The Rev. David Sincere knows firsthand the difference a caring adult can make in the chaos-filled life of a child.
He was only 7 years old when the man who financially took care of his family, but also beat his mother and trafficked drugs, was killed. The dichotomy of emotions that situation brought is difficult enough for an adult to handle, let alone a child.
So little David shut down as he watched his family and home situation deteriorate even more. He stopped speaking in school and when he did speak he was disruptive. He became one of those students that would make some say, “something’s wrong with that boy.”
A church near his home intervened in his life, bringing food and stability. For Sincere, the importance of strong role models in the life of a child is more than just a story to present to teachers during an in-service gathering as he did recently for Blue Ridge Elementary in the Fort Bend Independent School District.
For Sincere, it is personal.
He is guided by the words of a former slave, noted orator and social reformer Frederick Douglass: “It is easier to build strong children than repair broken men.”
That is why for the last 20 years Sincere spent his life mentoring students, hosting community forums, volunteering within the FBISD, and serving on the Board Leadership Academy. He created a non-profit called Advocacy Now to inspire others to give back.
His efforts captured the attention of the state, which recognized him recently with the “Heroes for Children Award “ from the Texas Board of Education. The state recognized 15 volunteers from each board district including Sincere’s efforts in the FBISD.
His educational crusades are part of why he was recognized recently by the State of Texas
As he spoke to a room full of teachers at Blue Ridge Elementary School recently, he showed multiple slides including two brain scans – a neglected child and a nurtured child, which indicated a marked difference in brain activity. It is all part of his workshop presentations called Trauma Informed Care, which teaches parents, teachers, and administrators how to identify kids suffering from early childhood trauma.
They learned that when kids are “being bad” something deeper is usually happening.
“We focus on the academics. Make sure they get good academics but what are they doing with their emotional side?” asked Sincere. “We don’t learn a lot about that.”
He asked the teachers what kinds of behavior they are seeing in the classroom. Disruptive activities such as fights, sleeping in class, inability to focus, unusually high levels of anger, or emotional outbursts could all be signs of trauma in the child’s life.
He asked the teachers how much time they spent learning about educating children and the base amount was 3.5 years.
“Now how many of those are years dealing with the emotional side?” he asked.
“This is part of the problem,” he said.
Another problem is getting the needed help. Some parents resist the idea of having a child in therapy because of the stigma of seeking out mental health.
“But the second leading cause of death in your schools is suicide,” he said. “The level of emotional disturbances these kids are dealing with, we are not trained in this country to deal with and control our emotions.”
To make matters worse, judgment is thrown in the mix when a child is disruptive.
“With complex trauma or multiple experiences of trauma, it has a cumulative effect and it impacts you. You have a difficult time coping. You may see kids having a difficult time coping. We focus on the behavior. How do we respond? By saying, these are bad kids or mama’s not taking care of them,” he said.
Sincere said it is also important to teach children to recognize and identify their emotions. One of the teachers noted that she was proud that the younger students are learning breathing exercises to calm themselves.
“We need to train every single teacher. When children don’t know how to self-manage emotions,” he said.
He said another important piece is helping the educators.
Principal Dr. Toron Woolridge said he tells his staff, “whatever support you need, this is an open door policy. That’s also why we have meetings like this. This is great training. We need transparency and confidentiality,” Woolridge said.
To help teachers, they created a 30-day “happy teacher challenge,” where teachers can take a lunch break without simultaneously doing any other work and releasing the need to feel guilty.
Sincere said his Advocacy Now group is “focusing on the school-prison pipeline. It’s real. I was on the edge of the school to prison pipeline which is why I am passionate about this stuff,” said Sincere.
The school to prison pipeline is a process of criminalizing students, usually those from disadvantaged backgrounds, where students are pushed out of schools and put into contact with law enforcement through harsh disciplinary policies.
Changing the process can sometimes start by changing the question of “why is the student behaving so bad” to “what is happening with you?”
He gave an example of a fourth-grade student who was breaking into cars and homes.
“The child didn’t have any food. I have kids wearing jackets to cover up they are dingy and dirty. There are kids who are going through things. That is why mentoring and intervention is imperative,” said Sincere.
He still remembers learning his stepfather was dead and resulting chaos of losing their possessions.
“I remember going through my academic career with anger and bitterness. I didn’t understand what was going on,” he said.
Sincere remembers returning to his old neighborhood and seeing the church still there and a new pastor trying to help. For some children, institutions like the church or the school are the only safe spaces in a traumatized child’s life.
“This may be the safest place for a kid on this campus and that’s why I want to bring that to your attention. I don’t care what the state says about testing, I care about a whole person. This is the only profession where we can’t control the product that comes through our door. We have to be reflective of how we can help the community the best way we can,” he said.