* * * NOWHERE TO HIDE * * * “The Elephant in the [Class]Room”


 Confessions of an ignorant and frustrated teacher


Trauma during development or, childhood trauma, changes the architecture of the physical brain and the ability to learn and social behavior.  It impacts 2 out of 3 children at some level, but I didn’t even know what it was…

Childhood Trauma can be defined as a response of overwhelming fear or helplessness  to a painful or shocking event, or to chronic, toxic stress, including ACEs (adverse childhood experiences).

ACEs include physical, emotional and sexual abuse, physical and emotional neglect, a missing parent (due to separation, divorce, incarceration, death), witnessing household substance abuse, violence, or mental illness and more.

Trauma-impacted children are not sick or “bad”, they are injured.  Developmental trauma is an injury.  It happens TO the child.  In turn, when they become adults, many re-enact unaddressed trauma, injuring the next generation in a merciless cycle of pain and fear. When multiple injuries fester unaddressed, they set off a chain of events leading ultimately to early death, according to the CDC.


Deep Impact:  Developmental trauma changes the architecture of a developing child’s physical brain.


flickr Public Domain
flickr Public Domain


Part 1:  The changes to the  physical structure of the brain impair cognition.  The specific changes to brain architecture damage children’s memory systems, their ability to think, to organize multiple priorities (“executive function”), and hence to learn, particularly literacy skills

Part 2: The changes to the child’s  neurobiology predispose hypervigilance and suspicion, leading trauma-impacted children to misread social cues.  Their fears and seemingly distorted perceptions generate surprisingly aggressive behaviors.  Their ‘hair trigger’ defenses ( or a withdrawn, dissociation) are often set off by deep memories outside of explicit consciousness of the child.

Adults’ view, from the ‘outside’, of the seemingly illogical, or worse, oppositional behavior, is often one of shock, confusion, frustration and maybe anger.

If we act on our uninformed views, we risk re-triggering more of the child’s trauma, and even more aggression. I confess, as a less experienced classroom teacher, I often did exactly that.

The child’s inner pain and fear are often intentionally camouflaged and nearly impossible to perceive from the outside.

The trauma history, which connects the inside fear to the outside behavior, is often buried so deeply in the brain that even the injured child can be unconscious of the connection.


Some adults normalize the pain and fear of the injured child, thinking “they’ll get over it.”  It’s actually the opposite.  Young children have fewer coping mechanisms and their immature brains are still developing.

The impacts of trauma are actually  greater on the still-developing brain.


ACE-impacted kids are more common than seasonal allergy sufferers


Experts including Surgeon Generals and the Attorney General have described children’s exposure to violence and trauma with specific terms ‘national crisis’, and ‘epidemic’ years ago.   The CDC says impacts from childhood trauma are critical to understand.

Childhood trauma is a broad-based crisis.  It impacts children of all colors, all income levels, all education levels, all social strata, across all geographies.   It’s all of us.

Scientists Felitti/Anda(CDC) have found that even in beautiful, suburban San Diego about one-fourth of middle class, mostly white, college educated, working folks with medical insurance had THREE or more ACEs!

Three or more ACEs is significant because three+ ACEs correlate over a lifetime, with doubled risk of depression, severe obesity, drug abuse, lung disease, and liver disease. It triples the risk of alcoholism, STDs and teen pregnancy.  There is a 5X increase in attempted suicide.  The lifelong impacts are shocking and alarming.

Centers for Disease Control

The American Academy of Pediatrics’ policy says that child abuse and neglect are significantly “associated with many leading causes of adult death

Children did not cause their own trauma and they can not address their trauma alone. They need adult support.

Nevertheless, presently many adults ignore childhood trauma. It’s rarely spoken about.




Schools are not trauma-informed organizations


I am embarrassed to admit my own ignorance.

I did know about the inner pain and fear of my students more intimately than most.  I began, and still begin, every school year by visiting my student’s families, sitting in their living rooms to discuss school, life and their hopes and concerns about their child.  In the classroom, I quickly experience the child’s outward behaviors which can  seem random, nonsensical at times, and often angry.

Yet, I still do not easily connect the angry, outward behavior in the classroom to the inner fear or pain.

As an adult, the classroom seems “safe.” There isn’t an obvious or logical connection to continuing fears, in our safe context.  It seems contradictory.

What I forget is that the pain and fear are not in the environment.

The pain and fear are hidden inside the child: they bring intense fear memories and altered neurobiology with them like they bring their backpack (wherever they go).

Making the connection, intellectually, is even more difficult in the midst of my own stress from a  triggered student’s emotional, intentionally distracting, sometimes screamed, personal insults or abusive attacks.


Even when I have been able to stay calm myself, and to connect the (seeming) anger to the (hidden) fear, that was only the beginning.  I still did not understand.

There’s more.

The group context, or the social complexity in the classroom may be the most difficult aspect of all.

I learned the hard way:

when I  stay calm in the midst of the triggered child’s barrage, it seems like “unfair” leniency to other children.  They see only the aggressive outward behavior from a peer and they expect “punishment”.

More learning when I succeed in maintaining composure:

the other 30 children in the room are not waiting calmly or politely for me so I can focus solely on de-escalating one of their peers. It’s an uncomfortable and off-task process for other kids to endure so they also digress quickly.

Even more learning:

whether I stay calm or not,  the aggression and commotion of one triggered student will often trigger a second student’s fear, maybe others too.

Keeping the academic context in mind, all above initiates from a single instance only.  Several instances involving different students can happen every day, sometimes simultaneously.  Meanwhile, each minute invested to de-escalate a single student is a minute lost to academic endeavors for all thirty other students.

It’s complex.

Now, imagine NOT being trauma-informed and facing 20 to 30 students, and NOT knowing that 30% to 50% are trauma-impacted…

“Success” would require becoming expert at detecting multiple, virtually undetectable triggers, within multiple students. It is not quick or simple or instinctive.

There’s more.

That same teacher must become expert at defusing all those students’ fear triggers, and all in advance of any “fight or flight” response, which can disrupt the entire class.

All day today.

All week this week.

All month this month.

More context:  A teacher is not permitted to consider adjusting the scope or pace of lessons:  the national “Common Core”, or academic “State Standards” which are synchronized and  connected, lesson-by-lesson, and which lead to “standardized” testing.

The recurring, “standardized” tests and the resulting stresses are rightfully controversial for many reasons, by themselves.  Trauma-impacts add more controversy.  First, the stress of the high stakes of the tests  can re-trigger past traumas during testing.  Second, the tests also occur in urban settings with higher concentrations of violence, poverty, stress and trauma, all impairing cognition under stress.  Test results can then be distorted as “achievement gaps” for higher concentrations of students of color in that setting and socioeconomic status.

Let’s pile on top:  budget cuts for public schools each year translate to fewer Teachers/Counselors/Nurses with fewer resources to accomplish trauma-informed education, year after year.

“Teaching” in this context becomes nearly impossible at many points.

We are trying to scoop water out of a boat which  has gaping trauma-holes in the bottom.

Trauma-impacted children are losing their right to equally access their education, while adults stand by, while school districts stand by, while states stand by.

That leads to the central conclusion and key action :


Schools must become trauma-informed organizations


Cognitive, or “educational”,  processes are muted neurologically in triggered children:  a direct conflict with schools’ missions.

If schools are going to achieve their educational mission, for all students, then schools must be aware of and accommodating of trauma-impacted students.

‘Trauma-Informed’ is a comprehensive paradigm, a process,  not a destination or ‘program’.

“Success” with trauma-impacted students comes slowly, over time.  It is crucial to maintain a safe, predictable, calm, environment, and safe relationships, school-wide, with all adults responding calmly, hour by hour, day by day, month after month.  Safety, safety, safety, at all levels, in all endeavors, in all domains.  And that’s only the beginning.

Just as children can not address their own trauma alone, teachers can not create trauma-informed school organizations all alone.

Teaching trauma-impacted children is an intense role.  Successful teachers on the front line require training, support, strategies and resources.  Explicit training and substantive support are essential.  It’s crucial that the classroom training and personal training and support for all staff, school-wide, be on-going.  All these are on-going requirements, because the trauma is on-going.

A  few hours about “trauma” in a “PD” session can help build awareness, but becoming competent with the depth and breadth of the issues requires much more than a PD or a weekend seminar.  Those will only create frustration for teachers on the front line facing the reality of trauma every day.  It’s personal for those on the front line.  The on-going training and support must also be personal.   “Reflective Supervision” (see here and here) would be a start. If teachers are not afforded on-going training and simultaneous on-going support, then a dangerously explosive risk is set up for all involved.

Training starts with brain science,  including the continuing,  deep and lifelong impacts of developmental trauma.  Practical basics include de-escalation in group settings and then also strategies to avoid in our school systems, so schools themselves are not re-triggering or re-traumatizing children.  Otherwise, our attempts at “academics” will be, at best, inefficient, more likely futile.

Simultaneously, at the school level, we need to identify, or in some way, screen for students’ trauma histories. It’s too easy to miss camouflaged trauma, in particular those children who defend by quietly dissociating.  We almost never talk about them, yet experts tell us that among younger children,  “dissociation” is the most common defense against trauma.

‘Trauma-informed’ includes an adequate ratio of adults to students in a classroom.  One adult for thirty children is not “trauma-informed”.  The data is clear:  six-to-ten children (minimally) in a classroom of thirty are trauma-impacted in our city.  One adult per six-to-ten trauma-impacted students is absurdly insufficient,  and that still ignores the other twenty-plus children who are sharing the same space.  “Trauma-informed” is simply dangerous lip service at the point of twenty(plus) children with one adult.  Inadequate staffing is unethical, and is directly in conflict with ‘equal access’ to education for all the children in the same classroom.

‘Trauma-informed’ includes physical space for students’ off-line de-escalation, away from the ‘crowd’, noise, stress, and triggers — not simply ‘the corner’ of the same classroom with 30-plus other folks trying to learn.  Off-line de-escalation space also requires trauma-competent adults, including on-site counselors and a nurse.

More important:  ‘Trauma-Informed’ also includes explicit physical space and explicit time prescribed and expected and encouraged (and measured for both supervisor and staff) for Adult de-escalation and reflective practices off-line. On-going, close, personal interaction for hours each day with trauma-impacted students generates “Secondary Traumatic Stress” (STS) leading to “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder” (PTSD) among the adults.  ‘Bearing Witness’ to injured children is difficult labor.  In fact, the research tells us that most successful teachers are immersed in student  relationships, much deeper than a mere witness, or  simple ‘contact’ and therefore, most vulnerable.

Experts characterize the danger of STS and PTSD in relationships with trauma-impacted children as a predictable occupational injury.  Key direction for the safety of all  is for adults to “put on their own oxygen mask on first” (and keep it on), before trying to help a child.  Explicit, front line teacher-supports are absolutely critical, on-going, because childhood trauma is on-going.  Supports for staff must go well beyond “self-care”, which can often be the district’s way of “blaming the victim”.  Reflective Supervision is one positive example of support.

Next, ‘Trauma-Informed’ radically restructures discipline away from standardized, ‘zero-tolerance’ policies.    Otherwise, school systems continue filling “the school-to-prison pipeline” with injured, trauma-impacted children.

Further, we need to confront the impotence, the stress, and the damage created by the paradigm of school as a “learning factory” with synchronized timing and “standardized” testing.  These are the antithesis of equity and trauma-informed.

Finally, we should be adjusting efforts against “achievement gaps” to a laser focus on investing more in communities with more violence, stress and trauma.

All the above efforts at ‘trauma-informed’ help confront the horrifying litany of lifelong implications of trauma during childhood development.  Meanwhile, children are losing their right to equally access their education

In spite of the devastating impacts and implications,  Developmental Trauma remains “the elephant in the [class]room”! That is wrong, morally wrong.


Help build awareness of developmental trauma

“Nowhere to Hide” blogposts are designed to help grow awareness of childhood trauma. Each post focuses on a single component of the workings of developmental trauma, via a real life example in short, “60 second” soundbite links, akin to “Public Service Announcements” (PSAs).

All the narratives are all about real kids (with pseudonyms).  I  live in community with them, and know them personally as students, neighbors and friends.   These are not “combined” or imaginary narratives, or caricatures.

Most of the children in the stories lived in a single neighborhood.  Each one passed through my classroom.  More than half were in the same classroom, the very same year”!  Difficult to imagine…



                “Nowhere to Hide” series links

Trigger warning: 

The children’s experiences in the vignettes are unvarnished.  Their traumatic responses may trigger painful memories.



“PSA” Links for social media


Nowhere to Hide:  Maria; Fight, flight or freeze

Photo © Daun Kauffman

Nowhere to Hide:  Andre’s Fear; What are Adverse Childhood Experiences?

Photo © Daun Kauffman

Nowhere to Hide:  Jamar’s Hyper-arousal 

Photo © Daun Kauffman

Nowhere to Hide:  Roberto’s Dissociation 

Public Domain @ Pixabay

Nowhere to Hide:  Danny’s Memory

Photo © Daun Kauffman

Nowhere to Hide:  Ashley’s “Normal” Education?   Part 1

Pixabay: adamova1210

Nowhere to Hide:  Ashley’s “Normal” Education?   Part 2

Photo © Daun Kauffman

More to come


“Like” us at  “Trauma-Informed Schools” on Facebook



Please share a PSA link to help grow public awareness of the impacts of developmental trauma. There are so many of us who’ve never heard of the overpowering life-long impacts.


“Peek Inside a Classroom” series overview

The second original series, “Peek Inside a Classroom”, provides much more detailed looks inside my classroom, primarily focused on specific students: Jasmine, Danny and José.

Other children are captured in broader looks at education reform concepts: “Failing Schools or Failing Paradigm?” and “Effective Education Reform”, co-authored with Sandra L. Bloom, M. D..


“Peek Inside a Classroom” series links


Peek Inside a Classroom:  Jasmine

© Elliot Gilfix/Flickr

Peek Inside a Classroom:  Danny

Photo © Daun Kauffman

Peek Inside a Classroom: José

belseykurns: Pixabay public domain
belseykurns: Pixabay public domain

Peek Inside a Classroom:  Failing Schools or Failing Paradigm?

Peek Inside a Classroom:  Effective Education Reform (with Sandra Bloom, M.D.)


“Click for Resources…”  series overview:

“Click for Resources”  posts are the theory and research behind the narrative posts in  “Nowhere to Hide” and “Peek Inside a Classroom”.

Each post in “Click for Resources “ is divided in three parts:

1) general press articles,

2) Research Journals or academic papers

3) social media, often with video.



“Click for Resources” series links:


1.   Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) Studies:   CLICK HERE

 2.  Impacts of Childhood Trauma: Overview               CLICK HERE

Click for Resources: Social Media on Impacts of Childhood Trauma

Click for Resources: Journal Articles on Impacts of Developmental Trauma

 3.   Trauma-Informed Schools                                               CLICK HERE

Flickr: andrew and hobbes

 4.  Trauma-Informed Social Services                                CLICK HERE 

Flickr: andrew and hobbes

 5.   Trauma-Informed Juvenile Justice                             CLICK HERE

Flickr: andrew and hobbes

 6.  Trauma-Informed Public Policy                                   CLICK HERE

Flickr: andrew and hobbes

 7.  Childhood Trauma Training and Tools                     CLICK HERE

the concept of learning

 8.  Book and Publication selections                                CLICK HERE

Public Domain

9.   #800 phone numbers                                                         CLICK HERE

Pixabay: Public Domain
Developmental trauma,  still “the elephant in the  [class] room”  for many adults.


“Like” us at  “Trauma-Informed Schools” on Facebook



* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * **** * * * * * * * * * * * 

Nowhere to Hide: Elephant in the Classroom  As edited at Garn Press

As edited at  Living in Dialogue.


LIVES AT RISK : Beyond-Toxic-Buildings


What could be higher priority for human beings than the Priority of Health?   
Nevertheless, the School District of Philadelphia (SDP) refuses to make health the priority on two lethal fronts.


One toxic front is frustratingly familiar: SDP buildings exude carcinogens such as asbestos and lead, as well as “merely infectious”, black mold, cockroaches, and rat and mouse feces which children and staff must tiptoe around.


The “easy”, moral priority, of course, should have been that school buildings must be unquestionably healthy before human beings enter, or we “do not enter”.

It’s not complicated.



Yet, shockingly, today, SDP buildings remain dangerous.

SDP Protocols to identify, and to report and to remove carcinogens from their buildings are still broken. SDP wastes precious time defending their re-actionary strategy: only respond after the carcinogen is “damaged” or airborne.  But, by their own definition, it’s too late after the carcinogen is in the air. Meanwhile, the floating carcinogen continues risking human beings until someone identifies it, or until SDP’s next sixth-month inspection (noting that key evidence has been missed multiple times during multiple SDP “inspections”).


SDP’s cry that the budget “prohibits” action is patronizing and appalling, even  illogical, unless health and life are a lower priority than “keeping the factory running”.


“Negotiations”, lawsuits and judges are now required to protect us from health toxins and failed protocols in our own buildings.


The one hopeful aspect of toxic buildings is that, if we can get past denial and delay, buildings can be repaired or rebuilt.



Simultaneous, Second Toxic Assault  on Health


“It’s like having a knifepoint at your throat and, simultaneously, a knifepoint at your heart”.

Photo © Daun Kauffman
Photo © Daun Kauffman


Lives are at risk on a second toxic front also mismanaged for years by SDP: toxic trauma, maybe less familiar, but be sure of trauma’a equal toxicity and destruction.


One grim difference is that health injuries from toxic trauma cannot be removed simply, like removing toxins from buildings.


Toxic trauma, or “potentially traumatic experiences (PTEs), include the “adverse childhood experiences” (ACEs) of abuse and neglect, in both physical and emotional forms, as well as family dysfunction, environmental dangers and more.


Traumatic experiences happen to children like exposure to lead and asbestos happen to them.  Trauma-impacted children are not sick or “bad”, they are injured. Early detection and intervention are crucial to changing the injured child’s life-trajectory.  In contrast, when unaddressed, and the children become adults, many re-enact their unaddressed trauma, injuring the next generation in a merciless cycle.


According to the   Center on the Developing Child, at Harvard University, when they’re unaddressed, toxic trauma injuries:

  • change the physical architecture of a child’s brain,
  • re-set the stress-response systems,
  • change social behaviors and
  • inhibit cognition.

Where is the urgency?

flickr Public Domain


The similarities between toxic trauma and carcinogens are chilling. They’re equally destructive.  Like toxic lead and asbestos, unaddressed, toxic trauma can shorten children’s lives.  The research has been replicated many times over, beginning with CDC/Kaiser Permanente (1998).  The American Academy of Pediatrics confirms that lifelong impacts of unaddressed ACEs correlate with the leading causes of death in adulthood: cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and suicide.


Centers for Disease Control



The scale of childhood trauma is massive.  Researchers use the terms “epidemic” and “crisis”, as with lead and asbestos.  Research in Philadelphia (2013) identified half Philadelphia’s population exposed to 4 or more ACEs.

The Research and Evaluation Group PHMC



For significance, the earlier CDC work revealed that 3+ ACEs correlate over a lifetime, with doubled risk of depression, severe obesity, drug abuse, lung disease, and liver disease. They triple the risk of alcoholism, STDs and teen pregnancy.  Suicide attempts quintuple.  Six+ ACEs correlate with early death by as much as twenty years.


SDP uses only a piecemeal approach to children’s full toxic reality.

Our District is addressing only toxic “buildings” (and only a few buildings), yet “whole children” bring their toxic trauma with them into all school buildings every single day.  They can’t leave it at the door.

In “fight-flight-or-freeze” mode, human beings cannot focus on academics. It’s basic biology. Fulfilling an educational mission is an impotent dream.  We must confront both dangers simultaneously.



There is more: SDP fails to confront the integral and compound impacts of toxic trauma on the adults.


First, adult educators carry their own trauma from childhood.  Based on the scale of ACEs, 1,500 to 2,000 teachers are dealing with their personal trauma, before their front-line exposure to even higher rates among Philadelphia’s children.

Second, the adult front-line is exposed daily to injured children.  Effective educators’ empathy and close relationships, with trauma-impacted children are a second source of trauma.  Research shows that close work with trauma-impacted children conveys high occupational risk of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) for front-line service providers.  The phenomenon is analogous to getting the flu from a secondary source such as sharing the same room or touching the same doorknob as someone with the flu.  The source, “bearing witness to others’ trauma”, is termed “secondary”.  However, like the flu,  the PTSD results are equally intense, irrespective of the source.


Photo © Daun Kauffman
Photo © Daun Kauffman

Front-line staff need help tomorrow. [See “Transforming Trauma, A New Paradigm” link here]    Meanwhile, SDP exposes children and staff to each other’s trauma, without ready supports, daily.

Where is the urgency?



It Gets Worse:  SDP’s Toxic Priorities


Like their lack of urgency with carcinogens, the district is “gathering data” about toxic trauma abhorrently slowly, plodding along five-year plan till 2022/2023.


When I questioned SDP staff explicitly in November 2019, they were still completely  ignorant of Act 18 of the PA School Code and its requirements of SDP regarding the trauma-informed paradigm.  Now, at the January BoE meeting,  with deft word parsing, they described their remaining three years as “training”, to align (sort of) with new mandates in Act 18, although they have never shared results of the two years to-date… I did not hear SDP or  CBH or DBHIDS identify a single voluntary aspect of spending which would generate extra or unique elements versus Act 18 minimum requirements.

In spite of overwhelming existing research about developmental trauma and mountains of compelling data, available for more than 20 years, and even State mandates, SDP’s lethargic response to both of our lethal realities is breathtaking.


Decisions to delay comprehensive action on the science of childhood trauma are shockingly immoral.  Dr. Sandra L. Bloom, an internationally recognized expert on Trauma Theory, equates the magnitude of the 21st century shift to a trauma-informed paradigm with the 20th century shift after scientists developed Germ Theory. Both were radical leaps in science. Bloom’s corollary is that after we understand trauma’s destructive power “it’s morally impossible to remain ethically neutral”.


Meanwhile, SDP’s “business factory” paradigm drives their dangerous, even deadly, priorities.


SDP continues sending children-in-crisis into buildings-in-crisis, prioritizing keeping the SDP “factory” running.  Their flawed “business paradigm” prioritizes standardization, hours and hours of “test prep”, then test-taking and raising test scores along with other overhead burdens or an inward, “production-line focus”, at the expense of the whole child.  It’s similar to the “banking model” of education as debunked by Paulo Freire about 50 years ago.

Conversely, successful businesses today  focus on customer-needs as the first priority.


SDP’s dated paradigm has failed the very human beings SDP is meant to serve.   Today, toxic buildings and toxic trauma both actively assault the health of our children and staff. Both unaddressed toxic health assaults are breeding deep, lifelong damages and early death.


To deal with only one toxin and ignore the other toxin would be like a Hospital Emergency Room setting a broken bone in your leg but ignoring your simultaneously broken skull.




Toxic Priorities:  Change is Urgent


Philadelphians are savvy.  We do know that there are budget issues in Philadelphia.  We know that the buildings are old and require expensive remediation.  None of that old information justifies discounting the lives and health of children or staff to meet a budget.  It’s a false dichotomy.  Human life and health must always be first priority.


Accountability for the priority of comprehensive health of human beings cannot be shifted, by blaming a budget.  Specifically, SDP’s position that Philadelphia “cannot afford” to prioritize health of children is dangerous and morally wrong.  Delays, because of “funding” are equivalent to putting a price on the other’s life and health.  Delay is indefensible.


Prioritizing health in a trauma-informed paradigm is not a case of more spending, but a case of different spending, driven by different priorities.


The issue is not the budget, but administrators’ priorities.  SDP is accountable for their priorities and their morality.  SDP priorities today are repulsive, toxic, immoral.


SDP’s toxic priorities were explicitly lambasted at the January meeting of the Board of Education [See “Crisis of Priorities” link here].  Injured children and staff were then sent back into the same broken system again the next morning.  Where is the urgency?


We must all speak!


Toxic priorities at SDP must be corrected, comprehensively, now.






Daun Kauffman is a community member in Hunting Park who has taught in NorthPhilly public school classrooms for 20 years.  Daun earned an M.Ed at Temple University and an MBA from the Harvard University Graduate School of Business.

Kauffman is an active member of Philadelphia ACEs Task Force, writes at LucidWitness.com, curates a Facebook page, “Trauma-Informed Schools Journal” and manages a Facebook group, “Trauma-Informed Schools Group”.

Daun Kauffman on urban education, on justice, mercy, and love . . . with a humble spirit as the goal.

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