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The Gift Box [Children of Trauma]

In some ways it may seem too taboo to talk about this topic. This is the topic that involves students cutting themselves, threatening suicide, kids feeling shame, students acting out and bullying just to survive. So as an educator, how do I leave this burden at school and not take it home?

Teachers of empathy recognize these students immediately and run social interference and try to make connections so that children of trauma feel safe. They understand the value of a relationship and the need to nurture and establish trust long before teaching. But day in and day out, this can be emotionally draining to any educator. We may wear capes to school for entertainment purposes, we Teach Like Pirates, we have an Innovator's Mindset, we have ditched our textbooks, and can #BookSnap with the best of them, but at the end of the day we are human too, not superheros like we are perceived.

Sometimes teacher empathy can lead to a feeling of consuming obligation to help save everyone. This can be draining and all consuming as educators. Especially if you work in a high poverty school. I mean, how can we sleep peacefully at night knowing that kids in the very school we teach, go home each night to neglect and trauma? How do we interact with the new kid that was thrown in one of our group homes the night before? How can we find balance in serving a population of high need students, while maintaining our own joy and passion for teaching? It can really eat at you if you aren't prepared to emotionally tackle facing children of trauma.

Listen to Zoe's story:

What is Trauma?

Trauma is defined as a deeply disturbing or distressing experience. In addition to Zoe's traumatic experience where she was removed from her home and separated from all her family, some additional examples include loss of a loved one, poverty, emotional abuse, physical abuse, lack of supervision, lack of nurturing, fighting parents, divorce, drug exposure, ailing health of a loved one, peer pressure, or moving to a new location. According to the National Survey of Children's Health, one in every two students ages 0-17 have experienced one or more traumatic experiences. That's nearly half of our kids in the U.S.

In the CDC’s ACE Study, the ten types of childhood adversity measured were:

  • physical, sexual, verbal abuse

  • physical and emotional neglect

  • a parent who’s an alcoholic (or addicted to other drugs) or diagnosed with a mental illness

  • witnessing a mother who experiences abuse

  • losing a parent to abandonment or divorce

  • a family member in jail

These are pretty hefty life experiences for any child to endure at any given age if you ask me.

Unlike other parents who brought their baby home from the hospital to love, bond, nurture and grow, my husband and I brought home siblings of trauma, two boys ages 2 and 3, and later a girl age 2. New mothers are emotionally and physically run ragged. New mothers are concerned for meeting their baby’s physical needs, and emotionally drained from middle of the night feedings. I too was drained. But I was drained differently.

I was drained from sleepless nights waking up multiple times each night to night terrors so violent that it took hours to calm them down and assure them safety. Emotionally drained because no matter what I did they screamed, hit the walls, kicked, bit and were simply walking zombies of terror. Violent thrashing that lasted so intense and so long that we had to call the crisis team to come and intervene. They were children of trauma. They required a different set of rules, and a different approach to understanding.

As a mother of adopted foster children, I understand tragedy and life-long effects of childhood trauma. Brain development is stifled, emotions are beyond unreasonable, and to the untrained eye “they” seem lost. Irreparable damage. Future criminals. Burdens on society. Persons to avoid. Different. Lost. Lost forever in a system that most likely will fail them. The same system that failed their parents. Out in public assumptions are made like “There’s something wrong with those kids” or “Somebody needs to teach those kids a lesson”. And I intentionally used the term “they” because out in public, these perceived hooligans belong to someone else. “They” are someone else’s responsibility, linking them only to perceived failure. With this mindset, they are inevitably doomed because “they” will live up to this expectation of failure.

As an educator of 18 years, of high-poverty Title 1 schools, I also understand childhood trauma and inequity in education. Yes, we can rattle off that we have a Response to Intervention Team with all Tiers of instruction in place and great programs to implement, and often even employ a full-time interventionist. But somehow, we too, fail our kids. As a nation, the educational system fails students of trauma. That is half of our kids that we are failing. Children who operate daily in their brain stem with a traumatized executive function are lost in the system. I’ve personally witnessed students skipped over and crossed off the list during child study teams for the craziest excuses:

“He has too many absences and tardies to receive services. Until he starts coming to school more regularly we can’t help him.”

“That family is just crazy, there is a history of mental illness, the mom just needs to take the kid to the doctor and get him diagnosed. We can’t fix crazy.”

“We tried interventions last year and they just didn’t work. She got passed over last year in the child study team so they aren’t going to look at her again this year. There’s nothing else we can do.”

“Last year I did the paperwork, and nobody did anything about it, so I’m not going to bother with the paperwork again this year. My time is more valuable than that.”

“Since he already has a 504 he is protected. It’s considered medical so there really isn’t anything else we can do.”

“I’ve dealt with kids that have dyslexia, and learning disabilities, and she definitely doesn’t look like it to me. I’m not even going to test her. That would be a waste of my time when I already have a stack of kids to test.”

Nothing makes my blood boil faster than these types of comments. After all, shouldn't educators out of all the professions in the world extend the most compassion and empathy? Aren't we all in the industry of restorative justice? Every day in America, kids are educationally malnourished and educationally under serviced all together because of this mindset. This mindset of it being “someone else’s problem” isn’t going to positively impact our future as a nation, it will only make things worse. Childhood trauma is rampant and real and it will take a new community mindset to counteract this epidemic. No teacher should carry this emotional burden alone. We must rally together to listen, heal, and restore the injustice happening in our nation.

As a new instructional coach to my school this year, I feel morally obligated to get to know every child in the school and their stories. In addition, we house five group homes and section 8 housing. Many refer to me as the “queen of data” or “RTI guru” because of my spreadsheets and color coded charts of every kid. I can monitor progress like a champ and outfit kids in programs and support systems that will move them to the next academic level. But anyone that has worked alongside me also knows that the child, the little person inside, comes first. Before academic teaching, rigorous objectives, or learning takes place we must “know” our kids and meet their base needs per Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Basic needs are first and relationships are key, they are the foundation.

Before we get to the academic data we ask questions like: What are their likes? What are their triggers? What is there current living situation? Do they come to school hungry? Who are their parents and what is the situation? What kind of after school activities are they involved in if any? What supports are they already receiving? What academic labels do they come with? Who are the positive anchor adults in their lives? What makes them happy? What makes them feel safe and loved?

Building trust and a sense of belonging is key. Without the ability to lower a child's affective filter through de-escalation to establish trust and a sense of belonging, no learning will ever take place. Period. One can argue that, “Teachers were hired to teach, not to play cop, counselor, and therapist, those kids ought to just sit down and respect adults. They just aren’t use to structure and rules.”

On the flip side… can also argue that kids of trauma exist. Kids of trauma deserve better. Kids of trauma can rise to high expectations. Kids of trauma deserve anchor adults in their lives that will stop at nothing to ensure that they succeed. Anchor adults that will not give up on them. A belief. A hope. An expectation. One. Day. At. A. Time.

As individual educators, we aren’t empowered to make federal decisions that would ensure programs and interventions to meet the need of every child, but we are empowered with a sphere of influence that CAN and WILL make a difference. Little by little, no gesture is too small.

Most of you reading this article are the difference makers that are continually feeding yourselves in pursuit of teaching the whole child. Every child. For that I am grateful. Children of trauma do come with a different set of rules. The good news is, we CAN make a difference and be rest assured that we are a glimmer of light. Whether we signed up for it or not, we owe it to our students to learn as much as we can about the strategies and mindsets we must develop in order to meet the needs of children of trauma. They deserve our personal best. If not us, then who?

For those of us that carry this weight on our shoulders and take every child to heart, there is hope. Every time there is a turnover in a group home, every time we put a student on a bus and send them into the trauma zone, there is still hope. Glimmers of light that someday their summer will come like it did for Zoe in the video below. When we are feeling burdened and you let it "get to you" there is one special ritual that you can perform. I call it The Gift Box. Rather than taking these burdens home with me to my own family, and my own life I simply write these few words down on a piece of paper and leave it the "Gift Box" on my desk.

I simply write:

Child's Name:


What I did for the student today that made the difference:

I sat with Zoe during recess and read her favorite book to her out loud. She seemed distracted by life for just a few simple minutes.

What the student did to change me:

Zoe taught me that I matter, that reading a book for 20 minutes for one day gave her the gift of hope.

"The Gift Box" has allowed me to drive home each day and leave this burden behind. I couldn't sleep at night, it bothered me. But this helped. It helped me know that I did what I could do, and that even though it may have seemed small, it mattered. Maybe this will help you too. Adversity is everywhere in education. Escaping the School Leader's Dunk Tank addresses leadership adversity. But our teachers and students also face adversity of their own kind. Teachers are in the Dunk Tank and so are our kids. Resilience is key, strategies matter, and a positive mindset can make all the difference.

The solution is simple, we must band together and be Ambassadors of Hope spreading a positive message of resilience. It is worth the 22 minutes to watch the video below to experience what restorative justice looks like. Are you willing to step up and throw out the first life preserver? If not you, then who?

For additional information on kids of trauma please check out these resources:

According to the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, there is a common set of characteristics that predispose children to positive outcomes in the face of ad­versity:

  • The availability of at least one stable, caring, and supportive relationship between a child and an adult caregiver.

  • A sense of mastery over life circumstances.

  • Strong executive func­tion and self-regulation skills.

  • The supportive context of affirming faith or cultural traditions.

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