Trauma is Messy

I will always remember the day that, as a student teacher, I watched as a student entered my second-grade room covered in blood.  After quickly establishing that he was not injured, we learned that the blood was that of his brother who had been shot the night before.  No parents were around that night, so this second grader became the sole caregiver of his bleeding brother. My student would never be the same.  We didn’t care about grades or test scores. We just knew that this moment would define him forever and reminded us why we were in the classroom to begin with.

Years later, as I began a year of action research with CTEPS, Classroom Teachers Enacting Positive Solutions,  I didn't know that I would be embarking upon a journey that would lead me through the frayed tapestry of trauma, specifically the physiological and psychological effects of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). As I began implementing my research-based strategies, I realized something.  Trauma is Messy. It finds itself within the category of “Unpredictable Moving Targets.”  Although I wouldn’t wager a true 'daily double,’ I am finding myself more comfortable climbing these canyon walls that offer slippery slopes and limited secure footholds.

Initially, I had a simple question. What if our students dealing with the effects of childhood trauma could learn in an environment constructed to meet their needs?  You see, the more you dig into the causes and effects of ACEs, the more you see that a host of variables affect the biology, physiology, and psychology of a person.  

In general, here is what scientific research tells us. A person with 4 or more ACEs is 2.2 times as likely to have heart disease, 2.4 times as likely to have a stroke, 1.9 times as likely to have cancer, and 1.6 times as likely to have diabetes. They are also more likely to engage in risky behavior as they grow up, such as drug usage, and their trauma is likely to present itself in the form of physical ailments such asheart disease, stroke, and obesity.

Now what?  I made the bold proclamation that “By May of 2019, 80% of  targeted students will implement strategies to navigate through the academic-based negative effects of their adverse childhood experiences.” I continued with all that I knew to be appropriate practices when interacting with my students who have experienced trauma.  Even though I couldn’t quickly get the clearance to have our families complete surveys identifying a number of adverse experiences, I knew of many situations already: divorce, death of siblings, leaving the home country due to war and religious persecution, alcohol and drug abuse in the home, incarcerated family members, under-nourishment, abandonment, and more.  So, I made the daily effort to check in with my ACEs kids. I encouraged alternative workspaces within the classroom, assigned menus to be completed in students’ preferred order, led regular mindfulness activities, hosted morning meetings about healthy self-talk and setting goals, in addition to anything else I thought would encourage and motivate these learners to succeed.

As I tackled the needs of my students, my action plan took a 3-fold approach.  First, I worked to support physical needs linked to learning readiness by incorporating many movement breaks into my instructional day.  These breaks included simple stand up and stretch breaks, jumping jacks, 30-second dance parties, or something random, like taking 76 steps around the room, which we did as we were learning about the date of the writing of the Declaration of Independence. When we were about to complete an assignment that would take some time, I modeled how to move and stretch without leaving the task or bothering a neighbor.

To create supportive physical spaces, I offered choices as to where certain students wanted to sit.  Some preferred tables, and interestingly, many of my ‘target’ students preferred a private desk. As the year progressed, I understood that very few of my students “own” anything.  Thus their increased need for personal desk space, cubby space, and a little floor space near the desk to take off their shoes while working. Also, when a student needed some time to de-escalate or overcome a stressful moment, they knew to go to the carpeted reading area, ask to get some water, or even ask if they could work at my desk.  

Finally, to increase academic and relational confidence, I started each day greeting each student by name as they entered, asking about their morning, the night before, their weekend, their ball game, their family, etc.  As they got used to this, they would often tell me all the news before I had a chance to ask them about it. Also, they started to feel confident enough to ask me about my day, my family, my interests, and even what challenges I’m experiencing as a teacher.  As we prepared for unit tests or MAP (Measures of Academic Progress) testing, I set goals with my students and we planned out how to tackle an upcoming assessment and truly show what we know. For kids in trauma, “big” tests are often a trigger for anxiety and toxic stress.  As my students got into the habit of planning for success, engaging in mindful breathing activities when needed, they were overwhelmingly successful at meeting their growth goals, continuing the cycle of increased academic confidence. Over 75% of my targeted students, many of those with multiple ACEs, met or exceeded their MAP goals, with several achieving multi-year gains!

I’ve seen that in order to actually see success anywhere close my lofty 80% goal, I must see myself as the proverbial farmer scattering seeds. You can’t plan on just planting one seed, believing it will take root and prosper within the season.  You have to scatter many seeds in as many places as possible. Many seeds will fall on places where little, if any, growth will occur. Thankfully, this story is redemptive, and some seeds fall on good soil, producing a crop that yields many times over what has been sown into it.  This paraphrase of a sacred text speaks to education today, specifically dealing with students who have experienced early trauma. Sometimes, my goals aren’t met. Many days, I have at least one student who is not happy that I’m trying to reach them. Yet, even then, I see growth.  Growth speaks of action that yields results, large or small.

Trauma is messy, and the results of working with students with ACEs are, at best, unpredictable.  You will make mistakes.  Fail forward. You will face mountains.  Climb them.  In all things, embrace what can be embraced, and know that the work is not in vain.

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Thank you, Jon.

This article is so inspiring.  I am sharing it as widely as I can on social media and sending it to teacher friends who are so desperate to help their kids succeed.

I love how you have let the students work, as best you can, at their own pace and space. Kids are rushed so much, and every experience of being rushed is a little reminder that they aren't fast enough; good enough. Allowing choices takes a little pressure off. A little pressure relief in the form of movement from one work space to another may be all it takes to help a child's brain go back "online" so he or she can learn.

Dr. Felitti's idea of incorporating theater is one that could make a tremendous difference.  Students can act out some of their truths and fears in a safe place and see that they are not alone. They can create fantasies and positive experiences. Memories of positive experiences in the classroom are healing and encouraging.  For traumatized kids to have a chance to step outside of themselves and CREATE another world, even for a few moments, lets them glimpse the power of imagination and dreaming. How cool is that?! 

The arts hold a powerful key to helping us expand the ACEs Movement. It would be wonderful to see art these children create - art about the friendships they've formed this year, the fun they've had, or whatever! And it would be wonderful if you would share some of that art here, as an end-of-year celebration. Perhaps the kids could even see a photo of their exhibit in a blog post. It's a thought. 

Thanks again for sharing!

As a teacher, keep in mind the great potential role of Theatre as enabling people to speak about the unspeakable:  "Hey, I'm not talking about me! We're talking about what's up there on the stage."  

So, what if you were to ask a class if they've ever written a play.  No?  "So let's write a play today.  Let's write a play, Hmm, let's write a play about someone who's growing up in a house where someone's getting hurt.  What's his or her name?  And where's the house: In town or out in the country?  And who lives there?  What are their names?  And what are they like?" etc.  Parents with reason to complain can readily be fended off with the explanation that the children are not talking about themselves.  They're learning how to write a play,  make-believe!"  

For many children, it may be their first experience of success.

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