Schools That Separate the Child from the Trauma

The New York Times, November 13, 2013


Excerpt from Article by David Bornstein

…Across the country, in Brockton, Mass., just south of Boston, the process and experience have been similar. Six years ago at the Angelo Elementary School, the principal Ryan Powers and the assistant principal Elizabeth Barry connected with the Trauma and Learning Policy Initiative (T.L.P.I.), a collaboration of Massachusetts Advocates for Children and Harvard Law School, to learn how they could improve their interactions with students. They encouraged teachers to read T.L.P.I.’s book “Helping Traumatized Children Learn,” which has been downloaded 50,000 times. (The follow-up book, “Creating and Advocating for Trauma-Sensitive Schools,” is being released this week.)

Powers began by organizing a Saturday workshop so the school staff could learn about childhood trauma. One of the presenters was Edward G. Jacoubs, from the Plymouth County district attorney’s office. “There was a jaw dropping moment when Ed overlayed the map of the Brockton School District with maps of gun violence and drug offenses,” recalled Powers. “Everyone realized, ‘Wow, this is what our kids are seeing,’ and the staff asked, ‘What can we do?’”

They formed a team, dove into the research, assessed their current responses, and began implementing changes in line with the recommendations. “We created choices in the classroom for kids if they felt their emotions were starting to get the best of them,” Powers said. “They could put on headphones, listen to some classical music, sit on a bean bag chair, take a break, go for a walk.” Teachers started paying more attention to the way they spoke to children. They began the day by greeting every child — by name or a handshake or a touch on the shoulder. They made the first morning session to be about about community building. They made efforts to reduce the number of transitions and communicate clearly, so changes would be predictable.

“This is about changing the whole school environment,” explained Susan Cole, a former special education teacher who directs the Trauma and Learning Policy Initiative. “You can have a great trauma-sensitive classroom, but if the child goes into the hall or cafeteria and gets yelled at, he can get retriggered. It’s about creating a common context that keeps kids feeling safe.”

It’s also about helping teachers to understand the learning obstacles faced by children who have experienced severe stress. “When you come from a home that is very disorganized, sequence and cause and effect can be thrown off,” explained Cole. “This affects language development, memory and concentration. When teachers recognize this, it comes as a relief. Finally the scientists are explaining what they’ve seen firsthand! But it’s also a tender moment. The question is: ‘What do I do?’”…

Read the full New York Times article here


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