Ever wonder why policy people are often warned to avoid picking their noses? It’s because, if they pull out a booger, they’ll have to find a place to put it.

That’s an example of just one memorable scholarly metaphor presented during the fantastic Oklahoma Partnership for School Readiness Foundation conference on early childhood education Feb. 9 at the University of Central Oklahoma. Local and national researchers presented state-of-the-art social science on what it takes to overcome the stress generated by poverty and how to assist children and families surviving trauma.

One of the great revelations of the conference was an explanation of how social workers (as well as educators) have failed to deal with the boogers that have formed in our state’s cultural and political history.

The first booger: ACEs

The first booger, the effects of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) on today’s kids and on their parents, was described in three similar symposiums. Amanda Sheffield Morris and Jennifer Hays-Grudo reviewed research, published in 2014, that revealed how Oklahoma is tied for first in the nation for young people who have survived multiple traumas known as ACEs. New research revealed by David Bard and Lana Beasley indicates that the percentage of children who have endured multiple traumas is worse than previously estimated. Up to 45.5 percent of at-risk Oklahomans may be struggling with the stress created by three or more ACEs.

The key to addressing generational poverty is acknowledging that the ACEs parents have endured long ago produce “continuing stress” on children. Continuing stress undermines brain development and prompts a “cascade” of neurochemical changes that interfere with the executive brain functions of young children. It also undercuts kids’ working memories, making it harder to learn and retain the knowledge and skills necessary for a prosperous and satisfying life.

As was true of the education-reform moments that came of age during the era of welfare reform, social welfare providers have often had to narrow their vision since the 1990s. Because of their caseloads and other factors, social workers must focus on the health and safety of their clients. Children’s well-being has become an “afterthought.” Social workers don’t have the time to promote early childhood education. This is especially disturbing during this time of “the infantilization of child welfare,” when the worst neglect and abuse is inflicted on younger and younger children.

The biggest boogers of them all

The hard fact is that “trauma derails development,” but the biggest booger of them all has been ignored. It is still difficult for educators to say out loud what social and cognitive science has documented: Social and emotional development must come first. Whether we are trying to improve classroom instruction or provide incentives for welfare recipients to enter the job market, little improvement is possible without first building trusting relationships.

The good news is that the pendulum, at least in terms of education and social work policy (as well as their cousin, the War on Drugs), seems to be swinging back toward holistic science-based practices. The sad news is that the failures of school reform and welfare reform were so predictable. The narrowing of our vision was first propelled by the myth that Head Start failed and a refusal to recognize the improvements of Early Head Start and Head Start. The education sector also ignored a huge body of education research and history that explained why schools won’t improve until we lay the foundations of high-quality early education and socio-emotional student supports.

Schools should be built on love, trust

The conference offered doable advice to social workers and educators for countering the pattern that has long plagued the OKCPS. For instance, we adults must teach “mindfulness” to our kids (and ourselves.)

Oklahomans remain committed to the ideal of pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps, but such a value system doesn’t work — for either 1-year-olds or teenagers.

To really improve our schools, we must reject the quest for rewards and punishments for putting educators and students under the “right” amount of stress. We must create schools founded on loving and trusting relationships.