Trauma-Sensitive Schools and Communities: Hearing the Music Through the Static
Greg Czyszczon and Kirke Olson
Our time with GAINS has been personally and professionally inspiring. Through GAINS, we have had a front seat to watch the field of interpersonal neurobiology (IPNB) deepen and expand. Between us, we have spent 72 years in education, and during the past two decades we have been learning, teaching, and applying IPNB in educational settings—Greg in higher education and community settings and Kirke mostly with learning-challenged students in K-12 public and private schools. Anecdotal observations in our varied settings have been supported and expanded by research findings from IPNB and studies on adverse childhood experiences, human attachment, and education.
There is currently a great convergence of the research in these areas that is leading to the development of trauma-sensitive schools. For example, the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study (Felitti et al., 1998) and its many associated studies have expanded our anecdotal observations beyond anything we expected. Briefly, in the initial study, approximately 13,500 mostly middle-class white adults were sent questionnaires and asked to report if they had experienced any of a list of ten adverse childhood experiences, for example: “Did a parent or other adult in the household often push, grab, slap, or throw something at you?” or “Did you often feel that you didn’t have enough to eat, had to wear dirty clothes, and had no one to protect you?” The study discovered a dose-related response, meaning the more ACEs people reported in their childhood, the more they were likely to experience negative effects in later life. This alone may not be surprising, but what particularly surprised us were the pervasive lifelong negative effects of ACEs on people’s health as adults, ranging from poor academic performance to ischemic heart disease, liver disease, depression, alcoholism, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, suicide attempts, unintended pregnancies, and many more (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2016).
The first ACE study found that about 63% of the respondents had one or more ACEs; 15.2% of women and 9.2% of men had four or more ACEs, which made them the most vulnerable to negative health effects later in life. It’s important to note that the ACE score is by category, not event, so an individual could report only one ACE but have innumerable experiences of that particular type of adverse experience. Later studies have shown cumulative negative effects of repeated traumas of the same type.
Kirke’s work in K-12 education naturally led him to research on his current students, and he was struck by the prevalence of their on-going trauma. For example, the most recent National Survey of Children’s Exposure to Violence states:
In total, 37.3% of youth experienced a physical assault in the study year, and 9.3% of youth experienced an assault-related injury. Two percent of girls experienced sexual assault or sexual abuse in the study year, while the rate was 4.6% for girls 14 to 17 years old. Overall, 15.2% of children and youth experienced maltreatment by a caregiver, including 5.0% who experienced physical abuse. In total, 5.8% witnessed an assault between parents. (Finkelhor, Turner, Shattuck, Sherry, & Hamby, 2015, p. 746)
Note that these rates are for just one year. Summed over several years, the statistics indicate that by 16 years of age, around two-thirds of children in the US have experienced a traumatic event (Copeland, Keeler, Angold, & Costello, 2007).
Both of us realize that these numbers are stark, yet we are feeling hopeful because educators are beginning to create trauma-sensitive schools to improve learning for traumatized children. It is critical to remember that teachers have had their own ACEs and these statistics may also apply to them personally; that is to say, many of the people developing trauma-sensitive schools have experienced their own adverse childhood experiences. (Kirke had the staff at his school complete the ACE survey and found that about 30% had 4 or more ACEs.)
Before showing how IPNB informs trauma-sensitive schools, we need some definitions. First trauma. A traumatic event seems deceptively simple to describe—the school shootings in Columbine and Parkland, for example, or the battlefields in Afghanistan and Viet Nam, or the tsunamis in Thailand and Japan—but the description of an event does not account for its impact on individuals. For an individual’s perspective, consider the definition of trauma given by Robert Macy, president of the International Trauma Center, as “an overwhelming demand placed upon the physiological human system” (cited by Deb Dana, 2018, p. 17). More simply, trauma is exposure to experiences that exceeds one’s ability to cope (Craig, 2017). The second definition is of trauma-sensitive schools, which are designed to be safe zones that protect or buffer students from external forces that threaten their potential, and at the same time foster the skills they need to regulate emotions (Craig, 2017).
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Why Trauma-Sensitive Schools?
Bruce Perry, senior fellow of the Child Trauma Academy in Houston, Texas, and adjunct professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago, Illinois, points out that children are more likely to experience violence in the home than in any other environment. Bob Anda, one of the authors of the original ACE study, when first reviewing his data, wept when he saw the extent to which his data captured the prevalence of violence in childhood (Redford, 2016). The great child psychologist Alice Miller wrote movingly about the “hidden cruelty” in child-rearing practices (Miller, 1990). Even Freud himself could not believe that sexual abuse was so prevalent and hypothesized that people must be fantasizing instead of alluding to real experiences. Sadly, research like the ACE study has demonstrated the prevalence of interpersonal and relational trauma. Such recognition is sobering, to say the least, and points to the increased need for communities and individuals to address trauma in the lives of children, whenever and wherever they can. Schools have the opportunity to be places of safety and solace for children who may have no other sanctuary.
IPNB can provide an important lens in the provision of trauma-sensitive concepts and interventions in schools. In particular, its emphasis on the power of human relationships to shape and mold us, by altering the pathways and connections of our neuronal architecture, gives teachers, administrators, and others who work with children in schools a real chance to help. Students do not need more iPads; they need more availability and presence of important adults in their lives. In IPNB, the power of human relationship is recognized in the conception of the triangle of well-being, mind–brain relationship (Siegel, 2012). IPNB teaches that in relationships lie our greatest opportunities to touch the mind, reshape the brain, and create educational spaces where children and adolescents thrive.
In the community setting, Greg has connected with others locally to envision what it would take for us to be a trauma-sensitive community, where people who suffer the effects of trauma experience healing. Trauma-sensitive schools and community organizations challenge dominant views about the causes of “misbehavior”. So often, schools and communities work from a deficit perspective that assumes the worst motivations for a child’s problematic behavior—for example, if a child is breaking a rule, he/she is doing so intentionally in order to manipulate or control others. Punishment is doled out, which is thought to address the behavior and to “bring the child back in line”. (You may be aware that corporal punishment is still legal in 19 states in the United States.) Trauma-sensitive schools, however, make different assumptions about the nature of children and the nature and cause of their behavior.
First, we take seriously the notion that children do well if they can (Greene, 2018). In other words, children and adolescents, at their core, are most interested in what attachment theory calls exploration: children seek mastery and competence. If there are few obstacles to such exploration, children will explore with curiosity and even joy. In fact, exploration is a powerful developmental need that can be seen from our earliest days as infants.
Second, trauma-sensitive schools seek to decode the signal underneath the behavioral noise—what we sometimes refer to as cues and miscues. In other words, underneath the difficult behavior is an unmet need that is being expressed in the best way the child knows how, often in a manner that we may call difficult or oppositional or disrespectful. However, if we can find the courage to believe that underneath the static of this behavior is a healthy child striving for a need to be met, we can work to respond to the need (the signal) and not the miscue (the noise).
Did You Hear That?
Some readers will remember the experience of tuning in to a radio station using a dial to move a needle to the proper frequency. If you didn’t live in a large city, you may recall trying to turn the dial just enough to capture some distant music. Remember? You move the dial quickly and hear a quick blip of a signal then slowly turn the dial back and hear it again—yes, there it is! Ever so slowly, you tune in to the station, ignoring the static that you hear to enjoy the sweet, unmistakable sound of the Jackson Five coming in from a distant station. You may have to strain a bit to discern the music, but it is there.
Can you imagine having the same kind of excitement discerning the true music underneath the confusing static of misbehavior that our children broadcast? Imagine the excitement of being able to ignore the static or at least attend to the true signal in spite of it? Can we recognize that there is a signal and not miss it because of a deficit perspective? How can we really tune in to the signals our children our sending and trust that, underneath all of the static, tender needs are being expressed? To paraphrase Fr. Greg Boyle, director of Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles, at their best, trauma-sensitive schools stand in awe of what our children have to carry, not in judgment of how they carry it. When a child or adolescent really pushes our buttons, it can be difficult to remember that people change from their strongest place, and that our job is to deepen in our understanding and presence to be there for that child.
Being trauma-sensitive is not for the fainthearted: in our efforts to be bigger, stronger, wiser, and kinder, we are asked to be in charge of our own habitual, socially conditioned responses to conflict and discord in such a way that we are able to transform the child’s acting out and pushing away into an experience of welcoming and soothing. Our implicit message for the dysregulated child is: You don’t have to do that. You are safe, and we can get through this together. Such moves require work on our part to develop courage and patience to be containers for the pain that children express often through their challenging behavior. The oft-seen meme that reads the child who needs love most will seek it in the most unloving of ways absolutely holds true.
How to Hear the Music Through the Static
Some basic understanding of polyvagal theory (Porges, 2017) can really help educators hear the music through the static of student behavior, while it can also help students sing their own true song. The worksheets from Deb Dana’s book The Polyvagal Theory in Therapy (2018), while developed with the psychotherapy client in mind, offer educators concrete tools. Briefly, the polyvagal theory presents a three-level hierarchy of autonomic nervous-system functioning that is controlled by the vagus nerve. The first level involves the ventral part of the vagus nerve, a cable of nerve fibers that controls the expressions on our face, the tone of our voice, the beating of our heart, and the rate of our breathing. The vagus system is sometimes called the circuit of social engagement and when active it helps keep us connected with each other. It is the default system for humans of all ages; but when things begin to get tense, the ventral vagus nerve begins to help us disconnect from others and the autonomic nervous system begins to ramp up the fight–flight response. This ventral vagus response likely served an evolutionary function by protecting us from predators and other forms of threat, but for our students, the fight–flight reaction forces them to focus on the perceived threat—you the teacher, the class bully, or anything the student believes is a threat. The point is that learning becomes compromised because the focus is on the threat, not the schoolwork. The third stage may be called collapse or simply shutdown. Here the threat is so high, and the student feels so helpless, that they give up, shut down, and disconnect. It is very important for all educators to know that these are not choices students consciously make but are nonconscious reactions that occur below the level of conscious knowing. (Please also remember that these stages of nervous-system functioning are true for all of us humans, including you and your colleagues.)
Deb Dana offers worksheets with easy-to-understand instructions that you can use with yourself to start and then with your students. The first worksheet simply asks you to imagine yourself at each level and write the feelings you have at each of them. Dana calls this the “personal profile map”. Kirke used it recently at a professional development event for the staff at the school where he works. The discussion that followed and the feedback indicated they found it helpful for themselves and that it also helped them begin to see their students differently. At a later event he followed up with Dana’s second worksheet she calls “triggers and glimmers”. On this form teachers noted what events, thoughts, or feelings triggered them into the fight–flight or the shutdown mode; then, to end the exercise, they were asked what things gave them glimmers of being back in the default ventral vagal state. The discussion about these two worksheets, although originally focused on the staff, naturally morphed into a discussion of students and what could be triggers or glimmers for them. Now that the school year is well underway, those discussions using the terminology of polyvagal theory continue to help teachers hear the music through the noisy static of student behavior.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2016). About the CDC-Kaiser ACE study. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/acestudy/about.html
Copeland, W. E., Keeler, G., Angold, A., & Costello, E. J. (2007). Traumatic events and post-traumatic stress in childhood. Archives of General Psychiatry, 64, 577–584. doi:10.1001/archpsyc.64.5.577
Craig, S. B. (2017). Trauma-sensitive schools for the adolescent: Promoting resilience and healing, Grades 6–12. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.
Dana, D. (2018). The polyvagal theory in therapy: Engaging the rhythm of regulation. New York, NY: W.W. Norton.
Felitti, V. J., Anda, R. F., Nordenberg, D., Williamson, D. F., Spitz, A. M., Edwards, V., . . . Marks, J. S. (1998). Relationship of childhood abuse and household dysfunction to many of the leading causes of death in adults: The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 14, 245–258.
Greene, R. (2014). Lost at school: Why our kids with behavioral challenges are falling through the cracks and how we can help them. New York, NY: Scribner.
Miller, A. (1990). For your own good: Hidden cruelty in child-rearing and the roots of violence. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Porges, S. (2017). The pocket guide to the polyvagal theory. New York, NY: W.W. Norton.
Redford, J. (Producer), & Pritzker, K. (Writer/Producer). (2016). Resilience: The biology of stress and the science of hope. USA: KPJR Films.
Siegel, D. (2012). The developing mind (2nd ed.). New York, NY: W.W. Norton.
This has been an excerpt from The Neuropsychotherapist Volume 6 Issue 12 – for this complete article and more like it, please subscribe.
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