A child sets his head down on his desk. He just can’t seem to focus on the teacher or the instruction she is giving to the class. An outsider might perceive this student’s actions as a lack of motivation or pure laziness.
However, that assumption couldn’t be further from the truth.
What is trauma?
Trauma, although commonly recognized as physical or sexual abuse, can actually be a variety of stressful or negative experiences. National Institute of Mental Health cites some examples of trauma as neglect, emotional abuse, living in poverty and witnessing distressing events like family or community violence.
Some children struggle to process these stressful or negative experiences. This is especially true of children that have endured ongoing, significant life stressors and traumatic experiences.
Trauma is toxic to developing brains.
Trauma causes children’s brains to biologically re-wire themselves to remain in an extremely stress-reactive state beyond their conscious control. Outwardly, this is expressed as problematic behaviors commonly seen in schools such as inattention, impulsivity, lack of motivation, defiance and anger outbursts.*
That child might be putting his head down on his desk because he’s exhausted from lack of sleep due to sharing his twin bed with three other siblings. He might be hungry and unsure of where his next meal will come from. One of his parents may be incarcerated. The list goes on and on.
So then, how can teachers, principals, lunchroom staff respond to children experiencing negative impacts of trauma?
It’s like an iceberg – there is a lot more going on than the eye can see. Diving deeper can open lines of communication and begin to establish trust.
The trauma-informed approach recognizes that these children are not putting their heads down because they’re lazy, or throwing their chair out of defiance. It’s looking at the student and their actions through a lens contrary to the one that policies focused on strict discipline dictate.
It’s about staff establishing a trusting bond with them, creating a safe environment for them in the classroom, and facilitating sensory-based soothing activities like allowing a student to stretch next to their desk or encouraging them to take a walk with the school counselor and talk through their struggles.
Children who have experienced trauma need to be nurtured, mentored by an adult they can trust, and given the proper tools to succeed. Early interventions that start with school staff can keep these children from falling into the school-to-prison pipeline or empower them to break the intergenerational chain of poverty.
It’s About T.I.M.E.
Earlier this year, one of our school-based clinicians, Nathan Swaringen, LCSW, came to our CEO, Patricia Costales, LCSW, with an idea. Nathan had attended a children’s mental health conference where world-renown child psychiatrist, Dr. Bruce Perry, M.D., Ph.D., founder and senior fellow of the ChildTrauma Academy, was a guest speaker.
Led by Dr. Perry, The ChildTrauma Academy has developed The Neurosequential Model of Therapeutics (NMT) and The Neurosequential Model of Education (NME) as developmentally informed, biologically respectful approaches to caregiving, education, and therapeutic work with children and families.
Working in Long Beach schools, Nathan saw firsthand how trauma negatively impacted students as well as schools as a whole. Inspired by what he heard, he knew he had to bring this approach to our schools.
This was the catalyst for It’s About T.I.M.E. at Beach High School in Long Beach. Partnering with Long Beach Unified School District and Beach High School, The Guidance Center developed the Trauma-Informed Movement in Education (T.I.M.E.) program, which is a training program based on NMT and NME that encapsulates the core principles of the trauma-informed approach – building trusting relationships between students and school staff, and providing appropriate sensory-based soothing activities for stress in and outside the classroom.
The pilot program launched this August at Beach High School. Nathan trained the school’s staff prior to the start of the school year, and will continue to support and serve as a collaborator, consultant, model and instructor to Beach staff for the remainder of the academic school year.
We also provided copies of Dr. Perry’s book, The Boy Who was Raised as a Dog, which gives an introduction to NMT and case studies, to the staff to use as their own personal textbooks during the program.
We’re thrilled for the opportunity to reach the community through this new program. We will continue to work closely with Beach over the course of the 2016-2017 academic school year to track overall campus and individual student progress, with the ultimate goal to bring the trauma-informed program to all schools within LBUSD.
*Source: Dobson, C. & Perry, B.D. (2010) Working with Children to Heal Interpersonal Trauma: The Power of Play