* * * 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, or adverse childhood experiences(ACEs)can be defined as a response of overwhelming, helpless fear to a shocking or stressful event.

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”.   Developmental trauma is an injury.  It happens TO the child.  In turn, when they become adults, many re-enact their unaddressed trauma, injuring the next generation in a merciless cycle of pain and fear. When the injuries fester unaddressed, they set off a chain of events leading ultimately to early death, according to the CDC..

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 academic efforts.  They 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, leading trauma-impacted children to often misread social cues.  Their fears and distorted perceptions generate surprising, aggressive, defensive behaviors.  The ‘hair trigger’ defenses 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 retriggering more of the child’s trauma, and even more aggression. I confess, as a less experienced classroom teacher, I often did exactly that.

The outward behaviors are easy to recount.

The 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 that even the injured can be unconscious of the connection.

ACE-impacted kids are more common than seasonal allergy sufferers

Experts including Surgeon Generals and the Attorney General have used the specific terms ‘national crisis’, and ‘epidemic’.  The CDC says trauma impacts are critical to understand.  Childhood trauma is not a “color” issue.  It’s not a geography issue.  It’s not an income issue.

CDC scientists  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, adolescent pregnancy, lung disease, and liver disease. It triples the risk of alcoholism and STDs.  There is a 5X increase in attempted suicide.

Center for Disease Control
Center 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 our help.

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

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.



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 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 outward behavior in class to the 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 with them like they bring their backpack (wherever they go).

Making the connection, intellectually, is even more difficult ‘in the moment’, in the midst of emotional, intentionally distracting, sometimes screamed, personal insults or abusive attacks from the  triggered child.


Even when I was able to stay calm myself, and then 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.

If I did maintain composure, then I realized quickly that the other 30 children in the room did not all wait calmly or politely for me so I could focus solely on de-escalating one of their peers.

I also learned the hard way that when I maintained composure in the midst of the barrage, it seemed like “unfair” leniency to other children.  Those peers see only the aggressive outward behavior and they expect “punishment”.

Even more learning:  the aggression of one student and the related commotion will likely trigger a second student’s fear, maybe others too.

Keeping the academic context in mind: all above is about a single instance only.  Several instances can happen every day.  Meanwhile, each minute ‘lost’ to de-escalating 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 25% 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 de-fusing all those students’ fear triggers, and all in advance of any “fight or flight” response.

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 “Common Core”, or academic “national standards” which are 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 higher concentration of violence and stress in urban settings, with higher concentrations of students of color, and higher concentrations of trauma, impairing cognition, keeps academic achievement gaps alive and well.

Let’s pile on top:  budget cuts for public schools each year translate to fewer adults 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, of course, back to the central aspect of the context:

Schools are not trauma-informed organizations

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

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

Training and supporting school-wide staff (on-going) is essential. At the school level, we should also be identifying, or in some way screening for, students’ trauma histories. It’s too easy to miss camouflaged trauma, in particular those who are quietly dissociating.  We should also be re-evaluating ‘zero-tolerance’ discipline stances.  We should also be adjusting efforts against the “achievement gap” to areas with greater violence, stress and trauma. We should also be “understanding” the impotence of “standardized” test-and-punish model for academics in a much clearer light.

In spite of all the above impacts and implications  Developmental Trauma remains “the elephant in the [class]room” for many adults !

Help build awareness of developmental trauma

“Nowhere to Hide” blogposts are designed to help grow awareness of childhood trauma. They each focus on a single component of the workings of developmental trauma, via a real life example in short, “30 second” or “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…

Trigger warning:  the children’s experiences in the vignettes are painfully real.  The children have been changed forever by the impact of their trauma.

Please, share the “PSAs” widely.

The “Nowhere to Hide” PSA Links are meant to be easily, widely shared, one or two at a time, in social media.  Share one today! 

Nowhere to Hide:  Maria; Fight, flight or freeze

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

Nowhere to Hide:  Jamar’s Hyperarousal Defense

Nowhere to Hide:  Roberto’s Dissociation Defense

Nowhere to Hide:  Danny’s Memory

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

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

More to come

A different, original series, “Peek Inside a Classroom”, provides much more detailed looks inside my classroom, primarily focused on specific students: Jasmine, Danny and Jose.  Other vignettes are captured in broader looks at education reform concepts: “Failing Schools or Failing Paradigm?” and “Effective Education Reform.”

Peek Inside a Classroom:  Jasmine

Peek Inside a Classroom:  Danny

Peek Inside a Classroom: Jose

Peek Inside a Classroom:  Failing Schools or Failing Paradigm?

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

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


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Demoralized Teachers: Negotiation Context and Calculations


Recent suggestions that professional teachers in Philadelphia are overpaid and are expecting too many resources  are shockingly misinformed, and counterproductive accusations.


The context for Public Education is ‘crisis mode’ in many urban centers.  Public Schools are targeted for privatization by a coalition of ‘free-market’ politicians and private, billionaire profiteers. Key  weapons in the battle are “Doomsday” budgets for Public Schools, combined with funding new charter schools from the same decimated public school budget;  generating a ‘normalized’, continuous resource drain.  The ethics are horrifying.  Then fire-away at teachers with declining ‘scores’ from discredited, feckless  “standardized tests.”  Use the meaningless results to deceptively scream “failing” schools, “failing” teachers. Slash teacher headcount on the front line, cut resources further, increase class sizes, and leave the fewer remaining teachers and students as collateral damage.

The teachers who are still standing,  remain in the battle for our children’s education, but they’re standing with sagging morale.  Further, those remaining teachers are also enduring direct attacks of all sorts, including public, baseless, boorish  disparagement (video) from SRC commissioner Green, and threats from their own School District of Philadelphia, from state lawmakers, and even from a president-to-be.

Publicly denigrating professionals who are battling on the frontline is a vacant strategy.  It will improve what, exactly…?

Recent data shared by the District itself reveals that 76 percent [of teachers] said they felt ‘not at all respected'” by the Philadelphia School Reform Commission.

Your professional troops in any battle will not become more effective without appropriate supplies, without relief, without backup and without the trustworthy word of leaders.

The possibility of competing to retain teachers or to recruit committed professional replacements in this environment is laughable.  The possibility of luring young families to fuel Philadelphia’s future growth, while normalizing a broken paradigm in public education is a sad mirage.



Some “leaders”(better described as “managers”) like to defensively, and erroneously parrot that they can’t maintain the troops, let alone honor their broken contract because “there is no money,” and  “If we had more money, we’d be offering more money,”   —  blatantly, patently false claims.  A transparent attempt by pass-the-buck-managers to wash their hands of accountability for the situation.


There IS money. There is money at the district level, and at the city level, and at the state level. There has been money all along.

The school district budget alone is almost $ 3 Billion every year. The district makes thousands of ‘priority’ decisions with their $3 Billion, as do the city and the state with their budgets.

Teaching funds are not a priority” would be the accurate way to describe the situation, Not that “there is no money”.

The district continues ignoring (best case) or publicly castigating its own teachers and now sensationalizes the “one hundred million” dollars which they describe as a ‘package’ for their teachers, who are the main engine of learning for children of Philadelphia. Sounds great till you recall that the starting point for teacher salaries, almost 5 years ago, was already 20% behind the nearby suburbs’ salary scales back then.  Still an incomplete picture until you compare the daily expectations in a much more difficult, more whole-life job, with far fewer and far lower quality resources. The metaphor would be one of Philadelphia teacher cavalry, working in swamps with injured, hungry, drowning children, versus, suburban teachers, using state-of-the-art, computer-controlled drone fighter jets working over a resort with healthy cadets.

Further, recall that the latest package comes after zero ‘packages’ since 2012, almost 5 years.  In actuality, the ‘package’ for those years was a Negative package — the district took money away from teachers – yes, the existing, agreed-to, contractual package was taken way from teachers, in an illegal process , with no teacher voice, and it was never returned. Based on published comments from an SRC commissioner, the costs of the ‘takeaways’ for those years has been roughly  $300,000,000, at least. How do you assess “trustworthy” in context of a broken contract and the SRC’s mid-stream takeaway of $300,000,000+ ?

Now this single “new” package is planned to be spread out over the future.  Specifically, spread into 4 future years, until 2021. We should all then be looking at the impact of the package over the total nine-year window from 2012 to 2021. Then the “one hundred million” is more clearly understood as $11 million for each of those 9 years, and even that number is before deducting the massive takeaways.

For perspective, the District spent $50 million +/- on the new curricula this year, which are proving to be worth much less.  The $11 million professional teacher package is worth even less than the books?

For another perspective,  if the numbers are compared fairly, on the same decimal scale, the proposed ‘package’ over the nine-year window is about $0.011 of the annual $3.0 Billion. About 3.6 TENTHS of one % of the annual budget.

We (and the public) are to believe Dr. Hite when he says the only money they can spare from $3.0 Billion is $0.011?


If that is true, we need a better budget manager.

So, again:  “Teaching funds are not a priority” would be the correct way to describe the situation, Not that “there is no money”.


Meanwhile, the District’s decision to negotiate publicly is adversarial to teachers whom Dr. Hite and the SRC should be working with, not against. Obviously, their relationship with their own teacher troops is at a new low. Their untrustworthy history, and their authoritarian, paternalistic, deceptive approach today is disappointing and demotivating. It has got to go.


CLICK HERE for the edited NewsWorks/WHYY version.


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

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