5 Reasonable Ways to Begin to Address Childhood Trauma

cc photo by J. Delp 

Friday was a tough day. I had a long list of things to do — things I had carefully arranged on my calendar to be certain they would all be completed. The day began as planned, with the final session of a book study on The Happiness Advantage with a small group of staff members. We discussed the final few chapters, talked about possible applications in our work setting, and perhaps most important, we laughed and socialized. Next, we kicked off the school day with an excellent guest speaker from NotMyKid who talked about his experiences as a youth, the challenges of life as a teenager, and spoke to our kids about making positive choices. Check. Check.

Things were off to a good start. Then I was asked to help with an issue that was going to involve some student discipline. The situation required an investigation, talking with other students who had witnessed the incident, getting written statements, and ultimately — consequences for a few students. As I spoke with one of the students, they became increasingly frustrated, visibly agitated, and finally extremely angry. Profanities were thrown around my office as the student attempted to engage me in an argument. Our interaction ended when I was told, “Do whatever you f***ing have to do. Nothing I do, or say is going to make a difference.”

I had already spoken to the child’s parent, but they requested the opportunity to call home. I obliged. The conversation between parent and child (of which I could only hear one side) was heartbreaking. Frustration. Loss of hope. A sense of failure. Desperation. Anger. All spewed out by the kid in a tirade of venomous language punctuated by a plea for help. I was at a loss — devastated by what I was hearing and my inability to help. I called for one of our counselors (we have two who are absolutely top-notch). She was able to help the student deescalate…so much so, that the kid was calm and apologizing to me as they left my office. “I’m sorry. It’s not you. It’s not you.”

This student was correct. It wasn’t me. At least not all me. Whatever happened on Friday morning, and the subsequent fallout, was enough to pull the scab off of a much deeper, insidious, and festering wound. A wound left by innumerable traumas in this child’s life.  Even after having done this job for years, I was so shaken that I spent the rest of the day retracing the investigation, double-checking all of my information–just to be sure I had everything right. To be certain that I was not “piling on.” While the actions of the student required consequences (it was not a “minor” incident), what the student really needed was a significant amount social-emotional help. The child is still responsible for the decisions made, but their ability to make those decisions has undeniably been shaped by their Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). This students issues extend well-beyond the confines of school.

I was recently reading a dated article entitled, Why a Great Principal Burned Out — and What Might have Prevented It.  The subject of the article, Principal Nat Pickering, is quoted as saying:

The education crisis is a mental health crisis, is a medical crisis, is a political crisis. All of that is layered into the school zone.

I believe that these two brief sentences may be the most powerful synopsis of the struggles of public education (especially for schools in high poverty areas) I have ever read. Situations like my experience on Friday are not unusual. On a daily basis, my counseling, administrative staff members, and teachers confront the realities of a society and school system that places tremendous amounts of pressure (academic and social) on our kids, many of whom are suffering from both acute and chronic trauma. Students are asked to deal with high stakes testing, pressure to get on a high school “success track” (AP, honors, etc.), GPAs, and class rank — just to name a few. This can be daunting for grounded kids with a strong support network, but it is extremely doubtful that students who come to school hungry; are the victims of verbal, physical, or sexual, abuse; and live in extreme poverty will be able to focus on what they need to do to be academically successful. Many are just trying to survive. Their success depends on the school and community’s ability to address a plethora of mental health, social-emotional, medical, and financial needs. It is an overwhelming task — for school staff and students. Trauma in our schools is real, and it has a significant impact on our students and our educators.

Childhood trauma can be a significant issue, even where it might not be expected. For example, my school is located near downtown Chandler, Arizona — certainly a more impoverished area of the city, but not considered to be “too bad” compared to other parts of the Phoenix metropolitan area. However, according to a 2015 report, published by the Superior Court of Arizona, our zip-code has the highest number of referrals to the juvenile justice system in the county (see page 64 of the report). This is not to say this is necessarily the most impoverished, or crime ridden area in the county — but it does highlight the fact that high levels of trauma can be hidden in schools and communities where they might not be expected. In addition, one should not misconstrue this data to suggest that Adverse Childhood Experiences and trauma are a “poor school” or “poor community” problem.” Students suffering from ACEs are in attendance at every school in our country. That is why we need more attention, empathy, and support for what our educators do on a daily basis. Just like many other professions, education has become increasingly complex and the stakes for our children have never been higher. For some, it may truly be a matter of life, or death.

So what do we do? In addition to continuing to learn about this complex issue, here are five reasonable ways to begin to address childhood trauma.

  1. I would suggest we take a closer look at the issue of trauma in our communities and how it might be impacting kids in our local schools. It is not a problem we can ignore without a lasting and detrimental impact. We need to have an understanding, an accurate picture, of what childhood trauma looks like in our schools. Know the who and the what.
  2. Provide support and encouragement to those who are engaged daily in helping meet student needs — emotional, social, medical, and academic. In spite of what some might believe, or say, about the education profession — serving the needs of the whole child is a taxing and stressful occupation. Those who choose to dedicate their professional lives to working with our children deserve our accolades, encouragement, and support. I am extremely thankful for my staff and specifically our two counselors. They are absolutely top-notch and the service they provide far exceeds their compensation.
  3. If you are an educator, begin to intensely examine the “why” behind student behaviors. Understand that when kids are walking around wounded on the inside, they are likely to display symptoms on the outside (attitudes, actions, and behaviors). Become informed about ACEs and trauma informed practice so that you can be a contributing member of the team that is needed to meet the needs of the whole child.
  4. Consider what you can do to tie into, or support, important community organizations. For example, food banks, health clinics, mental health care providers, and shelters. In our community, the Chandler Care Center, Live Love, ICAN, The Boy’s and Girl’s Club, and Fans Across America are just a few of many organizations that provide resources to combat the effects of childhood trauma.
  5. Contact your state legislators and ask what they are doing to provide adequate levels of financial support to our schools — funding for appropriate facilities, adequate staffing (including counselors, psychologists, health assistants, behavioral specialists, and teachers). If you are in Arizona, this is especially critical. Our schools are woefully underfunded and current efforts to expand charter schools and school choice are leading to defacto segregation and underfunding/understaffing of some of our schools with the greatest need.

We need to understand the enormous task we are asking of public educators and be willing to support their efforts. I will close with another paragraph from the article about Principal Nat Pickering.

Nat quickly learned that the original game plan of providing order and excellent instruction would make a good start, but was not going to address the deeper issues. The school started adding wraparound services to address socio-emotional needs, adding more assistant principals, a dean and other support staff. “What’s evolved for us over the years is that we try to offer a cocktail of a therapeutic environment, individualized supports for kids who need it and rigorous academic expectations.

Right now, at least in Arizona, the “wrap-around services” Nat mentions are either lacking or stretched to their limits. Children are falling through the cracks and it is time to demand the support needed to give every child hope for their future.

Everyone deserves hope.