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Trauma Informed Education
A felt sense of safety is crucial for any learning but is essential for students with developmental trauma. Although it is relationships that have hurt our students who have experienced abuse and neglect, it is through relationships that they will begin to heal and learn.
There is potentially 10,000 hours in the journey from Junior Kindergarten to grade eight where children can discover that relationships don’t have to hurt. Trauma Informed Educators have learned how trauma impacts all aspects of a child’s development and know that if a child could do better they would. They have also learned to persist in their invitation into connection. Trauma operates from the principle “I won’t be fooled again” Giving an adult a chance to get close is dangerous. Just because they are nice in the moment doesn’t mean it will stay that way and hypervigilance is required.
Adults too have brains that protect them from hurt and rejection. Being trauma informed means relying on knowledge about trauma, our empathy and compassion for the child’s shame and vulnerability and an ability to rely on friends and colleagues to persist in the face of mistrust and countless rejections of our invitations. Blocked Care (Jon Baylin and Dan Hughes) occurs in the absence of reciprocal interactions and lead us to lean away rather than into our relationships and to operate from a more reactive and defensive place as we try to protect ourselves from the pain of rejection. We need those repetitive, synchronized, reciprocal interactions for both the adult and child to be well.
Our work in Kingston focused on using DDP as the framework for trauma-informed education. The leaders of four elementary schools in Kingston recognized that although they were getting better at managing behaviour, they were not changing brains in ways that were leading to the students’ ability to trust adults or access education. Informally, two thirds of the students in these schools were considered to have more than 4 ACE scores (link to ACE resource), which meant that their brains and bodies were dealing with high and chronic levels of stress that impaired their ability to learn. Behaviours were challenging and staff were keen to find new ways to reach some of their most vulnerable students. We started with providing information about trauma and how it impacts the brain. We then introduced PACE. When students started to struggle staff were encouraged to meet them with acceptance (this is the best the student can do right now) and empathy (“I’m so sorry this is such
a struggle today -it’s so hard when things don’t feel right”). Training had prepared them to understand that a change in behaviour could only come from a change in the state of the underlying autonomic nervous system. Correcting, directing, requests for compliance before a child was ready just escalated the struggle. Correction before connection is only necessary if someone’s safety is compromised in that moment.
When a student was ready, educators were encouraged to use curiosity to understand the child’s emotional experience and what had happened to cause the upset. Only then would they think about problem-solving, limit-setting or consequences. It is very difficult to know what consequence to offer if we don’t understand where the behaviour is coming from. Educators were then helped to understand the importance of repair to ensure the student understand that although there had been a conflict there was no loss of relationship. This new way of working was not easy. Educators are excellent problem-solvers and more anxious about sitting with their students in their experiences. There were very real tensions that were articulated: if I am accepting and empathic, I lose authority and the student - and others - will take advantage, if I am accepting and empathic I am minimizing expectations for learning and behaviour, the additional time and resources for one child were unfair to other students, waiting until a child was ready to learn was doing them a disservice. Educators were
encouraged to bring all of their fears, hopes, concerns to the table. There is no question that being open and available to relational needs is easier in a small, specialized classroom than in a typical classroom of 23- 28 students. We struggled our way through to see what it could look like and how to rely on other adults in the building to support teachers and kids.
Becoming trauma-informed had to go beyond providing knowledge about the brain and DDP. It required ongoing support. Those involved in the project met regularly to understand what was working and what wasn’t, to tell stories with laughter and tears, to collaboratively find how DDP, which started as a psychotherapy, could be relevant in a school system, to eat pizza and drink strong coffee. It wasn’t always clear. However, we all shared the same belief and hope: safe relationships were the key to offering some of our most vulnerable students a path towards learning.
You can read more about our journey in Belonging: A relationship-Based Approach for Trauma-Informed Education.