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. 

Getting started with trauma-informed teaching

Hope

This post is intended to be a jumping-off point for those seeking to become more trauma-informed in their education practice. It is not meant to be an exhaustive list of resources, but rather a collection of accessible places to start to get familiar with concepts and strategies.

I would love to add onto this list, especially in some areas of intersection: trauma informed and… (specific populations, identities, and settings). Please be in touch or comment below if you have resources to share!

Start Here

The 12 Core Concepts (National Child Traumatic Stress Network) – this is a fantastic resource to give you the foundations of knowledge you need for working with students who have experienced trauma. This is also a great resource to share with coworkers, parents and other caregivers to start developing some common language and understanding of these concepts.

The Basics: Understandings and Strategies

These posts and videos will help you get a “Trauma 101” understanding of the major background information you need to start with trauma-informed practice. 

8 Ways to Support Students Who Experience Trauma (by me) – initial strategies for the classroom

Helping Students Who Have Experienced Trauma (also by me) – more strategies and some bigger-picture concepts

Learning Brain vs. Survival Brain (Jacob Ham) – short video describing what’s going on in the brain of a trauma-impacted kid

10 Things About Childhood Trauma Every Teacher Needs To Know (WeAreTeachers) –  good overview of some important points about trauma

Child Trauma Toolkit for Educators (from the National Child Traumatic Stress Network) – more comprehensive (while still being succinct and clear) guide around understanding and supporting students who have experienced trauma. Send this one to your principal!

Big Picture Approaches

While these approaches aren’t specific to students with trauma, they support a school community where trauma-affected youth can thrive. 

Lives in the Balance/Ross Greene: essential resource working with behaviorally challenging kids (and many kids who experience trauma exhibit behavior challenges at some point). Check out his book Lost at School as well. 

Restorative Practices (International Institute for Restorative Practices)  – when thinking about trauma-informed practice, “discipline” must be reimagined, and restorative practices is a great path forward.

Teacher Self-Care and Wellness

It’s essential that educators take care of themselves while they take care of others. These resources highlight the “why” and the “how.” 

When Students Are Traumatized, Teachers Are Too (Edutopia) – information on vicarious trauma and teacher strategies for addressing it.

Wellness: A Guide for Teachers (on this site) – a breakdown of the different aspects of wellness and suggestions for incorporating each

Background Information/Learn More

Ready to dig deeper? These resources will help you build on your basic knowledge and hopefully provide some avenues for your next steps in learning. 

ACE (Adverse Childhood Experiences) Study (CDC) – foundational research on the impact of experiences which may be traumatic. You can also watch this 5-minute explainer video about the ACE study

Beyond ACEs  (this site) – now that you know about ACEs, learn about why we need to be careful when using the language of ACEs to talk about trauma

Addressing Race and Trauma in the Classroom (NCTSN) – a guide to the intersection of race and trauma with practical tips for educators

Toxic Stress (Harvard Center on the Developing Child) – simple explainer (with video and visuals) on the concept of toxic stress. For more on the impact of racism as it relates to chronic/toxic stress, see this article in The Atlantic by Melinda D. Anderson

The Paradox of Trauma-Informed Care (Vicky Kelly) – TEDx talk on the basics of developmental/childhood trauma and its impacts on the brain and decision-making

Helping Students with Trauma, Tragedy and Grief (Edutopia) – collection of Edutopia resources on a variety of topics related to trauma.

Fostering Resilient Learners: Strategies for Creating a Trauma-Sensitive Classroom (Kristin Souers and Pete Hall, ASCD) – excellent and easy-to-read book covering the fundamental elements of a trauma-informed classroom.

 

Image credit: 
Steve Snodgrass, flickr Creative Commons

 

 

Supporting Students Who Experience Trauma

I’ve been getting more involved lately on Edutopia as a volunteer community facilitator. Here’s a post I put up a couple of days ago on supporting students who experience(d) trauma:

http://www.edutopia.org/discussion/8-ways-support-students-who-experience-trauma

It’s really astounding and heart-breaking to realize just how many of our students have or will experience trauma in their lives. As important as the strategies for supporting students are, I really want to emphasize my last point on there – taking care of ourselves.

When we are well, we can support our students well. When we take time to make sense of our own emotions, we can help students make sense of theirs. When we experience resilience, we help our students become more resilient themselves.

Trauma is real and present, but so is healing. When we provide safe and caring classrooms, we help our students move forward.