Danny goes to school
Danny’s young parents struggled to find steady jobs and income for their family. (All names are pseudonyms in a true story.) Both parents were still dealing with the trauma and stress from their own childhood relocations to the U.S.. Their families had left everything.
Danny’s family moved into a rough section of a major city, full of crime and drugs. He lived with two older siblings, Mom and Dad. Sadly, Danny’s dad (also named Danny) was violently murdered when Danny was very young. During Danny’s early years, he was told his dad was “away”.
Danny’s mother, Maria, left alone to support all three children, became despondent and desperate herself. Drinking and drugs seemed to dull her grief and stress. Her own attempts to survive financially led to her incarceration.
Danny was left without a normal relationship with either parent. After his mother was released from prison, Danny and siblings lived with Maria for a time, in a deteriorating row house in another crime-ridden neighborhood.
Danny still believed his father was “away”.
Maria was preoccupied with trying to find work and restarting her life including training at the community college. The traumas of her husband’s murder and memories of childhood violence were engulfing at times.
The older siblings had also often witnessed violence. They had a different father, who had taken custody while Maria was incarcerated. Reunited with their mother, they now bore the brunt of Maria’s frustration and stress. Danny often witnessed rage and terrifying violence between his mother and siblings, eventually leading to Maria’s decision to send them back to their dad.
Danny told me that, in his own mind, he is responsible for his separation from his siblings. He misses them both, especially his older brother.
All alone with Danny, his mother now confided in him that his father was not “away”, but that he had been murdered. Confusion and grief tortured Danny .
It was at that point, eight years of age, Danny walked into my second grade classroom. Some days, at first, he seemed resilient.
Danny could share a great, toothy smile that stretched from ear to ear. That smile that connected his ears to his always-bent-or-broken glasses. The layers of tape seemed to mangle the frames more than they helped. . .
Danny loved learning and sharing about his family’s culture. He also loved to run, sprinting, seemingly free as a bird, in those moments. Danny was a talented artist too, at times loosing track of his surroundings while he created other worlds on paper.
On his good days, it was clear that Danny’s academic ability was on par or ahead of his classmates and his street smarts were well above average. Those were precious, rare days.
Underneath Danny’s smile was a learned mistrust of adults, and refusal to attach. Danny’s mother was using alcohol again, and he’d been told (and then physically reminded) that spilling a single drop any of Mom’s alcohol would result in immediate punishment: standing naked in a frightening, extended icy-cold shower. He also hinted that “somebody’s” anger was why his glasses were broken or “lost” so regularly.
Danny’s mistrust created misunderstandings with other kids too. He spent recess alone as often as he joined in with others. Danny once told me that his favorite toy and game was “guns”… so that he would be practiced and ready when he was able to find his father’s killer…
Most of my students(6 to 10 years old) know someone who was murdered… Sadly, it’s not unusual. There is about a murder a day, on average, in our city. Most of the victims have children or familes.
Clearly, murder of his father was only one of Danny’s childhood traumas.
Although Danny’s chronological age was only 8, his life was already overwhelmed with fear and loss. His hyper-vigilant scanning for any threat he might perceive in the classroom created a wall between Danny and others. Often, Danny’s traumas could be retriggered by a classmate’s slight shift in position, or the most innocent comment or look. It was impossible to anticipate. Sometimes Danny arrived at school already triggered by events at home or along the way. When his fears were triggered, Danny could go off track quickly with a loud, nervous laugh, or an equally disruptive threat yelled to someone across our classroom. Then he would rip up his classwork, and throw his books, dump his desk, and often make a run for the hallway, with angry tears, screaming “f___ you”. His classmates watched, gripped in fear. Danny didn’t know it, but 11+ other children in the same room had similar life stories filled with trauma.
At least twice during his dissociating, Danny quietly, but tensely snapped small plastic pencil sharpeners. When confronted, he quickly put a jagged piece, on his tongue and when further approached, he swallowed. On another occasion he threatened to swallow the loose blade…
Maria was informed, and the seriousness of Danny’s state was clearly explained. Her initial responses were to claim that Danny was just having a bad day and to inflict corporal punishment at home. “It will go away”, Maria claimed . . .
Many adults normalize the pain and fear of the injured child, thinking “they’ll get over it.” Actually, it’s the opposite. Young children have fewer coping mechanisms and their immature brains are still developing. The impacts of trauma are greater on the still-developing brain.
Trauma impacts children, learning and schools, via its laser-like effects on the physical structure of the brain.
Unaddressed, specific changes to brain architecture damage cognition. The changes also impair their ability to interpret social cues, predisposing children to hypervigilance, suspicion and hair-trigger defenses. Specifically, changes to brain architecture damage memory systems, ability to think, to organize multiple priorities (“executive function”), and hence to learn, particularly literacy skills.
Meanwhile, our school district did not have other spaces or adults available to allow Danny to de-escalate. I could not leave the other 25+ children to be with Danny. Our counselor was on long-term leave with no replacement. Our school was not staffed, nor funded with a full-time nurse.
Danny’s story is stunning, but it is not NOT an aberration. In our classroom there were at least 11 other children with 3+ categories of trauma, who were equally often triggered, often by each other. See Failing Schools or Failing Paradigm?
Groundbreaking research into childhood trauma, was conducted by Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Kaiser Permanente among 17,000 participants. The participants were suburban, middle-class, college-educated, mostly white, employed people with health insurance. Keep in mind: beautiful, suburban San Diego.
The research defined 10 categories of “adverse childhood experience” (ACE): physical, emotional, or sexual abuse, or physical or emotional neglect; and/or reside in households with members addicted to alcohol or drugs, or have a mental illness, or where children witness a mother being battered, or lose a parent to separation or divorce or incarceration.
The research findings were shocking: Two-thirds of participants had experienced at least one type of childhood adversity, and 22% had experienced 3 or more ACE categories!
Increased ACEs correlated with earlier death ! Prior to death, three or more ACEs is significant because three+ ACEs correlate with doubled risk of depression, severe obesity, drug abuse, lung disease, and liver disease. It triples the risk of alcoholism, STDs and teen pregnancy.
Three ACEs correlate with a 5X increase in attempted suicide, according to the data.
ACE rates seem even higher in urban settings. Across our city, on average, a shocking 37% of the urban population (tens of thousands of children) has experienced 4 or more ACEs, according to the data. In our specific zip code cluster, the prevalence is a devastating 45+% with 4+ ACEs, essentially half of the children!
It is morally wrong for adults to normalize childhood fear, injury and ongoing trauma (no matter who is to blame).
The children are not sick or bad, they are injured. As educators, we cannot immediately prevent the injury, pain or chronic trauma. But we can fulfill our mission in public schools to educate all who come in through our doors. We need strategies, we need training, we need support and we need resources.
Toward Trauma-Informed Schools
Equal access to education is physiologically impossible for children in “survival” mode.
A trauma-informed education paradigm is about relationships and processes leading to ‘safety’ and equal access. It begins with: a) explicit acknowledgement of childhood trauma and attending to injuries — whether those injuries are physical, emotional and/or neurological, b) on-going training and supporting teachers and staff school-wide, c) creating ‘safety’ school-wide, d) screening students, to include those who are quietly dissociating.
Adults have accountability for training to become trauma-informed. Adults have responsibility to identify and address trauma in children. Adults have accountability to accomplish the above promptly to protect the child from permanent damage from chronic traumatic stress.
The lead ACE investigators documented many impacts of 3+ ACEs in the presentation “Connecting a Developmental Lens to the Health of Society”(especially pgs. 50,51). Classroom-specific impacts of not addressing the trauma included worse health, more frequent suspension, lower standardized test scores, more frequent designation as special education students, 250% more likely to be retained in grade.
Trauma-impacted children who are not identified and supported appropriately do not perform on standardized tests at the same level as others. Yet, to receive funding from various sources, our state and our district, continue to be required and accountable to evaluate the children (like Danny) solely as a conglomeration of “standardized test” scores.
Away from trauma competency
Most “reformers” have not spent time in our classrooms. They are blindly oblivious to the child’s injuries, continuing fears and stress. Classroom impacts are not acknowledged.
The epidemic of childhood trauma is widely ignored in reformers’ misfocused, impersonal “prescriptions” for a “factory model” of educating children.
Ignoring, or not caring, Education “Reformers” continue to push and push for a ‘factory model’ of education with more and more ‘standardization’, synchronized timing and more testing.
They push on, effectively “bullying” the children, even though the test content itself is in question. They “bully”, even though the data says that enduring the test and its high stakes adds even more trauma to already very precarious emotions for Danny and many of his classmates.
“The test” does not discriminate trauma-impacted children from others. Instead, the test ignorantly masses together our “epidemic” 22% to 45+% trauma-impacted children with all other children into one “score” for the school, and then misleadingly compares the school’s score to other schools.
The “reformers'” ill-advised approach is so very unsafe in many ways for so many of our children. It totally ignores the simple concept that children are human, are unique, not “widgets”. Unique, with different learning styles, different learning speeds and different life experiences.
I choose to confront the bully. Join me.
Children do have a right to be safe, in all ways, when they go to school and they have a right of equal access to their education.
- Listen to a child’s story. Go back to the child; listen again.
- Be part of a group (or start one) which invests one-to-one with a group of trauma-impacted children.
- Help raise awareness of trauma in your school and community. “Share” this blog broadly. Share shorter pieces in the “Nowhere to Hide” series at LucidWitness.com
Course corrections must all start with the child as the center, the priority.
“. . . we must not look away”
Now, when I see a child with a small, plastic pencil sharpener, I still trigger…
“Peek Inside a Classroom” is a series about childhood trauma in public education. Another part, “Peek Inside a Classroom: Jasmine:“ is here. “Jasmine” defends against childhood trauma more aggressively than Danny. “José, at “Peek Inside a Classroom; José” uses a detached, dissociating defense, which can be confusing.
Also see: Peek Inside a Classroom: Effective Education Reform(with Dr. Sandra Bloom, M.D.)
Look for another series of shorter vignettes about developmental trauma,“Nowhere to Hide”, on LucidWitness.com .
Trigger warning: the children’s experiences in the vignettes are unvarnished. Their traumatic responses may trigger painful memories.