survivors of residential school.”

Starting in September 2018 it will be mandatory for all KBE staff to take the AFWI’s brain story course. That’s 200 administrators and teachers that oversee the education of 1,100 students at two elementary schools, one middle school, the high school, an alternative program and three head-start centres for young children.

The KBE is also working with the Bow Valley College early learning and child care program to translate the first six modules of the AFWI’s brain story course into educational material that incorporates Blackfoot culture and traditional knowledge. The BVC team worked with six early-childhood educators and six elders from the Kainai community to create the new course.

Bruised Head explains that the new material will be piloted this fall in the high school’s Early Childhood Education program, which is a partnership with Lethbridge College that enables students to earn high school and college credits simultaneously by taking introductory ECE courses. The plan is to eventually make the course mandatory for all high school students. “We know that 90 per cent, if not higher, of our students will be parents,” says Bruised Head. “We want to make sure that they have this knowledge before they become parents.”

Bruised Head also helped organize the inaugural Nitsitapii Reziliency Conference, which took place in Lethbridge and Stand Off at the beginning of March 2018. The week-long event was created to begin a conversation about trauma and resiliency within the four communities of the Blackfoot Confederacy—the Piikani, Siksika, Kainai and Southern Peigan First Nations.

The Blood Reserve’s chief and council had declared a state of emergency the Friday before the conference began. Thirty opioid drug overdoses that week, one causing death, had overwhelmed local police, paramedics and other frontline staff.

“Our conference was very timely,” says Bruised Head. Hundreds of people packed into the Multipurpose Centre in Stand Off to learn about what it means to be a trauma-informed community, but also to take part in conversations about how to move forward. “We are facing adversity, but we also know we have the strength to overcome,” says Bruised Head.

Keyshaun Mountain Horse doesn’t hesitate when I ask him what he’s planning on doing after he graduates in the spring. “Become a police officer—I got the boots,” he motions to his thick-soled, black-leather footwear. The Blood Tribe Police cadets meet every Friday afternoon, and tomorrow they’re heading up to Calgary to get new uniforms. “My best moments were with robotics, but now my best moments are starting to go toward cadets.” Mountain Horse plans on enrolling in the criminal justice program at Lethbridge College for the fall of 2018 as the first step towards a career with his community’s police force. “The pen, notepad—walking around and getting all your evidence. I’m going to have to do a lot of writing, but overall you still get to go outside.”

Doug Horner is a writer, editor and researcher and a former departments editor for Alberta Views.


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