Posts Tagged school health

5 Smart Ideas for Reducing the Effects of Kids’ Trauma

Published by — Kids will only care about how their behavior affects others when they feel cared for themselves.


Out there — in schools, playgrounds, pediatricians’ offices, neighborhoods and summer camps — are traumatized kids.  Some have witnessed violence in the home, suffered the death of a parent or loved one, lost their home in a fire, or been sexually abused.  Others belong to a culture that has such harsh child-rearing norms that they’re routinely abused verbally or physically.  Some have alcoholic or drug-addled parents or live in chaotic or scary homes.  Others bounced from home to home, or even country to country, for lots of reasons.

Most stupidly, some kids have been so coddled and protected from adversity that they’re crushed by events that resilient kids can overcome.

So, for various reasons, lots of the kids wriggling around in our worlds have experienced trauma.  They don’t wear signs announcing the state of their inner worlds, except when they act out with the anti-social behavior we all find maddening.  They can seem utterly normal until something triggers festering memories and feelings, driving the kid’s behavior or health kablooey.

Trauma-informed environments have five core concepts.

In last week’s column, Margaret Paccione-Dyszlewski, Ph.D., taught us about what trauma is.  This week she’ll help us understand how to create environments that are prepared to handle traumatized kids and to prevent triggering trauma or escalating a boil-over.

1.  First, and most importantly, assume trauma.  No matter how “nice” your school or neighborhood, assume it’s there.  Paccione-Dyszlewski says, “Think in terms of basic infection control. Use universal precautions. We assume the presence of infection, so we wash our hands.”  One trauma-informed version of hand-washing is to delete the idea that there are “bad” kids.  Instead, work together on strengthening the relationships among adults and kids in your institution.  Kids will only care about how their behavior affects others when they feel cared for themselves.

Then, Paccione-Dyszlewski says, “If trauma is disclosed, you already have a gentle environment that can work with professionals to help the healing. If it’s not disclosed, healing can happen on its own. And if there never was trauma in the first place, the child still has a gentle environment.”

Note that “gentle” is the operant concept. Nurturing, kind. She didn’t say this, but I suggest that every effort to eliminate yelling at the kids is a great place to start. As one student said to a teacher in a mediation, “Mistah, my step-father yells at me all the time and you sound just like him.  Makes me want to hit you.”  It’s hard, but we need to keep our tempers in check.  Yelling with even a hint of aggression can trigger trauma, and it certainly doesn’t model pro-social behavior.

2.  “Trauma is global.  It affects any aspect of a person’s functioning.”  The effects show up in a kid’s physical, mental, behavioral or social health.

Paccione-Dyszlewski walks us through considerable brain science, but the bottom line — especially for you school-based people — is that trauma stops a kid’s ability to learn.  They’re surviving, that’s all.  Most obviously with little kids, trauma creates developmental delays, early lags in language and cognitive function, and difficulty maintaining attention and concentration.  Emotional trauma affects all systems very much like a traumatic brain injury.

3.  “Trauma affects relationships, and dramatically.”  All kids need to learn two things:  emotional regulation (managing their feelings and behavior) and trust.  If there’s no one they trust, they brim over with unmet needs.  Only major interventions to help them forge a relationship will prevent them from announcing their emotional poverty with a lot of illness or behavior that gets negative attention.

4.  “Trauma can be treated.”  When a kid is in full-blown crisis, insurance might pay for so many outpatient visits or so much hospitalization.  But professional services can only be part of the healing network of relationships that a kid needs over time.  I wrote some months ago about inspirational Leeds, England, which is targeting City efforts and resources to helping families, schools and neighborhoods become healthy enough to manage their own conflicts and issues.  Leeds’ leadership wouldn’t exactly say they’re becoming a trauma-informed city, but I think Paccione-Dyszlewski would.  They’re investing in strong family relationships within a gentle, city-wide network of support.

5.  And lastly, “trauma-informed institutions have a caregiver focus.  Pediatricians, childcare workers, teachers — trauma affects who we are.”  Being around trauma is hard.  But institutions can become traumatizing themselves.  Administrators need to model how adults take good care of one another or they won’t be helpful to kids.

Paccione-Dyszlewski wistfully notes that elsewhere, in some countries far more trauma-ridden than ours, stronger communities work more purposely on developing what she calls “common language.”  Speaking a language of social rules and conventions helps all people, young and old, remember how to be good to one another.

Relationships are the universal precaution for trauma.  Institutions need to take note.


Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, see or contact her at or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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Why ‘Bad’ Moms Still Should Parent Their Kids

Published by — Teach incompetent parents responsive, responsible parenting to avoid taking babies away from the people they love.

In her own opinion, Dr. Brenda Harden has made serious mistakes with other people’s lives.

Thirty years ago Harden was a front-line social worker for Child Protective Services in New York City, frequently removing children from troubled, violent or drug-addled homes.  But now, as an Associate Professor at University of Maryland College Park, she develops remedies for what she now considers to be flat-out damage inflicted on vulnerable children.

Speaking at a recent conference, she says, “I’ve done a lot of bad service in my life.  I have moved children with clothes in black trash bags, and with all the metaphor that goes along with it, about being throw-aways.  I can’t tell you how many attached family relationships I’ve interrupted.  Sometimes there were good reasons.  But mostly we (social services) are re-traumatizing children in our efforts to help.”

That’s some indictment.

If a state’s Child Protective Services (CPS) find that a kid’s parents, usually Mom, are substance-involved, hurtful, mentally ill or neglectful, obviously the best thing to do is to get that kid out of there, asap.  Duh.  Right?

But Harden’s research proves that it’s absolutely the worst thing you can do — except in totally hopeless cases when Mom is irredeemable.

Automatically removing a child treats moms and babies as though they’re just spare parts.  When Mom doesn’t work out, switch her out for a better one.  Even “congregate or residential care,” essentially institutional orphanages, are preferable to letting Mom keep a baby she doesn’t deserve.

But such babies plunge into mourning.  They can’t express deep loss in ways adults recognize, but mourning it is.  Babies know and love the sound of Mom’s voice, smell, her familiar movements.  Mom is inevitably the first love relationship.  The health or weakness of that bond affects kids’ capacity to attach to others in healthy ways going forward.  Strong mother-child attachments give kids a resilient, socially-healthy start in life.  Weak, screwed-up, or broken early attachments often lead to a range of future problems, including attachment disorders, depression and other mental health issues.

Harden says, “Good mental health is what gets us through life.”

Harden’s research shows that what works best for everyone involved is to teach the “defective” mom how to parent well.  Strengthening rather than weakening their bond gives both the mom and the baby their best shot at future health and success.

Granted, if everyone’s best efforts reveal the situation to be hopeless, of course you have to terminate parental rights and liberate the child for adoption to improve his chances for success.

But before that happens, Harden has trained workers to go into troubled homes to teach moms how to be responsive, affectionate, attentive, playful.  They find a spark between mom and child, and fan it by modeling responsive parenting.  Some women have little feeling for their child, and must fake it until they make it.  But sparks can burst into flames.  Harden shows videos where we see her nurture the mother-child relationship.  One technique is to give Mom a video edited from the workers’ research tapes, that captures happy moments when mom parented well and was rewarded with her child’s joy.  She showed one such, set to the song “Eres Tu” — a tear-jerk, partly because of how much the child adored the awkward mom.  The point is that responsive, responsible parenting can be learned.

“Brains always have capacity to change.  But experience matters.  For a baby, the experience of adversity is the absence of stable care-giving.”

So Harden adores programs that keep “bad” moms and babies together, stabilizing the bond.  Surely her most controversial, but also most convincing example is of incarcerated moms who are allowed to keep their babies.  “Most of the women are in for petty crimes and will be out in 3 months.  Put Early Head Start in prison.  The moms are a captive audience, so build the mother-child care system right there.  Strongly bonding with the baby gives the mom motive to succeed on the outside, when she’s released.”

That makes painful amounts of sense.  The alternative is ripping the baby away from Mom to punish her, but what about the baby?   Strengthening the bond helps Mom stay clean or to lose the drug-dealing boyfriend.

“Moms have a host of problems, DV (domestic violence), substance abuse, mental health issues, developmental delays of their own.  Unless you add services into their lives, you can forget the baby.  With substance abuse, we bring mom into treatment and put the baby somewhere else.  These programs don’t work well.  The moms get out and use again.  The babies provide motive.”

As a culture, are we just too punitive to get our vengeful eyes off the offender and onto collateral casualties, like the kids?  By removing defective moms as though they didn’t matter, social services endorses the kick-out mentality.  The mom is bad, thus disposable.  Labeling people “bad” and putting them aside is too simple.  It ignores all the connections, the attachments, the context.

As such, automatically removing children from troubled homes is an early-childhood version of the kick-out mentality that leads to the classroom-to-prison pipeline.  It demeans how critically important relationships are to kids — all kids, of all ages.  Family members are not spare parts.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at and She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see or contact her at or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street.

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There Is No Health Without Mental Health

Published by — Mexicans cultivate family and connection.

May is national Mental Health month.

Full disclosure:  For years I’ve served on the board of the RI Mental Health Association (RIMHA).  Why?  Because I believe that bar none, the biggest missed opportunity in schools and education is supporting the kids’ AND the adults’ mental health.  After all, what does anyone use to teach or learn if not their mental facilities?  Absent robust mental health, precious little learning takes place.  I’m astounded this issue never became high priority.

So, I’ve been planning on writing about this foundational subject throughout May.

Then, as it happened, I started having a mental meltdown of my own — in a life-happens way, not a diagnosable mental illness.  Still, as you well know, feeling “crazy” disrupts even a reasonably healthy person’s ability to think straight.

So imagine the quality of thought-processing among adults and kids, especially in urban schools, where at least some are traumatized, bullied, depressed.

In my case, a family member very dear to me had broken with us, furious for reasons I still don’t understand, leaving me helpless to right whatever was wrong.  I can deal with conflict, but not silence.  Nothing makes me crazier than sudden, angry, no-end-in-sight, door-slammed-in-your-face disconnection.

Years ago I read that Dr. Daniel Siegel calls this state “toxic rupture.”  What a relief to have a term for it.  Elsewhere, researcher Denise Johnston explained how violence was fundamentally frustrated attachment.  I get why people shoot their ex-lovers.  It’s not an excuse, but radical disconnection seriously unhinges the best of us.

Anyhow, I snapped a few weeks ago and rather than rampaging destructively, acted out by buying two airline tickets to Puebla, Mexico.  Fortunately, I could postpone painting my shabby house and instead seek asylum to clear my noisy head.

While not a conventional tourist destination for Americans, Puebla is a surprisingly intact 16th-century city built by the Spanish conquistadores.  Gorgeous architecture, museums, preserved homes and cityscapes.  Beauty is calming.  Warm weather was soothing after New England’s unusually grueling winter.

But I’d forgotten that what is most healing, most heartening about Mexico is the families’ warmth with one another.  Everyone holds hands, links arms — parents and kids, grandmothers and teenage boys, friends and lovers, married and not.  People maimed by birth defects, missing limbs and developmental delays stroll with the others, tethered firmly by family solidarity.  My husband and I ambled repeatedly through the zocalo, observing happy family groups enjoying each other as much as we savored the art and antiquities.  Moms publically nuzzle little ones, both of them giggling.  Discrete nursing takes place all over.  Fathers and grandfathers, in heavy boots and plaster-splotched clothing, proudly hold the hands of impeccably-dressed children, including teenagers.

Mexican public spaces offer families opportunities to connect with one another as abundant as the exotic offerings in the open-air markets.  Parents spoil the kids with one of the vendors’ toys to keep a group of them entertained, so grown-ups can chat with one another.  When it was time to go home, one mom called her son saying, “Victor, mi vida (my life),” we’re leaving now, in a tone of voice that means Now.  Firm, but so affectionate.

The Mexicans seem scrupulous about taking ugly fights indoors.  You never see the public nastiness that has become normal here in the U.S..

They cultivate connection.  They look content, not stressed, angry or in high rebellion.  I imagine, though I have no way of knowing, they have strong mental health.

Mind you, I realize that Mexican students are in no way lighting the boards with their terrific test results.  Mexico’s new president Enrique Nieto is gung-ho about improving education, but he’ll have a tough go.  My husband finally asked me to quit mentioning it every time a flock of school-age kids were up late on a school night or seemingly not going to school at all.  My sister, who’s lived off and on in Mexico for years, says, “The Mexicans could care less about self-improvement; they’d much rather stay home and play with the new baby.”  A sweeping generalization, to be sure.

But surely a balance could be struck between the pleasure Mexicans take in their families, and the way some of our ambitious families — and schools — drive the kids to perform.  Hanging out is fun, but so is the feeling of having mastered a task, a musical instrument, or any physical or intellectual challenge.  Short-term experiences of successful mastery would make schooling far more appealing to kids than the relentless, droning push to produce performance results that will one day, in some abstract future, yield a lot of money.

We are sentient beings, hard-wired in our mammalian brains to be attached — to one another and to personal passions.  Regaining my own mental health will mean healing the disconnection that distresses me still.  In the meantime, I feel palpably how my somewhat-obsessive yearning disrupts my thinking.   How on earth can promoting mental health be ignored as the platform on which all else educational is built?  I’ve wondered this for years.

There is no health without mental health is this year’s slogan for RIMHA’s May campaign this year.  So true; so timely.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at and She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data.For more detail, see or contact her at or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street.

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A Playworker from the UK Explains His Work, Passion

Published by — Keep calm and play on!

Marc Armitage, “playwork” expert, has the affect of an over-sized mischievous boy who’s got a Totally Great Idea.  Home-based in Britain, he’s one of the world’s premier experts in the arts and sciences of play.

Perhaps you’re wondering why wasting time needs a science at all.

Armitage spoke recently at the Providence Children’s Museum, a whistle stop on his lecture-training tour in the U.S. to help us ex-Puritan Americans embrace play.  His deliciously sonorous Welsh accent — think Richard Burton, if you’re old enough — is especially fun as he announces the title of his talk:  “Keep calm and play on.”

He pitches a mock snit because the Museum’s asked him to explain the theory of play and playwork — cue theatrical yawn.  He’d much rather train people to play and do playwork.  Much more hands-on.  Much more adult giggling.

He tells a fascinating, crazy-quilt history of academia’s interest in the study of play.  The motley collection of scientists and thinkers on the subject range from zoologists to urban planners.  European colleges and universities offer degrees for professional playworkers.

But first, Armitage asks us to think back to our own favorite places to play.  My imagination took me on a lovely tour through my childhood haunts — certain tidepools, two enchanting garages, and the huge abandoned house that the City eventually tore down and turned into a useless park.

He makes two big points about our collection of fun-filled spots.  First, that most places were outdoors — rivers, woods, water, or trees with rooms made from droopy branches.  Indoor spots were tucked away in attics, basements, and forgotten nooks.  No one fondly remembers institutional settings like daycares, schools, or even public parks.

Secondly, he notes that our favorite spots were off somewhere, out of sight of the adults.  Hmmm.

Armitage explains, ” Play goes on underneath our noses and we don’t even know about it.  And there’s an evolutionary reason for this:  If we knew what our kids were doing, we would stop them.  Because dodgy stuff is what children do.  Evolution wants them to play.”  Meaning, get out there and encounter reality for good and ill.

But wait.  If play is especially robust with no adults around, what’s a playworker?

Play is the work of childhood — according to PiagetMontessori and others — so playworkers support that work.  They don’t interfere, organize or direct.  But they don’t abandon the kids either, providing adult supervision at a mutually-comfortable distance.

Armitage says, “Playwork is about allowing children to do what they know they need to do, but making sure the conditions are right for them to do it.  Playworkers observe what children want to do, and teach them how, when necessary.  For example, how to put out a fire.  The reason why teenagers burn buildings down is because they’ve always wanted to play with fire, but don’t know how to control it because they’ve never had any experience with it.”

With great theatrics, Armitage shows us the difference a conventional teacher and a playworker.  As the teacher, he sets down an imaginary box of jump ropes for a group of children.  He explains that there are short ones for individual jumping, and longer ones to be held by two children.  There’s double-Dutch.  Perhaps he instructs them about the songs and games that go with jump-rope games.

By contrast, a playworker puts the box in the midst of the kids, backs off, and shuts up.  He watches to see what they do.  They might tie the ropes onto something for dragging, swinging or something else.  If they want help, the playworker works with them figuring out what they can do to make it work.  No enabling.

And if they get into a snag with each other, hopefully the playworker has what Armitage charmingly calls “pastoral” skills to help them reconcile on their own terms.

“Our (adult) heads work in a very different way than children’s do.  The word ‘safe’ does not get mentioned when they are playing.  They also never use ‘stimulating’ or ‘creative’ or ‘educational’ or ‘heathy.’  What children mean by play is not what adults mean.  Playing is what children do.  They don’t need a reason to do it.  They don’t have an end result in mind.

“We have to have an agenda because,” he notes wryly, “that’s where the funding comes from.”

Armitage trains a variety of people how to work with kids and youth in a playworking style.  But in Europe, cities and towns hire professional playworkers to support parks, school playgrounds, wherever kids gather.  These adults make play places safe and fun.  And they could become a high-functioning grown-up pal for those kids who have too few adult relationships in their lives.

Can you imagine American cities and towns investing in kids like that?

American kids’ joy is at least as important as their silly test scores.  Playworkers deployed to recess, parks and youth haunts would keep everyone far safer, and maybe happier than we are now.  The kids could fulfill their evolutionary mandate.  The adults could keep calm and play on.  Good message.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at and She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data.For more detail, see or contact her at or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI 02903.

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