What can one teacher really do about trauma?

When training teachers on trauma-informed classroom strategies, the most frequent pushback I hear is “I don’t have enough time or resources.”

Maybe this is because we start with defining the problem, and it is bleak. Some estimate that between one third and one half of all children experience trauma. The impacts of trauma on the brain and body can be severe, pervasive and long-lasting. Trauma can contribute to challenging behavior and mental health challenges, and can negatively affect a child’s ability to learn.

It’s easy to feel hopeless.

Something we’ve known for a long time is that consistent, caring relationships are one of the biggest factors in helping children heal from trauma. Enter the teacher’s protest: “I have so many students,” “I don’t have enough time to help them all,” “There are no resources in my school.”

All of those things are true – and I do believe that we need to drastically change the education system in many ways, for the benefit of all students. But what can we do the in the meantime?

The answer, it turns out, is to sweat the small stuff.

In Bruce Perry’s updated version of The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog, endnotes add updates from current research to his classic accounting of the effects and treatment of trauma. In one section, Perry discusses the idea of “therapeutic dosing” – the question of the timing, frequency and content of therapy that best supports healing from trauma.

Indeed, long-term and enduring changes to neural networks can be created by an intense period of stimulation that lasts less than a minute. Synaptic splitting, which is one way these connections can change, can occur in meres seconds of intense stimulation – and if the intense experience is repeated four times within an hour, the change will be maintained long term.

Just as a traumatic experience can alter a life in an instant, so too can a therapeutic encounter.  

….The good news is that anyone can help with this part of ‘therapy’ – it merely requires being present in social settings and being, well, basically, kind. An attentive, attuned, and responsive person will help create opportunities for a traumatized child to control the dose and pattern of rewiring their trauma-related associations. … The more we can provide each other these moment of simple, human connection – even a brief nod or a moment of eye contact – the more we’ll be able to heal those who have suffered traumatic experience.

  -Bruce Perry , 2017 edition of The Boy who was Raised as a Dog, p 308-9

This idea of “therapeutic encounters” or “therapeutic moments” should be one of the first things we teach pre-service teachers. What I love about this concept is that it both gives us permission, and it holds us accountable. It gives us permission to play an active role in the healing of others, because that role can be a tiny empathetic moment, a personal question, a joyful high-five. It also holds us accountable, because this work isn’t too hard for any of us: none of us can say we don’t have the training, the experience, or the expertise to have a therapeutic encounter.

Now imagine that every teacher, staff member, adult in a school commits to creating therapeutic moments within the school day. Imagine they all agree to slow down just a little bit, be kinder in the hallways, use twenty seconds of passing time as an opportunity to say a genuine “It’s nice to see you” to a student. If we can create a web of therapeutic moments, interconnected by our unconditional positive regard, we can create the environment for change.

My favorite part from the quote above, again: Just as a traumatic experience can alter a life in an instant, so too can a therapeutic encounter.  You never know how the small moments can add up to change for a trauma-affected child – so let’s create a tapestry of these small moments within our schools so we all can heal.

 

Letting go of ACEs to support trauma-affected students

 

I would like to see the trauma-informed education community focus less on ACEs, and in particular to stop asking students and staff to take ACEs surveys. The ACEs checklist wasn’t designed for that, and I think it does more harm than good.

For those not familiar, ACE stands for Adverse Childhood Experiences, which were the focus of a CDC-Kaiser study originally conducted in the 1990s.  ACEs seem to have become synonymous with childhood trauma, and are often invoked in writing about trauma-informed education practice. An example of this is the popular documentary Paper Tigers, which is about a school identifying as trauma-informed and relying heavily on the vocabulary of ACEs as they shift how their school supports trauma-affected students.

At a conference last fall, I facilitated a group discussion for those interested in trauma-informed education. Participants were sharing how they were making changes to their schools to incorporate trauma-informed strategies. One participant shared that as a part of the admissions process for her charter school, she was planning on asking students to fill out an ACEs questionnaire. I’ve heard of other schools and staff groups being asked to do the same: to fill out a survey created from the list of ACEs identified in the CDC study. Presumably, the information from these surveys help schools identify students in need of support, and perhaps help teachers better understand how their own experiences impact their work with trauma-affected students.

I would like to strongly caution school leaders from using an ACEs survey with students or staff in their settings.

Limitations of ACEs

The ACEs identified in the CDC study aren’t meant to be inclusive of every possible traumatic experience. As is the case with any study, they needed to narrow down their focus in order to measure and study.  The adverse childhood experiences that were focused on in the study were:

  • Physical abuse
  • Sexual abuse
  • Emotional abuse
  • Physical neglect
  • Emotional neglect
  • Intimate partner violence
  • Mother treated violently
  • Substance misuse within household
  • Household mental illness
  • Parental separation or divorce
  • Incarcerated household member

Each of these items were assessed based on responses to specific questions in a lengthy questionnaire. When you search online for quizzes to determine your own “ACE score,” you’ll find a boiled-down 10-question survey which asks one to answer “yes” or “no” to experiencing each of the above ten items during the first 18 years of life.

Taking a ten question survey about childhood adverse experiences has a few problems. First is the issue of what’s not on the list. Focusing only on the ACEs list excludes a huge range of experiences; for example, the traumatic impacts of racism – not an ACE. Traumatic natural disaster, such as a hurricane, flood or fire? Not on the ACEs survey. If your intention is to use the ACEs survey to find out what percentage of students or faculty have experienced trauma, your data will be incomplete at best.

In addition, trauma is widely viewed as subjective – an interplay between dangerous events and our capacity to cope – and one’s experience of a potentially traumatic event is impacted by risk factors and protective factors. Because of this subjectivity, we cannot immediately assume that an ACE score correlates to an experience of trauma. Divorced parents is on the ACEs survey – which may be an adverse experience, but might not be trauma. To conflate all ACEs with trauma is a false equivalency, which makes “ACE score” an incorrect shorthand for trauma.

More than a number

To ask kids to take ACEs survey is to distill all of the complexities of their lives into a number, and that number isn’t really going to help your practice, anyway. Trauma-informed work in a school setting is all about relationship – should knowing if a student has 0, 4 or 7 ACEs change or impact whether we build relationship with them?

Speaking of relationship: requiring students or their families to report on these adverse experiences is a risky proposition. Asking these questions may open the door to conversations that educators are not prepared to have, and without mental health training and structures, these conversations may do more harm than good.

Even as a mental health screening tool, “the current ACE inventory was also not chosen through a rigorous process of scientific review to establish the best predictors of health outcomes” (Finklehor, 2017).  With this in mind, schools should critically question what screening information they hope to gain through an ACEs score and consult with mental health professionals about best-practices tools.

Trauma-informed strategies are best practices for all kids. Does knowing how many students have high ACE scores change that? You should assume that your community suffers the impacts of trauma. Use state-level data if it helps to build community understanding and buy-in for trauma-informed practices, while also pushing all stakeholders to recognize that it’s not about the number.

We do our best work when we directly listen to the needs of our community and the individuals within it. Resources spent on ACEs screening might better be spent investing in building relationships.

ACEs as a profesional development tool?

For all the same reasons – don’t ask all your staff to fill out an ACEs survey. Like kids, your staff/teachers have varied and complex histories – and while taking ACEs survey might be enlightening for some, it should be completely optional and presented as only one among many strategies that teachers can use to gain self-awareness. Remember that many of your teachers have indeed experienced adverse situations as a child, and being asked to reflect on and check “yes” or “no” to these experiences may be harmful to their ongoing process of recovery.

Teachers absolutely should have self-awareness of “their own stuff” they are bringing to working with trauma-impacted kids. ACE information could be one option. There are many others. We should trust educators to choose their own strategy for building self-awareness.

I worked at a school for 8 years with a mostly trauma-impacted population. I was never asked to do an ACEs survey, and students/families were only asked to share specific history w/clinical staff, at their own pace. Our clinical director also held the opinion that, while it was helpful to know about specific triggers or needs, you can do the work with any kid if you know how to use the general frames and strategies. You don’t need to be a trauma detective to be effective.

A grain of salt

With all of this in mind, how should we proceed? Use the ACEs for what they are: an interesting data set that helps inform our understanding of long term impacts of a specific set of adverse child experiences. There is a wealth of other research on trauma and its impacts on children, and it’s worth spending the time to investigate different frameworks and ways of understanding this issue.

In working with the humans in our schools, seek other ways to understand your students and raise self-awareness in staff. Respect individuals’ paths to recovery and use trauma-informed practices as a mindset that supports all students.

 

This post is an expansion of a Tweet thread I wrote that can be found here: https://twitter.com/shevtech/status/948221926371221507 

Learn with me this spring

The students who fall through the cracks and get pushed out of their communities need us to change how we approach our work with them.  This change can happen when we take the time and space to self-reflect.

I believe that self-reflection is one of the most important things teachers can do to improve their support of all students, the challenging ones especially. We need to identify our hidden beliefs and emotions to understand why some students feel more frustrating than others. We need to find ways to transform our experiences into meaning and align our philosophies with our practice.

This spring, I’m teaching a graduate course through the Castleton Center for Schools to help teachers take the time for this self-reflection, focusing on trauma-informed and strengths-based approaches to working with challenging students. The course meets face-to-face twice in Winooski, Vermont, to allow us to build community and dive into thoughtful conversations about our practice and our beliefs. In between those two meetings, we’ll read, reflect and discuss online, applying new learning directly to our current classroom environments.

At the end of the course, you can expect to walk away with concrete strategies, problem-solving approaches, and many resources to explore. I also hope you’ll walk away with more questions than answers, and a willingness to carry that inquiry into your work.

Please join me to create a learning community that will help you build your skill set to support challenging students.

Register at the Castleton Center for Schools site. 

Unlearning

In education, obviously we talk constantly about learning. That’s our job here, right? Fostering learning, assessing learning, innovating learning experiences, understanding learners.

But as teachers, we have a lot of unlearning to do, too, especially when it comes to how we “manage” our classrooms. Many educators replicate the systems of classroom management that they themselves experienced, without often pausing to wonder whether the underlying philosophy of this “classroom management” is the right one.

I recently read Alfie Kohn’s book Beyond Discipline  for the first time. I’ve been familiar with Kohn for a while and my previous school was heavily influenced by his philosophy, but reading his book was invigorating. I highlighted approximately half of every page. Kohn’s overall premise is that a focus on compliance in our schools harms children and adults, and we can do better by developing community instead: “the more we ‘manage’ students’ behavior and try to make them do what we say, the more difficult it is for them to become morally sophisticate people who think for themselves and care about others” (p. 62).

It sounds great in practice – but it takes so much unlearning for educators who have spent their whole lives in systems that value compliance. So many teachers are also in positions where compliance is demanded of them every day by administrators, state decision-makers, federal laws. Kohn quotes de Charms: “When teachers are treated as pawns, they don’t teach, they become drill sergeants.” Teachers need not only to unlearn how they were taught, but also actively swim against the tide of compliance that is the reality of many schools.

So how do we unlearn? First, I think we need to connect to the big picture. For me, this could look like reading books from my favorite educational philosophers, or books that challenge my understanding of the status quo, or seeking out articles from diverse perspectives. I need to expand my worldview, and in doing so, take apart and discard the parts that don’t serve me or my students anymore.

Connecting to the big picture can also look like dreaming together with other educators – whether that’s attending a conference, and Edcamp, or simply talking with a teacher friend over dumplings about the dreams we have for our students.

Unlearning also takes practice. I’ve been thinking about both/and – we need to think about and talk about the big picture, but we also need concrete ways to test things out. In thinking about unlearning “classroom management,” a couple of concrete ways to try it out include the CPS model and restorative circles. I find that when I commit to trying something concrete, I can practice not only the actual strategy, but managing the feelings of frustration and uncertainty that come in the midst of a change of philosophy.

Unlearning is difficult, especially when everyone is telling us that the “way it’s always been” is the way it should always be. But as Kohn says, “to create a classroom where students feel safe enough to challenge each other – and us – is to give them an enormous gift” (p. 77). Unlearning compliance and embracing a messier version of community is the foundation of a healthy democracy. That’s the direction I want to move with my students.

a path on a mountain

The trauma-informed toolbox (and mixed metaphors)

I’m looking forward to teaching a workshop this October on the teacher’s trauma toolbox. The goal is to help teachers get started with trauma-informed teaching and learning. I hope teachers will walk away having developed their understanding of child trauma as well as jumpstarted their thinking on trauma-informed strategies for their classrooms.

Trauma-informed teaching isn’t something you can master after a one-day workshop, or a semester class, or even many years of intense study and practice. It’s an ongoing process to support students who have experienced trauma, because every child is different and every response to trauma is different. Moreover, being in relationship with people with traumatic experience can be difficult, and requires regular checking in with ourselves and recalibrating so we can sustain the work.

The trauma toolbox

We can best prepare to serve students with traumatic backgrounds by developing our own toolbox. Not every tool will work for a given job, but if we maintain a diverse set we are more likely to have what we need when we need it. Some tools will work for many situations, while we save others for a very specific project. When using trauma-informed strategies, the range of tools is essential because one student’s response to trauma will never be exactly the same as another’s. This is especially true when “challenging” behavior comes up; I may need to try a dozen different tools before I find the one that works.

As most handy folks and homeowners also know, sometimes our own toolbox isn’t enough, and it’s essential to know when to call the plumber or the electrician. An essential aspect of our trauma-informed toolbox is knowing when to call on others – whether they be school counselors, psychologists, or social workers, or your local mental-health or child welfare agency. There’s also something to be said for the home-improvement show, youtube video or internet forum where we can get a refresher on how to use the tools we already have, or get unstuck when we’re frustrated.

Where the metaphor falls apart

a path on a mountain

While your home toolbox may be used to fix broken stuff, we aren’t “fixing” students and they certainly aren’t broken. Here I’ll use a different metaphor for our role in supporting students who’ve experienced trauma – the hike.

Ever been hiking with someone who hasn’t really been hiking much before? You’re both walking on the same path, but maybe it’s slightly easier for you, because you have more practice. You don’t need to tell your hiking partner how to walk, because they already know how to do that, but you might make some suggestions if there’s a tricky uphill scramble.

As you walk, you’re paying attention to the other hiker, and guiding the way, but the two of you are also connecting, together, and noticing, together, what’s going on in the woods around you. While the less experienced person might need your help at times, you might also need them and rely on their expertise as you cross obstacles together.

You might need to prompt your hiking partner when to stop and take a break and drink some water, but it’s also essential that you pay attention to your own needs, as well. Supporting our students through trauma is something we do together, walking side by side, while ultimately respecting the autonomy of the journey.

The path through healing from trauma can be difficult and complicated, and we do best when we walk it together, whatever the metaphor.

I hope you’ll join me on October 7 in Keene, NH for the Teacher’s Trauma Toolbox workshop. Can’t attend? Check out resources for getting started with trauma-informed teaching or get in touch to schedule a workshop at your site.

Social-emotional learning can be simple, part 2

In follow-up to this post, I wanted to share a quick strategy that is deceptively simple yet sets the stage for social-emotional learning:

Edutopia recently shared this video about Peace Corners:

 

It’s simple, right? Set up a comfy corner, invite students to use it to take a break, add in a little reflection sheet. Yet, there are so many layers to how this can help students:

  • Honors and respects students’ autonomy by choosing when to take a break
  • Gives students a safe and non-shaming “out” (since it’s open to everyone in the class)
  • Encourages reflection and development of self-knowledge through reflection sheets
  • Creates space within the classroom community rather than asking to students to leave the classroom community completely
  • Provides sensory tools for self-regulation
  • Helps students internalize self-management skills that are transferable across settings
  • Communicates care and a whole-school commitment to social/emotional support

Peace corners – or any other name you choose to call this self-regulation space – are a simple, visible way to incorporate social/emotional support. It’s a trauma-informed strategy that benefits all students. I’m trying one this year with a mixed-elementary age extracurricular class – I’ll update on how it goes!

The Stories I’ll Never Tell

In a little less than two weeks, I’ll walk out of my school for the last time. After eight years, I’m moving on from the therapeutic school where I’ve worked as a teacher and leader. I’m happy with my decision and excited about the projects and adventures ahead of me – but I’m also deeply sad to leave the community that’s been my home for the better part of a decade.

It’s a funny thing to try to write about my experiences from this school. Because it’s a therapeutic school that provides counseling as well as education, we’re covered not only by educational privacy law and ethics, but also by health care law and ethics. Even if I weren’t bound by law, I’d still want to respect that the depth of counseling we do requires the trust of a confidential space. So while I can and do write a lot about the strategies, tools and stances of our teachers, I write very little about specific students. When I do, it’s only in the broadest of terms. But the true depth of my work has been in getting to know these complicated, amazing humans and maintaining solid connections through all the ups and downs. This means that the most impactful work I’ve experienced is work I can’t really write about, at least not in a meaningful way. Without the context and specifics of each student, the stories are just sketches. 

There are so many stories I’ll never tell: stories about children who have experienced more than most adults do in a lifetime, stories about teens who have everything in the world working against them. The deck is stacked against them when we meet and then something comes along and shreds every last one of the cards and throws it in their faces. The stories of these teens are always about resilience. They are about the depth of human suffering and the unimaginable strength it takes to change. They are stories about sharing the lowest moments and the most fantastic victories.

My stories are about building deep relationship with kids who really had no reason to trust me at all, and stories about how hard we both worked to build and sustain that relationship. There are a lot of tears in my stories. There’s a lot of swearing. There’s a lot of late nights not sleeping and wondering if my students hated me, if I could serve my students, if my students were going to be okay, if my students were at home sleeping or if they were missing or if they were alive.

Mostly the stories I’ll never tell are about hope. They’re about how sparkly and wonderful and brilliant and driven every single one of my students has been – even (especially) the ones who came to our school after another adult at another school said some version of “this kid can’t/won’t/doesn’t want to learn.” The stories are filled with parents who do the impossible every day for their kids even when they’re barely hanging on themselves.And my stories are filled with the giant beating hearts of teachers who dig deep within their souls and find the bravery to be the people our students need.

I won’t ever tell the full stories, the real stories about the past eight years. But I’ll keep writing about what I can in the way I can, and finding ways to talk about the themes and the lessons and the common experiences that transcend the specific and confidential details. And I am so comforted to know that long after I step away from that community, these beautiful stories will continue to unfold: in shouts across the parking lot basketball court; in songs sung along to the radio in cars on the way to internships; in whispers sitting on the floor in the hallway; between tears on the hardest day; between full-belly laughs on the best days.

In my next steps professionally, I’m going to be focusing on helping other teachers work through the challenges with challenging students. I’m doing this because I know that when you persist through the layers of frustration, when you can make it past all the roadblocks and the assumptions and the baggage, you can get to the other side and see into the shining heart of a kid, and see your own humanity reflected back to you. I want every teacher to carry around that story they can never fully explain, because the experience is too complicated for words. It can only be told to ourselves, over and over as we reflect back on what it means to work with complex and whole people. It can only be felt in the bones of a teacher.

So I have stories I’ll never tell – and I hope you do too.