Most days Sandy would enter the building smiling. Smiles for miles. High fiving staff and running up to friends to talk, pigtails bouncing. Sandy had an awesome sense of humor and an amazing singing voice, she really lit up a room. Unfortunately, even on the days that started good for this second grader, incident free days were very few and far between. Many staff, and students…and I’m sure Sandy, did not know what kind of day it was going to be when she came in the door.
I will talk a bit about Sandy on this blog moving forward, but today I’m going to focus on those first few minutes of the day. See, Sandy would often bring a backpack full of toys and books with her. This was looked at as a problem since it often became distracting to her and the other students in her class. With that, the solution that was determined was that staff would meet her at the door and take her backpack to keep it in the office.
This daily meet-up at the front door would often end up in a tug of war with the backpack, a lot of crying, screaming, hitting and kicking. If she did eventually turn it over, her brain was usually now in a place that was not conducive to learning and would impact her and her class’ day. What started as an effort to remove a distraction that was possibly harmful to her and her peer’s education would end in incidents that often resulted in school discipline procedures. Over and over again. You see, Sandy was up against a personal history that suspensions or motivational rewards systems could not fix. She could not just turn it off.
A Different Approach to Challenging Behavior
In the past two years Sandy had been removed from her home due to abuse by someone that was supposed to be the one that protected her. She had been in several foster homes between kindergarten and second grade. Enough to where she was never in one place more than three to four months before being swooped up and moved again. These experiences in early childhood rewired her brain and how she would interact with the world.
Traditional school discipline and approaches to behavior did not work for Sandy, as they tend not to for most frequent flyers. That is why they are still frequent flyers. Sandy was one of the first students were I was able to implement intentional trauma-sensitive interventions in the public school setting. While trauma-sensitive practices are most efficient when school-wide and universal precautions are used with all students at every PBIS tier, this school was not there yet. They were doing the best they could with what they knew at the time.
In my work implementing trauma-sensitive approaches in schools I have found that if you put an emphasis on the core values of safety, trust, choice, collaboration, and empowerment, you cannot go wrong. Creating a relationship-based culture in your classroom or school is very likely to fail if these values are not present. In fact, I would challenge you to find a genuine relationship that lacks in any of these values. Discovering the paper titled Creating Cultures of Trauma-Informed Care was a turning point for me in developing a proactive plan to create trauma-sensitive environments that do not re-victimize students.
You got it, this isn’t on Sandy. She is doing the best she can with what she has been dealt. We have to take a step back and be vulnerable enough to ask ourselves if we are creating the environment and relationships that we say we are. I know we all set out to do this with the best intentions, but do we stick to them when things get difficult? We fall back on what we know in these situations. That’s okay, we can’t change the past and I believe people are doing the best they can with what they have. However, from here on out we have to do what we know is right. Let’s get to it!
Core Values for a Trauma-Informed Care Culture
Fallot and Harris say, “If a program can say that its culture reflects each of these values in each contact, physical setting, relationship, and activity and that this culture is evident in the experiences of staff as well as consumers, then the program’s culture is trauma-informed.” While the language is aimed at mental health settings (as most TIC work has been until recently), you can easily punch the words “school and “student” in for “program” and “consumer.”
I’m going to dig a little deeper into these below, as well as highlighting how these values were represented in the interventions designed for Sandy, and why they were so important. I’m going in order that Fallot and Harris outline the values, but Collaboration is where it really sheds some light.
When we talk about safety we are talking about emotional and psychological safety as well as physical. A good portion of Sandy’s day was spent assessing threat and looking for safety based on her experiences. She was looking for people and places that were safe. Going back to Abraham Maslow’s work, we are not going to get anywhere with this child’s education when she doesn’t even feel safe. Remember, it’s her perception that matters to her.
On a side note from my experience, last year when working on an activity identifying triggers, every student said that yelling was their top trigger. Consider this when using the stern teacher voice. Reel it in a little and be sure you are not the trigger yourself in how you are communicating. I saw this happen with Sandy when a staff yelled at another student in the hallway to stop running. Sandy just heard the volume and started crying. She was in another room under her table at the time.
Sandy identified that going under a table and hiding was a safe place. Since that was not conducive to learning in a class of 20 plus, we worked with Sandy on identifying a place in the room, and outside the room that she felt comfortable going to if she needed. There was also that inevitable battle coming in the door daily that set her up to not feel safe emotionally or physically. We are going to address that in one of the other values, but it makes it a good time to point out that these all work together.
For good reason it was difficult for Sandy to trust people. We have to remember as educators we do not get trust by default, we have to earn it. Especially with children who have experienced terrible things at the hands of the adults that were supposed to protect them from harm. Sandy will not feel safe if she does not trust the people and environment.
In order to gain trust, the people and the environment must be predictable. As adults, we do as we say we are going to do. If we say we will keep the child safe and treat them with dignity and respect, we do that. Every day all day. Our interventions for when things are not going as well have to be in line with this as well. This also speaks to the importance of the approach being school wide, not just with certain adults or classrooms.
Transitions are a very hard time for many students, but especially for students who have experienced complex trauma. For example, Sandy could be in a room she didn’t want be in and with people she may not especially care for, but she still may be apprehensive about leaving. She knows what is with her now, she has assessed the threat. The next transition brings on more unknown. Predictability of people and places will help them develop the trust they need to be successful. How did we do this with Sandy? We did what we said we were going to do, while treating her with dignity and respect. We became people she could trust.
Choice and our next value, collaboration, tie in together. In my experience I have noticed that the more intense challenging behavior gets, the more decisions adults tend to make for the child. I have also noticed that this tends to intensify the challenging behavior. In a trauma-informed approach, we want to embed choice whenever we can. If for no other reason, because this is something that has been stripped from the lives of children who have experienced complex trauma.
Sandy, for example, had been removed from her home and several foster homes. She did not have many belongings. When working in the foster care system I had seen many children with everything they own in a black garbage bag, sometimes not even unpacked. The challenging behavior decreased dramatically when Sandy was simply given choice over where her backpack went every day, and who it was with (trust in person and environment). She was also given the choice of when she could visit that backpack.
One of the main things I have learned from Dr. Ross Greene’s work in Collaborative & Proactive Solutions (CPS) is that the child is your problem solving partner. We spend way too much time as adults coming to solutions that are ill informed because they do not involve the major player in the whole intervention…the child. We MUST involve the child in the planning process to be able to deliver trauma-informed services.
One of the most proactive pieces of work we can do with children is collaborate on what (as well as who and where) makes them feel safe and their triggers. Pair this with our own baseline data that we observe (because they won’t know everything). We should not wait until we see challenging behavior. One, because that isn’t proactive…and two because some of the kids that need our help fall under the radar because they don’t display challenging behavior.
Okay, here is the big AH-HA moment. I hinted at it earlier. Everything that Sandy loved was in that backpack. Bounced around from six foster homes in two years, everything that child had was in that backpack. She never knew when the next move was coming.
Now consider, Safety, Trustworthyness, and Choice up to this point. Sandy would enter the door to school with adults waiting to take her backpack. In her mind she had to take action.
Using Dr. Greene’s CPS approach we were able to identify Sandy’s concerns and collaboratively come to solutions that addressed the concerns of all parties. I’ll tell you what, Sandy had some good ideas and did most of the work. All the adults really had to do was let go of some control because they were reasonably ideas.
Both child and adult concerns were addressed. Sandy felt safe entering the door and knew her backpack was going to go to my room, where she chose. The adults concerns were addressed by the backpack not being a distraction to her or her classmates learning.
To what extent do our activities and setting provide opportunity for skill building and the opportunity to practice those skills? How often to we give children a chance to practice those things we tell them they need to be doing…and hopefully have been teaching them? See below how Sandy was given an opportunity to practice.
Solution: In the morning Sandy would bring her backpack to my room and it would be kept on a shelf safe from everyone. She could visit and check on it when she felt she needed to. Sandy picked the room and the place.
Sandy knew that she was going to enter the building without having to protect her bag, and there would be no tug-of-war. From the start of the day she is set up to be emotionally and physically safer. She is able to check on her bag whenever she wants. Trust is established and maintained with the predictability of adults and environment. We do what we say we are going to do. If she wants to check on that bag, she can (she rarely asked). She had already established trust with myself, hence the choice for me to be the keeper of the bag. It also enhanced trust with those other adults she perceived were trying to come between her and the bag.
Using the Collaborative & Proactive Solutions model, choice and collaboration led to problem solving. Sandy was a HUGE part of the problem solving team here and actually came up with the reasonable solutions. She was given the opportunity to practice skills by taking the bag across the building every morning, as well as practice problem solving skills in the conversations of the CPS approach. Empowerment!
Use these Core Values for a Trauma-Informed Culture Now
We fall back on what we know. Once we know better, we have to do it the right way. If we take a step back and take focus off of compliance and put it on cooperation, the solutions are not far away. Focusing on these five values in your classroom and school will enhance relationships and create environments where kids will know they are safe and not viewed as a problem, they are a part of the solution. A place where their perspectives are seen as valuable and the people in the environment are there to help. Partners.
If you are embarking on your own in your school, I applaud you! I will warn you though that even though these interventions will help your student feel safe, de-escalate, and regulate in your environment, if the other environments (areas or people in the school) do not use the same approach, this inconsistency will thwart your efforts and the educational experience of the student. In the excellent resource titled Helping Traumatized Children Learn it is pointed out that, “it is critical that children feel safe and connected to others in parts of the school, not in just one program or with one teacher.” Sandy felt these values from some people. It wasn’t until she felt them from all that progress was made.
Something that is important to note with these values. When done with fidelity, a trauma-informed approach is emphasized for all, including staff. We will touch more on that in future posts.
If you find that an emphasis on these values will help a teacher or child you know, please share this!
Thank you for what you do!
Other works mentioned to check out:
Creating Cultures of Trauma-Informed Care (CCTIC): A Self-Assessment and Planning Protocol by Roger D. Fallot Ph.D. & Maxine Harris Ph.D.