Posts Tagged trauma-informed

What If South Carolina’s Body-Slammed Teen Had Been Treated Restoratively?

Published by EducationNews.org — There may be no good excuse for disrupting class, but a punitive response can just exacerbate the problem.

body_slammed_teen

Restorative practices are simple tools for handling conflict in ways that maximize the possibility of a happy ending.  The practices are habits of the mind and heart.  So let’s revisit last October’s nasty incident at Spring Valley High with an eye on how things might have gone differently if the school had been Restorative.

Likely you remember the cellphone videos that went viral, showing a math class where a teenage girl’s non-compliance triggered a violent assault by a School Resource Officer (SRO).  The attack on her would have been appalling under any circumstances, but to boot, the uniformed police officer was white and the girl was black.

The girl’s classmates reported that she had pulled out her cellphone, a bane of many schools’ existence these days.  Adolescents are by nature easily distracted, but this generation has been raised in part by electronic baby sitters, so their phones are not just interesting, but comforting.  Was the girl unprepared or feeling stupid in this algebra class?  We don’t know.  We know she was distracted and distracting.

The 16-year veteran teacher asked her to put it away.  She refused.  He asked her to go to the “discipline office.”  She refused again, so he got the SRO.  The videos show her clinging to the chair in defiance of the officer.  But he totally lost his stuff.  After slamming her to the ground, he threw her out the door.  He was fired soon after.  The reports mostly focus on him.

Restorative schools are trauma-informed.

Among the few facts revealed about the girl was that she was in foster care.  A state’s Child Protective Services remove kids from their homes when the parents are abusive, seriously neglectful, substance abusers, radically incompetent, or dead.  So foster-care kids have been traumatized, if only by being removed.  They have precious little control over their lives.  The girl asserted what power she had.  Neither the cop nor the teacher necessarily knew the girl’s circumstances, nor do most school staff need to know kids’ personal business.  But “trauma-informed” means that adults are fully aware that such circumstances are always possible – with any kid.

In other words, when confronting nasty behavior, the safe assumption is that it could be signaling the presence of trauma.  If so, the trauma can be ignited by yelling, humiliating, or generally getting into a head-butt with someone unwilling to comply with orders.  When trauma overwhelms a person, their brain shuts off its language center and executive function, leaving the body and primitive parts of the brain to defend itself with primitive methods.  They can not use their words appropriately.  So getting into a power struggle with a traumatized kid risks triggering out-of-control behavior.  Better to tread lightly and assume that the kid may not be capable of responding appropriately.

Ask three caring, de-escalating questions first.

Mind you, nothing excuses a student for disrupting a class.  The rest of the class deserves to learn.  But punitive techniques like kicking the kid out often exacerbate the problem.

Restorative 101 would recommend speaking to a misbehaving kid, like the girl with the phone, in a calm, lowered voice — always a good de-escalating tactic.  And instead of making commands or statements, ask a couple of questions in a caring, sincere, non-sarcastic tone.  Questions such as:

“Are you expecting an important call?”  This calls the kid out for her behavior.  Some people object that such call-outs are themselves embarrassing.  But the kid clearly needs help seeing that what she’s doing has a negative effect on the classroom community.  She’s made her behavior their business.  No reason to be mean, but does she understand what the big picture looks like?  A tiny prick of shame is okay, especially if it helps her put her phone in her pocket.

“Is there something going on with you today that’s distracting you?  If so, I’ve got a minute after class to talk.”  Most kids are going to say no whatever the circumstances.  But if the teacher is available after class, perhaps with one more kind question, at least the kid might feel cared about.  Maybe she’ll say something pertinent.

Or:  “Can the phone wait?  This is algebra and we all need to concentrate.”

The SRO might have been entirely unnecessary.

Granted, teachers don’t feel they have time to ask such questions.  Some feel a disruptive kid doesn’t deserve helpful attention.  But a moment of caring might have made a huge difference to our foster-care teen.  And an argument that leads to a kick-out disrupts the class hugely.  A few quick questions can make it clear whether the kid can settle into class or truly needs to be elsewhere.

The point is that a gentle, trauma-informed approach can de-escalate and prevent conflicts.  Restorative practices can’t guarantee redeemed behavior.  But they do create the conditions that ease trouble instead of throwing gas on what might well be a smoldering ember.  The girl was apparently quiet, if breaking the rules.  She deserved to be treated restoratively.  As do they all.

 

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 juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@gmail.com or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

Advertisements

, , , , ,

Leave a comment

Teachers Must Be Mindful of Traumatized Children

Published by EducationNews.org — Misbehavior may seem like a choice, like willful defiance.  But sometimes it’s a cry for help.

traumatized_kids

Today we’re in the brightly painted library of an urban elementary school.  It’s the last day of professional development before the summer officially ends.  The faculty are still in shorts and sandals.  While they sigh over how quickly the season passed, the vibe among them is jolly and warm.

Up next to help prepare this group for the new school year is a presentation called “Helping to Reach and Teach the Traumatized Child.”  Amy Simpson, Clinical Director from Family Services of RI, starts us off by having teachers build a list of the sorts of things considered traumatic — death of a loved one, divorce, loss of employment, medical procedures, natural disasters and sexual, verbal and physical abuse, among many others.  The list was long.  “Unfortunately long,” Simpson called it.  But in truth, it was just a list.  Perhaps we mused a bit on the tough experiences identified by the list that we’ve actually had.

But without a palpable taste of what trauma feels like, it’s just an abstraction.

Then, with sincere apologies, Simpson introduces her audience to a YouTube recording.  Listen to “Lisa 911 Call” only if you’re ready for three memorably upsetting minutes.  Or take my word for it:

A girl, presumably Lisa, sounding 7 or 8ish, has called 911 because her stepfather is beating her mother.  She’s crying so hysterically it takes a while to get the basics of the situation.  Subtitles help you understand that the man goes drinking at “the club” and this happens, according to her, “forever and ever.”  You can hear the fight in the background.  Terrified, the child barely holds it together to work with the 911 operator.

The operator is super calm and all business.  Her tone implies she’s taking a serious problem seriously, but not emotionally.  She assures Lisa that the police are on their way and that she will stay on the phone with the girl until help arrives.  Lisa is only nominally calmed by the promise of help.  The operator asks if the front door is unlocked.  “Oh, no,” cries the girl, because she doesn’t think it is.  So she just puts the phone down and runs to give the police access.  Her end of the line now has only the sounds of the fight, so for an agonizing 10 seconds my mind raced to all manner of horror, including Lisa getting caught by the her stepfather.

But she comes back, and says she unlocked the door.  But her hysteria crescendos again, because the man “knocked out” her little sister.  Finally, Lisa’s cries rise to a piercing crest because “he’s got the baby.”  She’s frantic to see what happened and puts the phone down.  The operator calls after her — “Lisa!”  The line goes dead.  The operator swears.

Oy.  We’re all shaken.  The point is, as Simpson says gently:

“It is conceivable that this child will be in your classroom the next day.”

Okay.  Point taken.  But now a whole room of adults are fairly upset.  They let Simpson know they did not appreciate that experience.  Empathetically, she honors their experience.  Without a hint of dismissing their feelings, she explains that “As adult professionals, we can re-regulate.  Kids have a far harder time.  And when they are traumatized or an old trauma is triggered, their brains go into survival mode and they stop learning.”

So the big take-away is that brain research has shown definitively that trauma shuts down the brain’s ability to learn.  The traumatized brain becomes consumed with fight-or-flight and shuts down learning.  Multiplication tables?  The life cycle of rivers?  Greek myths?  Forget it.  The kid can’t think.

So educators themselves need to become, as the presenters call it, “trauma-informed.”  They need to know it’s ubiquitous and to begin collecting techniques to avoid triggering it at a minimum.  Trauma might be as fresh as Lisa’s if she goes to school the next day.  Or it might have happened in the past, perhaps on a prolonged basis.  Either way, it can be triggered in the present time by a seemingly innocuous story, a certain gesture, a harsh tone of voice, or who knows?

Adults have their own feelings and can react in ways that escalate.

Teachers naturally expect cooperation from their students and work to discipline unruly kids.  Misbehavior may seem like a choice, and sometimes it is.  But it could well be a reaction to unmet needs resulting from trauma.  Still, a flare-up of unwanted behavior can feel defiant, insulting and disrespectful to a college-educated adult who’s trying to manage 30 kids and a lesson plan.  Still, anyone can trigger a traumatic flashback quite accidentally, and angry responses are known to make matters worse.

The school’s principal summed up the palpably painful lesson, “Getting in a student’s face is never appropriate.  But it’s especially inappropriate with traumatized kids.  You might feel attacked or the child is defiant, but in truth the child is reaching out.  It’s not about you.”

That’s hard to remember when a kid is lashing out at you.  And while trauma is better understood, classroom responses to it require time and training, both of which are in seriously short supply, especially in urban schools.  Still, knowing how to avoid triggering is a great start.

 

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 juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@gmail.com or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

, , , ,

Leave a comment

5 Smart Ideas for Reducing the Effects of Kids’ Trauma

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

trauma_kid

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 juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@gmail.com or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

, , , , ,

Leave a comment