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

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Thanks to Anthony Cody who saw the merit in this blogpost and first posted it HERE  at “Living in Dialogue.”

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 Confessions of an ignorant and frustrated teacher

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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 painful or shocking 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.

The children are not sick or “bad”.   Childhood 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 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.

 

 

Adults’ view, from the ‘outside’, of the seemingly illogical, or worse, oppositional behavior, is 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.

 

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 is connecting 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

 

Childhood trauma is not a “color” issue.  It’s not a geography issue.  It’s not an income issue.  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..

 

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

 

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Children can not address their trauma alone. They need our help.

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

 

Other 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 concerns about their child.  In the classroom, I quickly experience the child’s outward behaviors which could seem random, nonsensical, and often angry.

 

Yet, I still did 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, was made even more difficult ‘in the moment’, in the midst of emotional, intentionally distracting, sometimes screamed, personal insults or abusive attacks from the  triggered child.

 

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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 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 one instance only.  Meanwhile, each minute ‘lost’ to de-escalating that single student is a minute lost to academic endeavors for all thirty.

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 the “Common Core”, or academic, “national standards” which are linked lesson-by-lesson and which lead to “standardized” testing. These regular, test stresses are controversial for many reasons.  Trauma adds more controversy.  First, the stress can re-trigger traumas.  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 the achievement gap 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 with 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 school-wide staff and implementing trauma-informed practice 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 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.

 

Help build awareness of childhood 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).

They are true stories in two series about the lives of specific children impacted by trauma.  Pseudonyms are used in each of these true narratives.  Adult roles and gender have been disguised.

 

Let me emphasize that most of the children in the stories were in a single neighborhood.  Each one passed through my classroom.  More than half were in the same classroom, the very same year”.

 

 

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.

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

 

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

 

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 Memories

Nowhere to Hide:  Ashley’s Education Part 1

Nowhere to Hide:  Ashley’s Education Part 2

More to come

 

 

The other, 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.)

 

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Thanks to Anthony Cody who saw the merit in this blogpost and first posted it HERE  at “Living in Dialogue.”

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Peek Inside a Classroom: Effective Education Reform

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Peek Inside a Classroom: Effective Education Reform

Co-Authors:

Sandra L. Bloom, M.D and Daun H. Kauffman M.Ed., M.B.A.

Classroom insights provided by Daun Kauffman  in true vignettes.

 

       

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      “I feel hurt.  My dad told me that I wasn’t his daughter if I couldn’t read better.” (Kerrie)

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I (Daun) always started school days with my class by sharing a personal greeting and an optional hug with each student, as they entered the door of our room.  They had a comforting routine with coats and backpacks and warmup work on the board ready for them.  They knew that someone who knew them had prepared especially for them.  Our startup was paired with breakfast for everyone, courtesy of Title 1.  The familiarity helped students with self-regulation in the transition to a classroom environment.

 

Teachers can learn too!

 

I felt we had a positive, caring beginning to our day of academics, but I often pushed the pace, especially when days overflowed with Lesson Plans.

 

That is, I felt that way until a friend who pioneered the development of the “Sanctuary Model,” Dr. Sandra Bloom, M.D., suggested an addition.  With an ear-to-ear smile she pressed gently and politely and respectfully, but oh so firmly and confidently.  She pressed her case to “add one question,” add “just one question”.  Dr. Bloom waited… pointedly and expectantly.  She wanted me to try adding a “Community Meeting” to our daily startup.  “Go around the classroom so each student participates: My name is ___.  One word for my feelings this morning is ____.”

 

I agreed, skeptically, thinking we already had a fine, “community” startup, and wondering where we’d find the time.

 

We started with learning the routine.  I added some options to Dr. Bloom’s question:  a) to ‘pass’, thinking that sometimes some of the kids would be dealing with weighty stuff, and b) to add a reason for their feeling or simply say “no reason”.

 

The first ten days, many simply shared “I feel happy.  No reason”.  Or “I feel sad. No reason”.  So, I began to incorporate “feelings words” into our other vocabulary work and I bought a large wall  poster with visualizations of feelings words.  The kids began to be intrigued.

 

“Knowing” is not the same as “Understanding”

 

The “Community Meeting” in the Sanctuary Model “Toolkit begins similarly, as part of building any trauma-informed organization.  Explicit acknowledgement of feelings as first priority, embedded in establishing social norms of safety and caring for each person in the group.

 

In our school classroom, “How are you feeling?” became central to developing community, to learning clear oral communication, and to building class ‘norms.’.

 

It also generated undeniably invaluable learning about “feelings”.

Then, even more:  practice composing and publicly sharing those feelings.

 

But most importantly it moved us beyond factually “knowing” names.  It became understanding feelings, understanding each other as people.  Understanding ourselves better.  Understanding motivations;  our own and others.   Myself understanding children and their childhood traumas.  “Social literacy.”

 

If you haven’t heard of “developmental” or “childhood trauma”.  I understand.  I hadn’t heard of it either.  Not in any university class, nor from my District.  I had to discover it on my own.  (Click here for more on “The Elephant in the [Class]Room”).

 

Building understanding does require investments of time and labor.  We didn’t achieve it for free.  We invested about 20 minutes from our already packed schedule.  We prioritized that time to listen to each other.  So, we had more learning to do.   We had to learn to listen: Not interrupting, not even politely questioning.

Simply listening.

Ultimately, it started with all of us being “in the moment”

 

Immeasurable, but invaluable

 

We progressed to “I have two (!) feelings.”    Kids asking “can I share them both?” (with much elaboration).

No one ever “passed.”

 

We progressed:  All of this investment steadily reinforced norms of a socially literate, caring, student-centered classroom culture with a common understanding of goals. The value becomes obvious when we move on to academic topics

 

We progressed to Kerrie, eyes brimming, “I feel hurt.  My dad told me that I wasn’t his daughter if I couldn’t read better.”

Should understanding Kerrie’s pain change how literacy was taught that day and beyond?  Could we be successful without understanding?

 

DeShawn, squirming with anticipation, “I feel excited.  We’re going to see my dad this weekend for my birthday.”  (Later sharing privately: “he’s at the state prison.  He did something really bad…”).

Would Math or Social Studies lessons be different after that new understanding?  Would we be successful without understanding?

 

Starr, trying to appear nonchalant, “I feel sad.  I miss my dad.  He’s in the hospital again for fight… no he didn’t really fight this time.  He just banged his head on the car real bad.”  Long pause.  “My mom can’t pick me up after school, so my sister [3rd grade] will.  We can walk by ourselves.

Should my understanding of Starr’s behaviors and motivations be more aligned with the “Common Core” and ‘National Standards’ or should I adjust national standards to be aligned with Starr’s core?

 

Kerrie, DeShawn and Starr are not unusual.  Childhood trauma affects 2 out of 3 students at some level.  That’s way too many (one is too many) to ignore.

 

Our Philadelphia School Reform Commission(SRC) and other “reformers” across our nation command “standardized” learning —  an illogical,  inconceivable goal.  Be assured, from the reality of the front line in the classroom, that students are all unique….  people.  They each have a unique heart and a unique mind and a unique life.  Not better or worse than one another, just different.

 

Children can not and do not learn in “standardized”, robotic fashion, or synchronized timing.

 

It’s clear to educators:  academic success in any classroom at any age has to be student-centered, not “standardized”,  nor datapoint-centered.

 

Back to Community Meetings:  I usually shared my feelings too.  If a long weekend was coming, I shared two (!) feelings:  the excitement of the break and the sadness at missing each one in our class. I often shared explicitly that I loved each one in the class. Sometimes I shared feelings about my own children when I was going to see them soon, or sometimes how I missed them.  My students wanted to understand me as a father and as a grandfather, not just as a talking head “presenter”.

Let me paraphrase the quote attributed to Theodore Roosevelt:  Students don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.

It does go both ways:

On the days I dared try to skip our Community Meeting, I was immediately, verbally hounded.   Even If I only forgot (or intentionally skipped) only myself, the kids raced, almost tripping over each other to ask: “Mr. Kauffman, how are you feeling today?…   No, really, How are you feeling?”

Powerful learning, powerful understanding grew all around our classroom.

 

Implications in our trauma-impacted world

 

Our learning was such a great story.  Really.

But I can’t stop here with a feel-good story.  The Community Meeting is only the first step in the Toolbox towards a trauma-informed system.

We all live in very violent, dysfunctional times.

Statistics tell us that 25% to 50% of students in all schools are dealing with life-changing levels of developmental, or “childhood”, trauma.

It’s urgent.

Neuroscience tells us that unaddressed developmental trauma and toxic stress change the architecture of the physical brain and secondly, social behaviors Cognition, or learning, is impaired. For some of those children in ‘survival mode’, academics are impossible, “in the moment.”

Developmental trauma is not a poverty issue.  It’s not a “color” issue.  It’s not a geography issue. It is not an income issue.  Experts call it  a ‘national crisis’, an ‘epidemic’.   Yet, it’s the elephant in all our classrooms.

 

Developmental trauma is an education-equity issue.

Developmental trauma is an ‘achievement gap’ issue, given its skew to high stress, higher violence urban areas.

It gets worse.

Biological and social adaptations to childhood trauma will affect our health throughout our lifetimes, and can lead to early death.

It’s urgent.

Effective education reform  begins with recognizing the child and remains child-centered.   National “standards” are in direct conflict with  equity  in a setting requiring infinite variation and continuous creativity with real , live human children….

Effective reform will prioritize training and support to schoolwide staffs, so they understand and accommodate millions of trauma-impacted children nationally.   Community Meetings can be integral to becoming student-centered and trauma-informed.

At the school level, effective reform includes identifying, or in some way screening for, students’ trauma histories.  It’s too easy to miss 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 disconnect between regimented, time-based national standards and unique humans learning.  We should also be understanding the illogical impotence of “standardized” test-and-punish model for academics.

 

Without effective reform, students have valid claim that we haven’t given them equal access to learning.  Millions of students.

 

Listening is integral to effective reform. 

We all have much to learn, much to care about, much to understand.  

 

If you agree, ask someone else “How are you feeling?”,

 and then simply listen.

 

Graphic 2

All student insights in the “Peek Inside a Classroom” series use pseudonyms in true stories.

 

 

For more on developmental trauma, in short, true vignettes, click on the narrative series below, “Nowhere to Hide”:

 

Nowhere to Hide the Elephant in the [Class]Room   (overview)

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 Memories

Nowhere to Hide.  Ashley’s Education Part1

Nowhere to Hide.  Ashley’s Education Part2

 

Click below for more “Peek Inside a Classroom”;

 

Peek Inside a Classroom: Jasmine

Peek Inside a Classroom: Danny

Peek Inside a Classroom:  Jose

Peek Inside a Classroom: Failing Schools, or Failing Paradigm?

 

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

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