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Why Trauma-Informed?

September 9, 2018

In 2008, after my grandmother passed away, I was putting the contents of her dresser into a plastic bucket so that the movers could pack and move everything out of her room at her retirement community. I didn’t have much time, but I stopped and looked at many of the things she had kept. Old pictures of my mom and her brother. A birth certificate from one of her siblings who died in childhood. Veterans benefits notices. Booklets of Green Stamps.

And for some reason, my first grade report card.

At the end of the school year, my teacher commented that I had become angry and disagreeable during the fourth quarter. That makes sense to me. That’s about when my parents split up.

Please understand, I’m not looking for sympathy. Or empathy. What was hard for me at age six has turned out to be one of the best things that ever happened in my life. I was probably in my 20s before I really got that, but objectively, it couldn’t have worked out better. In short, I got to experience a step father who loved and appreciated my brother and me probably more than he really had to. And I loved him dearly up to his death five years ago.

And okeducationmom has never let me down.

My parents divorced in 1977. We lived in a small town. Certainly everyone knew about it, but that doesn’t mean they could relate to it. With 40 years of hindsight, it’s easy to see that I would have benefited from having a teacher who got it. I don’t mean that I needed a teacher who understood what I was going through; rather I could have used a teacher who at least understood that I was going through something. Clearly I was lashing out irrationally.

I probably didn’t do that again until about 2012, when I started blogging.

I wouldn’t have really framed it this way then, of course, but I was suffering, as a six-year-old, from trauma. This was the defining event of my childhood. Parents divorcing is that event for many of our students in Oklahoma. For others, it’s abject poverty. Or living in a home with someone suffering from addiction. Or losing a parent or sibling. Or a parent being incarcerated. Or a debilitating illness – whether you can see it from the outside or not.

We must accept this reality, and understand that we, as educators, are incapable of understanding all of the different traumas that our students experience. Fortunately, the Oklahoma State Department of Education and many school districts in Oklahoma (including Mid-Del) have started focusing on this.

In May, State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister announced that this would be a point of emphasis for her and her staff:

It Starts Here: Trauma-Informed Instruction will be held at the Cox Convention Center in Oklahoma City on Tuesday, Oct. 2, and feature experts in childhood trauma and healing. In partnership with state agencies, tribal nations and nonprofits that serve children and families, the OSDE’s in-depth event will target educators who are often the first to encounter trauma in individual children.

“A recent National Survey of Children’s Health revealed that Oklahoma’s youngest, most vulnerable children suffer more trauma than those in any other state in the nation, and additional trauma rankings among our children of all ages are alarmingly high,” Hofmeister said.

“We must come together to understand the complex issues surrounding Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) in order to serve the hundreds of thousands of affected children in our classrooms and provide a path forward that is infused with resilience and hope. When we think of the importance of giving all Oklahoma children access to a high-quality education, there may be no more critical work than to ensure a foundation of safety and caring. We cannot allow these frightening statistics to remain unchecked.”

In our district, we’ve given a ten-question ACE quiz to our administrators and the teachers at many of our schools. It’s a good activity because participants can (if they choose to) share their score without discussing any specific trauma if they choose not to.

My score was a six. I’ve shared with you one reason why, and that’s all you get. It’s my story. It’s my childhood. And that’s the one part of it that I’m comfortable sharing.

Someone else’s score of a six might be different than mine. Another person’s three might have given them more trauma in childhood. Or maybe someone’s score of one. The point isn’t the number. The point is the child.

As educators, most of us can’t relate to the experience of a child who has an incarcerated parent. What we can do, however, is get to know that child and learn what that child needs from us. It’s not enough for us to teach reading, math, science, history, music, or anything else. Recognizing that we have students who need more than curriculum is the point of developing trauma-informed schools.

It’s not to stereotype different traumas and generalize their results on kids. It’s not so that we can manage our expectations.

Trauma doesn’t change the fact that a student’s starting point is not the sole determinant in who he or she becomes as an adult.

Here’s more from the OSDE press release:

Research indicates that the impact of childhood trauma can be mitigated through trauma-informed educational instruction practices that focus on relationship-building, resilience, hope and positive interactions. Addressing students experiencing trauma is part of Oklahoma Edge, the OSDE’s 8-year strategic plan for strengthening public education in the state.

In Oklahoma, nearly half of school-aged children have an ACE score of 3 or higher, which is strongly associated with negative long-term health outcomes including disproportionate rates of divorce, depression and violence.

“Hundreds of thousands of Oklahoma children are academically at risk and on a path to shorter, more difficult lives as a result of childhood trauma,” said Hofmeister. “Seeing our teachers stand up for kids is not news, but at the It Starts Here summit, we will equip them with the tools specific to childhood trauma that will enable them to be even fiercer champions of their students.”

Maybe this means having more counseling supports in place for children. Maybe it indicates a need for mentors or better mental health services. For years, we’ve known that there are students in our schools who lack positive adult interactions outside of our buildings.

We also have known for years that there are some amazing single parents, foster parents, and grandparents out there raising children.

That doesn’t mean that the trauma ceases to exist, though.

As with any good movement in education, I fear that this will turn into a collection of buzzwords and generalizations. I hope to God it doesn’t, though. We need to understand our kids, even the ones with experiences that we can’t relate to.

I’m thankful that the OSDE and Superintendent Hofmeister are taking a visible lead in this important work. I’m thankful for those in our district adding to the effort.

I will continue to learn everything I can about childhood trauma. More importantly, I will continue to learn how I can help the students I serve.

 

 

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  1. Barbara Smith
    September 9, 2018 at 8:56 pm

    Childhood trauma is so high in Oklahoma and resources for help are limited. I am so happy to see OSDE take trauma informed classrooms statewide. Failure, further lifelong trauma are some of the results we see when we choose not to be informed, learn how to address the classroom behaviors, and manage the anxiety related issues in a positive, supportive manner so learning can occur.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. L Jones
    September 9, 2018 at 9:06 pm

    One of your best!

    Liked by 1 person

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