Understanding why you might not want to hold your breath for Trauma Informed Care in public school education

Laurie Belanger LCSWR here, taking a shot at putting down some words today that are likely not going to make everyone very happy. In this blogging adventure, I have thus far been focused on “what makes a healthy human”, partly as a reminder project for my own personal well-being (I am a trauma therapist who is dedicated to not burning out) and partly to stretch myself by writing and sharing with others about issues that affect “healthy human” functioning. 

Believe it or not then, I am not off topic. Today I am going to share with you some of my thoughts about how the education of children is handled in the United States and why moving towards a Trauma Informed Care model is not as simple as schools deciding to sign up for the latest training. This comes from a therapist who offers such trainings and heavily promotes larger organizations weighing in with huge programs dedicated to this endeavor. I hesitated in writing about this topic because I do not want to discourage the very good efforts and interest in Trauma Informed Care that some working in public education are putting forward.  So why would I write a piece that sounds like such a downer when I actively pursue working with school districts to encourage these interests and efforts?

 Well, I am a Victor Frankel style optimist, squarely finding my strength to move forward with daunting tasks by exercising “tragic optimism”.  I believe that it is essential to acknowledge the obstacles you face if you are going to put the hard work in to make positive and lasting change. No Toxic Positivity in this post! I refuse to blow sunshine and rainbows about Trauma Informed Care (TIC) models because I actually want them to have a shot at succeeding. That means getting real about why this is going to be a long, difficult journey for the education system and the people who have dedicated their careers to bringing TIC to it. 

Let’s start by what I mean when I say Trauma Informed Care. According to SAMSHA, “A program, organization, or system that is trauma-informed realizes the widespread impact of trauma and understands potential paths for recovery; recognizes the signs and symptoms of trauma in clients, families, staff, and others involved with the system; and responds by fully integrating knowledge about trauma into policies, procedures, and practices, and seeks to actively resist re-traumatization.” Therefore, in order for Trauma Informed Care to truly take off in public school education, the 

1) culture of schools (which even influences how the buildings themselves were designed), and the 2) individual beliefs about what it takes to educate children of all ages, backgrounds, and experiences

would need to be deeply challenged; even rewritten entirely. 

Trauma Informed Care then is NOT a training, or even a series of in-depth trainings; it is an enormous culture and thinking shift that changes the way we approach EVERYTHING about how we interact with both the children and adults in our lives. Through this updated lens, much of what schools do on an everyday basis in 2023 makes no sense and can sometimes even be understood to be harmful to children. Do you really want to try and explain this to professionals who have dedicated their lives to helping children grow and learn? Try selling that to a school district near you and see who calls you back.

When I think about all that I have learned over the last 20-30 years about what it takes to build an emotionally well adjusted, resilient and secure child into an adult, I realize that much of what I have come to understand was presented to me in reverse. No one really teaches this in that way, at least not that I have seen. For myself; not in college as a psychology student, not in graduate school for social work, or in the non-stop continuing education of my professional career as a trauma therapist. What was taught was from the other direction; what can go wrong, how to identify difficulties, disorders, deficits, etc. , and then how to effectively help people build skills, coping strategies, process experiences physically and emotionally, reframe ideas, mend and progress towards healing. None of that is bad, isn’t it just interesting how it starts at the wrong end. If the focus has always been on correction or healing, where is the template for ideal growth? There are courses of course in child development where you can learn much of this. I’ve taken many. Yet, the majority of education about both mental health and diversity in education relating to children focuses on correction when things go badly. It’s reactive, not proactive.

Our culture has a tendency to be reactive and to pathologize or box ideas into silos of expertise. You can see this almost everywhere. In medicine, do you have a problem with your digestion? See a gastroenterologist. Knee pain? See your orthopedic MD. In mental health; experiencing symptoms of OCD? ADHD? An Eating Disorder? There is a specialist for that. Even in children’s sports, specialization is king. In my local area, a kid can not just decide to try playing soccer or basketball in High School. They need to be playing competitively in elementary school age leagues to even have a chance at participating in High School. Our culture just isn’t about general understanding and general growth. People seem to be out there looking to become highly defined experts at everything. This celebration of excellence in very specific spaces doesn’t exactly encourage a population to value well rounded, big picture understandings.

One of the many consequences of this cultural tendency are institutions like our medical care facilities and our school districts developing a too narrow focus, before generally taking in and appreciating a larger whole person/whole systems view. 

Unfortunately, it is this way of looking at difficulties that often falls flat when you enter the land of Trauma Informed Care. (I am not going to address the field of medicine, but please feel free to do so yourself and you’ll have my enthusiastic support). Trauma education asks you to take several steps back, to widen your focus instead of narrowing it. You are asked to look at the whole person; at neurological and physiological child development, at the context of family, community, and experiences (both positive and adverse). There is a fundamental need to go back to basics and question all assumptions at their roots. Trauma education doesn’t zero in on “behaviors” and “diagnosis”. Instead, it asks us to develop our sense of curiosity about the meanings and functioning beneath behaviors. There is no, “it’s just behavioral” possible in this context, a phrase I have heard all too often when initially communicating with a school for a child client . Developing a deeper understanding of what supports the barriers to learning is expected. Gone are the straightforward and convenient checkboxes for clearly written behavioral goals.

Are you beginning to see the difficulty inherent here? Public Schools in the U.S. are generally built on a model that depends heavily on clear and measurable outcomes. Behaviors are easy to track. Our educational institutions are not built to encourage deeper understanding or creative adjustment to individual students. The student is meant to fit (or be assisted to fit) into a prefabricated system; the system is not designed to adapt to fit unique human experiences or differences. To illustrate this, look at how the educators themselves are not always trusted as professionals would expect in other fields. We are talking about a group of professionals, many with masters or even doctoral degrees, that do not have control over when they can use vacation time or even leave the room to use a bathroom. How are Trauma Educators expecting these same professionals to be more creative or integrative in their approaches when the institution that employs them does not demonstrate trust in them to manage their own time independently? Also, notice this: educators’ own professional performance is not going to be judged by how well they connect with students, or reduce barriers to learning by increasing felt safety in the classroom. Their performance will be based out of a play book that was designed by someone else far away. It will all come down to numbers on exams that were also designed by someone far away, with no understanding of the unique group of young humans any individual educator is tasked with teaching. Everything must be out of a playbook and be “evidence based”.

Now, I do not have a beef with initiatives being “evidence based”. This means something has been under some professional scrutiny and there is evidence in peer reviewed research for its efficacy. This is a good thing, as we don’t want educators teaching math by osmosis or something silly like that. Great. Except…..let’s jump back to my field for a moment to illustrate why this can be a problem.

For example, what if you were to have a therapist that just follows the original EMDR manuals from their initial training in EMDR Therapy…follows a script, and tries basic protocol with a complex trauma case? As an experienced Certified EMDR Consultant, I can tell you it is likely to go badly. EMDR is a powerful therapy modality. It is heavily researched and evidence based. Yet, EMDR is not a tool and ought not be applied as such. This is actually very important and not necessarily commonly understood, even in the general therapy community so I will say it again.  EMDR is not a tool and ought not be applied as such. Like any therapy modality, there are nuances and higher levels of mastery. There is a very good reason that EMDRIA (The EMDR International Association), has a process for certification beyond initial training. They also have a process for approving those qualified to offer consultation and training to assist less experienced EMDR therapists in their understanding and use of the modality. Experienced EMDR therapists often weave in other therapy modalities for complex trauma to improve safety and efficacy. If you have read any of my previous posts, you’ll know this about me already. I am a master generalist therapist. This means I utilize evidence based therapy modalities that I have a deep understanding of, and I creatively adapt and integrate multiple modalities in order to meet my clients’ unique needs. This flexibility, creativity, and willingness to lean into an individual’s discernment is the essence of a trauma model and exactly why bringing Trauma Informed Care into our current school systems is so difficult. In the land of Trauma Informed Care it is a given that people will not always fit into a preconceived system/protocol and that it would not be appropriate, might even be disastrous to try it that way. 

So, our public schools are bound to struggle. How much room do they give teachers to alter how material is taught currently? How much support? To control how a class day is structured, how much outdoor play is essential…….? Here is the crux of it. Educators have been passed down a system that looks like a spreadsheet….and trauma educators are handing them large paint brushes and colorful paint to use to fill it in. Can we really blame them for balking?  

What’s needed is a trip back to basics, to the assumptions we make about the whys, the meanings involved in child behavior in classrooms. This likely means redesigning the education system from the ground up, buildings and all. I am not certain there is any other way for advancement to happen on a large scale and in a meaningful, sustainable way. People talk about change all the time. In therapy, people come into my office saying they want to make changes. Yet I can tell you that people will also resist the unknown, even if it is what they say they are wanting. Change is scary and most people do not make major changes until they have a crisis at hand or a very large basis of support and encouragement. So we ought not expect that the US education system, a system built by and maintained by people, will change so dramatically without resistance, no matter what the science says about learning and trauma.

If I am sounding radical or pessimistic to you as you read this, please take a moment to examine the assumptions and beliefs you hold about children and the education system. Are you a mental health professional who thinks I am being too negative, underestimating the possibility of change? Are you an educator or school administrator who thinks this might just be another fad in training and that I am overestimating what needs to change? Are you unintentionally perpetuating a harmful system? Is that too harsh? Maybe. Watching children be disciplined by well meaning adults for their disabilities and trauma responses outside of their control makes me cranky. So please, dislike me if you must, but first take a minute to be gentle and curious with your own castle of ideas. None of us, myself included, has this all figured out yet. Questioning is important.

Ok, now that I have some of you good and mad at me, let’s go ahead and be truly radical. Here’s my truth after 20+ years in the field working with both children and adults in trauma therapy, consulting with schools, collaborating with professionals dedicated to healing and education. Take it for what it’s worth.

1) There is no such thing as a bad child. There is only emotional dysregulation, unmet needs, a lack of felt safety, inability to perform the task requested, or a lack of understanding. Let me say it again, there is NO SUCH THING as a bad child. I do not care what the behavior is; hitting, biting, lying, throwing furniture, etc. If it has gotten to this point in a classroom, there have been multiple failures on the school’s end in understanding and meeting the needs of the student. Severe (and even minor) dysregulation doesn’t come out of nowhere. This is NOT saying that a school even had what they needed to meet the needs of such dysregulated students in the first place. Remember the spreadsheet. It is only that the lack of resources needs to be seen as a lack by the school system, not blaming the child for an inability to thrive in an under-resourced environment.

2) Children do not “just act up”,  and “there was no trigger” is not an answer. Shaming is outdated and inappropriate for any child (whether they have an IEP (Individualized Education Plan) or 504 in class or not, regular placement or advanced placement classes) as a correction to unwanted behavior. Yet it happens every day in the very best public schools we have in this country.

People might think I am attacking educators here. I’m not. Some of my favorite people are teachers and my heart breaks for them. Honestly, I could not handle their jobs. There is such a lack of respect for how much time and love they put into their role as educators. The public often seems to believe that teaching jobs are easy and overpaid, when in reality most are overworked and underpaid. Teacher burnout is real. As a society we are in serious trouble if something doesn’t change in the next decade or so. Who wants to go get a masters degree, take work home every night, and then be micromanaged around pee breaks, curriculum decisions, and vacations? And now we are going to ask these same educators to change how they manage dysregulated children? With what support? Trauma Informed Care is not something individual educators can realistically employ consistently without the full support of their administrators. This is a systemic problem. When I do training in my local schools I use this phrase, “Not another binder”, when referring to Trauma Sensitive instruction. These are not trainings that ought to be shelved on a bookcase with last year’s “hot topic in continuing education“, seen as something individual educators might use to enhance their teaching if they find the time to incorporate it. If Trauma Informed Care is only taken in by the education system in that way, this is only going to result in more teachers feeling discouraged and burned out.

I’d like to share with you an example of what I mean by Trauma Sensitive instruction vs traditional classroom methods for gaining cooperation from students in the classroom. Currently, there are some very loving and dedicated teachers following an old playbook that does things they do not intend. Again, it becomes about returning to the basics. Is what we are doing accomplishing what we think it is accomplishing? For example, I once gave a presentation on Trauma Informed Care principles to a group of Occupational Therapists that primarily work in school settings with special needs students. During this presentation I explained how the “red light, yellow light, green light charts” are shaming tools for compliance, not teaching tools. They were confused. Some even argued with me. Let me unpack this one for you. There is a vertical behavior line chart in the front of the class. Green is at the top and means your behavior is on task, under this is yellow “needed reminders or corrections”, and lastly red “needed many reminders or corrections, lost privileges and parents will be called”. Each child has a clip with their name printed on it. Everyone starts the day on Green. You only have one direction to go. When a child needs to be corrected or is caught in “off task” behavior, they are told to go to the front of the class and move their name clip down…..in front of all their peers. These charts are still in use in my area of WNY today. I’ve seen them and had talks with well meaning teachers about them. Some teachers have added other colors above the green, “purple for outstanding behavior” etc. It does not stop the main motivating factor from being shame based. 

This is bad for any child, however it is especially damaging for children coping with learning differences, mental health issues, and trauma backgrounds. The message of this tool is that compliance makes you good, failing (even if you are confused, upset, or feeling unsafe and unable) makes you bad and in trouble. The children themselves end up reinforcing this idea. I have heard elementary age children say, “oh, he’s a bad kid, he’s always on red”.

If you are wondering, ok…this is not a great way to manage behavior in a classroom, but what then what are teachers supposed to use instead? Glad you asked. The Alert Program came out with this great little device called the Engine Dial. https://www.alertprogram.com/brief-overview-of-the-alert-program-for-parents/

Instead of focusing on behavior, the Engine Dial is teaching children (and the teacher) how to identify hyperarousal and hypoarousal in a child’s nervous system….and then teaches developmentally appropriate responses. Children learn to check in with their bodies and their emotions when prompted by a teacher (perhaps in response to a little off task behavior). The child learns to recognize  when they are “too high” or “too low” and develops tools to help bring them back into a “ready to learn” body/brain state. Too high isn’t “bad”, and too low isn’t “bad”, it’s just our nervous system having a need. As our educators and our students learn to identify these needs and respond to them appropriately we get…..SEL(social emotional learning) at its finest! 

This one change, from the Red/Yellow/Green clip chart to the more trauma sensitive Engine Dial seems pretty straightforward, doesn’t it? It doesn’t require any expensive supplies, it doesn’t take more time to use, and the education required to learn how to use it in a classroom is pretty simple. Maybe it’s just cutting edge, really new? Nope. Guess how long the Engine Dial and the Alert Program have been available. 1990. Yup, this great little resource is not new….yet it is new to just about every classroom I encounter. Why? Why am I still finding Red/Yellow/Green clip charts and behavior logs everywhere? 

Here’s my hard 3rd truth: The US public education system still, perhaps unintentionally,  supports the outdated idea that behavior ought to be shaped through control, shame, and compliance driven methods. There is an underlying belief that non-compliant student behavior is willful, not underskilled, under-resourced, fear-based, or inappropriate for the child’s development/ neurodiverse brain. It is this basic disconnect that causes the most harm to students. And while the focus is on students coping with learning differences, mental health issues, and traumatic experiences (including racism, neglect, abuse, deaths, etc), it needs to be widely understood that ALL students are negatively impacted by this disconnect. 

In summary, we have a long way to go before Trauma Informed Care becomes realistic for most public schools in the US. It is not impossible, just bigger and more systemic than might be widely understood. Hopefully, my blog has gotten you thinking about where you might fit in your own talents with this big change going forward. What’s that saying? “Many hands make light work?” Tragic Optimist here. If we really want to see this happen in our lifetime, Trauma Therapists like myself need to look at creative ways to help school districts to learn this material. Administrators need to deeply understand the difference between Trauma Sensitive support for educators and Trauma Informed Care, which means a big commitment to culture change. They also need the support of the mental health community when they do “buy in”, because administrators answer to their State Education Departments. If systemic change is going to happen, we are going to need some savvy Trauma Informed Macro Social Workers to take up the gauntlet and help. And remember in the beginning I mentioned the large organizations and thought leaders that are already out there? We need to get their names, books, web sites, etc to every school contact you know. If this is starting to sound like a call to arms, well, it sort of is. Folks, the house is on fire, the kids are inside, and the people who seem to know what to do don’t have the keys. We are running out of time. 

If you read this blog all the way to the end, you likely care about this issue and want to help as well. Thank you (for your patience with my rambling writing style and for your dedication to helping students). Every blog I try to end with at least three practical resources to encourage you.

Here are some favorite resources for Trauma Informed Care in Schools. Look up: Lori L. DsSautels, PH.D https://revelationsineducation.com/. Dr. DeSautels is one of my favorite authors on this subject. She provides very practical, evidence backed changes that can be made, even within the public school systems that we have in place today. I also recently learned some amazing insights from Dr. Niki Elliott, PhD about diversity, equity, and inclusion (which by the way is all deeply connected to TIC). The Polyvagal Institute is also an excellent resource for learning all about how human beings manage adverse experiences physiologically and how this impacts how we all learn. https://www.polyvagalinstitute.org/items/embodied-equity%3A-a-polyvagal-informed-certificate-for-educators-%26-helping-professionals. Lastly, I’d encourage you to check out TCU’s Karyn Purvis Institute of Child Development for TBRI training for schools. TBRI (Trust Based Relational Interventions) was my first introduction to a more embodied understanding of children. They have been a valuable resource to me throughout the years as I have grown as a therapist and trauma educator. https://child.tcu.edu/tbritic/#sthash.KprG3kcP.dpbs.

Thank you again for taking some of your valuable time to read about my latest thoughts about being healthy humans! Sharing this with you is part of what helps me hang in there and not burn out myself. I appreciate you! Please feel free to provide feedback (with kindness) through my website at http://www.grow-with-that.org.

Published by Laurie Belanger LCSWR

Trauma Therapist, EMDR Consultant, and Trauma Educator.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: