Trauma Informed Schools

Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and traumatic stress comes from a variety of sources, for example, bullying at school, school shootings, and exposure to events such as divorce or homelessness.

The following are ACE categories each category counts as one point:

  • Emotional abuse
  • Physical abuse
  • Sexual abuse
  • Physical neglect
  • Emotional neglect
  • Substance abuse in the household (living with an alcoholic or a person with a substance abuse problem
  • Mental illness in the household (living with someone who suffered from depression or mental illness, or who had attempted suicide)
  • Mother treated violently
  • Divorce, death or parental separation
  • Criminal behavior in the household (a household member going to prison)

Of over 17,000 people surveyed 67% had at least one ACE and 12.6% had four or more. Those surveyed were college educated White middle-class patients of Kaiser Healthcare in San Diego, CA. One out of four school children has been exposed to a traumatic event that can affect learning and or behavior. Both children and adults can be changed by traumatic stress.

Schools having tools to manage traumatic stress empowers the members of the school community, students, and parents. In trauma-informed schools, the staff is trained to recognize and respond to students who have been impacted by traumatic stress. Those staffs include administrators, teachers, supportive staff, parents, and law enforcement. Also, students are provided with clear expectations and communication strategies to guide them through stressful situations. The goal is to not only provide tools to cope with extreme conditions but to create an underlying culture of respect and support.

Trauma can affect children in a variety of ways. The effects are far more pervasive than adults imagine. Over 60% of children surveyed experienced some form of trauma in the prior school year, and some suffered multiple traumas. Most children do not have the necessary coping skills to manage the impact of traumatic experiences.

One in three students who experience a traumatic event might exhibit symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Following a child’s exposure to a traumatic event, parents and teachers may observe the following symptoms, such as re-experiencing the event by continually thinking about it, replaying it over in their minds, or having nightmares.

Symptoms of trauma can directly affect a student’s ability to learn. They may be distracted by thoughts of the event that prevent them from paying attention in class, studying, or doing well on a test. Exposure to violence can lead to decreased IQ and reading ability. Some students might avoid going to school altogether.

Exposure to violence and other traumatic events can disrupt their ability to relate to others and successfully manage their emotions. This can lead to poor classroom behavior, which can drastically affect the teacher’s ability to teach. This makes it stressful for teachers and can affect suspensions, and expulsion rates.

Multiple exposures to violent outcomes include lower grade point averages and reduced graduation rates, along with increased incidences of teen pregnancy, joblessness, and poverty.

What is Child Traumatic Stress?

When children and adolescents are exposed to traumatic events or traumatic situations persistent, exposure overwhelms their ability to cope. When children have been exposed to conditions where they feared for their lives or believed they could have been injured, witnessed violence, or tragically lost a loved one; they may show signs of traumatic stress.

The impact on any given child depends partly on the physical danger, partly on his or her subjective reaction to the events, and partly on his or her age and developmental level. Some students may consciously try to avoid engagement and try not to think about the incident.

If your child is experiencing traumatic stress, you might notice

the following signs:

  • Difficulty sleeping and nightmares
  • Refusing to go to school
  • Lack of appetite
  • Bed-wetting or other regression in behavior
  • Interference with developmental milestones
  • Anger
  • Getting into fights at school or fighting more with siblings
  • Difficulty paying attention to teachers at school and parents at home
  • Avoidance of scary situations
  • Withdrawal from friends or activities
  • Nervousness or jumpiness
  • Intrusive memories of what happened
  • Play that includes recreating the event
  • Negative Cognitions and Mood — blaming others or self, diminished interest in pleasurable activities, inability to remember key aspects of the event.
  • Arousal — being on edge, being on the lookout, continuously being worried.

In conclusion, if your child is experiencing any of the signs contact school counselors or your pediatrician for help.

 

Heddy Keith, author of Through It All: A Memoir of Love and Loss

Is Trauma Affecting Learning In American Schools?

“CHILDREN CAN’T CHECK THEIR TRAUMA AT THE SCHOOL’S DOOR” SHARIF EL MEKKI

Students across our country experience unrelenting trauma. These experiences often go unspoken and untreated.

Researchers determined that “ACEs—adverse childhood experiences harm young people’s developing brains so profoundly that the effects show up decades later, and they cause most chronic diseases, and mental illness, and furthermore they are at the root of most violence.”

Researchers found 13% of adults in Pennsylvania have an ACEs score of 4 or higher. And 30-45% of adults nationwide reported an ACEs score of 4 or higher.

Trauma doesn’t turn off because the school bell rang. People talk about the importance of educating “the whole child.” This holistic approach includes art, music, social, emotional learning, computer science, etc. But what we fail to realize is that the whole child extends beyond school curriculum and requires support for the traumatic experiences that many of our students encounter daily.

Educators are now becoming aware of the effects of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder on the brains and well-being of children. Although, our collective actions haven’t kept pace with the research. We have a better understanding of the PTSD of soldiers, and many child advocates say that there is no “post” -traumatic for our youth. The ‘P’ in “post-traumatic” for our youth often stands for “persistent trauma.” Students deal with a constant barrage of decisions that adults make that perpetuate the trauma: racist redlining, deliberate under-funding of schools, and more.

Those facing persistent trauma, have difficulty building trust and maintaining healthy relationships. It is a barrier to learning. Schools must make decisions about how to support students. Parents and the community look to schools to provide the space and time to help students cope and thrive beyond the trauma they’ve experienced. Although, it is challenging to help students evolve beyond their persistent trauma. Strong school relationships, help kids cope and feel whole.

“CARING FOR MYSELF IS NOT SELF-INDULGENCE, IT IS SELF-PRESERVATION, AND THAT IS AN ACT OF POLITICAL WARFARE.” Audre Lorde

When adults don’t practice self-care, they make matters worse. Children need stable, level-headed caregivers. Adults need to help students learn self-care. The road to liberation is long and arduous. Self-care must be a part of our students’ and those who serve them daily.

Angela Davis said, “Self-care has to be incorporated in all of our efforts. And this is something new.”

This is what we need to prepare our students for. Not only do they face trauma, but they will also deal with racism, sexism, and a whole lot of other “isms” of oppression that are traumatic. Our students need to be prepared to handle the oppression, while they help dismantle it.

 

Adult decisions can perpetuate the trauma students experience.

Trauma-informed schools have ongoing professional development and reflection. “We make it a whole school project with every adult participating in building knowledge, increasing self-care, and thinking about how to support, rather than punish students when they are struggling. We know our students are bright and capable and we must hold them to the highest standards; we know they can achieve, and we support them in making decisions that will set them up for success.” Schools must also continue growing, being more reflective, and solutions-oriented as we help our youth and community.

Schools across the country are working hard to ensure students feel whole, despite what they have been exposed to and experience. We also must ensure that our schools don’t contribute to students’ experiences of persistent trauma.

Heddy Keith, author of Through It All: A Memoir of Love and Loss, The Men I Chose to Love and Lessons Learned

The Courage to Heal

Expressive writing is a powerful method to help people get through difficult times.

journal writer

It strengthens their immune systems as well as their minds, by assisting people to manage and learn from negative experiences. Writing is no stranger to therapy. For years, practitioners have used journals and other writing forms to help people heal from stress and trauma.

New research suggests that expressive writing may also offer physical benefits to people battling terminal or life-threatening diseases. Studies by psychologists James Pennebaker, Ph.D., the University of Texas—Austin, and Joshua Smyth, Ph.D., Syracuse University—suggest that writing about emotions and stress can boost immune functioning in patients with such illnesses like HIV/AIDS, asthma, and arthritis.

Researchers are now beginning to understand how and why writing benefits the immune system, and why some people appear to receive more help than others. There is agreement that the key to writing’s effectiveness is in the way people use it to interpret and understand their experiences, and even the words they use. Venting is not enough to relieve stress, and thereby improve health. To tap into writing’s healing power, people must use it to reflect on and better understand and learn from their emotions, Smyth says.

Health benefits of journaling
A groundbreaking study of writing’s physical effects appeared in the Journal of the American Medical Association (Vol. 281, No. 14) In the study led by Smyth, over one hundred asthma, and rheumatoid arthritis patients wrote for 20 minutes on three consecutive days—seventy-one of them wrote about the most stressful event of their lives, and the rest wrote of the emotionally neutral subject of their daily plans. Four months after the writing exercise, seventy patients in the stressful-writing group showed improvement on clinical evaluations compared with thirty-seven of the control patients. Also, those who wrote about stress improved more and deteriorated less, than control groups for both diseases. “So, writing helped patients get better, and kept them from getting worse,” says Smyth.

Pennebaker says, “By writing, you put some structure and organization to those anxious feelings,” he explains. “It helps you to get past them.” His research indicates that suppressing negative, trauma-related thoughts compromises immune functioning and he found that those who write visit the doctor less often.

There is evidence that the nature of a person’s writing is key to its health effects, notes health psychology researcher Susan Lutgendorf, Ph.D., of the University of Iowa. In an intensive journaling study in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine, the results she showed suggests that people who relive upsetting events without focusing on meaning report poorer health than those who derive meaning from the writing. They are far worse than people who write about neutral events, while those who focus on meaning develop greater awareness of the positive aspects of a stressful experience. “You need focused thought as well as emotions,” says Lutgendorf. “An individual need to find meaning in a traumatic memory as well as to feel the related emotions to reap positive benefits from the writing exercise.”

However, Pennebaker says, “People who talk about things over and over in the same ways aren’t getting any better,” he says. “There has to be growth or change in the way they view their experiences.” In My memoir, Through It All: A Memoir of Grief and Loss, the lessons I learned was the reflections of the good the experience provided.
The language people use is evidence of their changed perspective. I provide a list of lessons I learned by reflecting on my experiences. Pennebaker found the more people use such cause-and-effect words like “because,” “realize” and “understand,” the more they appear to benefit from writing. Writing my memoir was a healing journey.

Pennebaker acknowledges that some personality types likely respond better to writing than others. Evidence suggests that people who are unable to speak freely benefit most. A host of other individual differences like handling stress, ability to self-regulate, and interpersonal relations—all restore harmony and balance and the effectiveness of writing.

The power of writing to heal lies in the mind of the writer, that’s where practitioners can help clients tap into their healing power. Writing helps them track their progress in their thinking. The benefits of expressing thoughts and feelings on paper can complement traditional therapy.

Therapeutic journaling is any writing or related expressive process used for psychological healing or growth—it can be a beneficial supporting therapy. When integrated into a treatment plan, journaling becomes a dynamic tool for personal growth and healing. Therapeutic journaling and the benefits from its use goes beyond talk therapy.

Heddy Keith, M. Ed is a certified journal writing instructor and retired language arts teacher. She offers Journal to the self-workshops and classes in the Milwaukee area. Contact her at Heddykeith51@att.net or call 414-241-2563 for more information.