Why Trauma Informed Teaching Matters

https://www.edutopia.org/article/how-and-why-trauma-informed-teaching

Imagine a young girl entering first grade.  She had just taken the state’s Mental Ability Test and scored “High above average” in every subject area – with the highest marks in reading and problem solving. Her reading level was on a third grade level in September of first grade.  School was magical, enchanting, and satisfied a hunger to learn.  Best of all, walking in through the school doors felt like jumping into the arms of someone you love, a familiar and safe place where adults were stable – or supposed to be.

However, her teacher could not get her to focus during class. Her desk would often be put off to the side so as to not distract anyone.  On her report card, her teacher wrote that she “was very noisy and constantly wants attention. She refuses to put effort into her work.” Her report cards were Cs and Bs at best – this child, who was brilliant in every way.  A trauma informed teacher may have seen she wasn’t being challenged.  Yet this teacher could have called home to communicate with the mother who would have told her that her child read books for hours, brilliant and focused. The teacher might have also found out that suddenly her child is wetting the bed and the mom seemed limited in her support for her child as her own mental health was poor. A trauma informed teacher may have paid closer attention to other signs. The student’s constant need for attention and validation.  High intelligence yet low performance and poor concentration. That child was lacking something.  Luckily the gifted and talented program scooped her up and under the care of a loving teacher for three years that student thrived; despite being sexually abused by her stepbrother and step father at home.

This intelligent little girl still performed well in school until a big middle school move.  She was leaving the city for a better life upstate, as her mom put it. And it was, for a while.  She had amazing sixth grade teachers that gave school a new magic.  They were warm, caring, and passionate about what they taught. This student imagined herself becoming this kind of teacher. It was then she first began to write more frequently, and a fire was lit.  But it wasn’t enough to heal the trauma – it was a Band-Aid.  And at the end of  6th grade her stepmother, whom she was closer to than her own mother at the time, was diagnosed with breast cancer.  A trauma informed teacher might have asked this student why her writing turned from such positive things to dark, dark things. A trauma informed teacher might have offered the right language to express herself instead of holding things inside. A trauma informed school may have offered that family the resources to cope, because they lacked them for several reasons.

And eventually that caught up.  The childhood sexual abuse that only stopped a year prior to the move and had consumed her elementary days begin to creep out at this age. It often does in grades 7-12.  When puberty hits it changes the body, and the body remembers what was done to it. Teen angst is one thing, but this girl was headed somewhere else.

So in shop class, she decided to use an exacto knife to cut herself.  Another student saw, and responsibly told the counselor.  The response? A parent meeting of course – in which they told the student’s mother that she will be suspended for this kind of “attention seeking behavior.”  A trauma informed school would have offered resources for counseling, knowing self-harm is not attention seeking behavior – it’s a desperate attempt the brain and body does to regulate extreme emotions.  A trauma informed school would recognize that despite being a high school dropout her mother trying her best to understand what was happening with her daughter, yet needed adequate resources to be educated on the topic. A trauma informed school would have recognized the cultural weight added to this situation, as she was one of few Hispanic students in a predominantly white school. That culture has a large part of it, because mental health is rarely talked about in communities of color. A trauma informed school would have offered help to find treatment, or ask how to help. Offer in school counseling. Instead, all this student could think of that if she is suspended she would miss the poetry unit in her ELA class. Having self-harmed, she felt hopeless – so that night she went home and took an entire bottle of pills. 

This was just the first time. Eleven years old.

It’s easy to give up on a kid like this – she seemed hopeless. But the perfectionist in her and the part that likes to make things better made it better, and she made the honor roll in 7th and 8th grade.

Until a few months before the end of 8th grade, when she stopped working completely.  When confronted by her teachers, she told them she wanted to be taken out of honors classes – no reason given. This student with straight As. A trauma informed teacher would have looked into what was wrong.  Instead the student was met with “what’s wrong with you! You’re wasting potential and going to get nowhere being lazy!”  A trauma informed teacher would have been alarmed that this bright student came to a full stop. That kind of teacher would have called home, or even asked – to know her stepmother was months away from dying. A trauma informed teacher would have tapped on the shoulder of this girl when she started falling asleep in class – if that teacher had, they might have noticed this student was not in fact lazy, but grieving, abusing substances, and sleeping it off in class. Drinking that started at age 11.  This child was days away from another break.  And as her stepfather became abusive again, she tried once more – she took a bottle of pills again. EMTs came and gave her the charcoal to drink. But she was not admitted, luckily, due to the pleas of her mother who had the paperwork to show her daughter was already being treated by some cheap ass bottom of the only 10 sessions covered by insurance barrel pick of therapists. The mother knew to downplay how many pills it was, because the hospital is a terrible place for a psych patient. The bipolar diagnosis was kept a secret to keep her home. School was just ending so the family faced this alone, and eventually, the student healed.

9th grade. This student found the thing that revived her soul – running cross country.  High school brought with it the promise of a fresh start.  Freshman often come into high school wanting to leave the angst of middle school behind.

Unfortunately it was in the middle of the cross country season that this student’s beloved stepmother lost her battle to breast cancer. Every race she ran she ran with the intensity to cope, to feel alive or somehow bring her back, because many things were starting to catch up.  They often do at this age.  And when the season ended she didn’t have any other coping mechanisms  – where would she have learned them? Instead there were the easy things to turn to. Smoking. Drinking. Self-harm until she could no longer wear short sleeves. The only times of light and her grades the highest were during those cross country seasons. Since they occurred at the beginning of the year, after the season was over she’d collapse again and teachers would write her off as lazy.  A trauma informed teacher might have noticed she was cycling in her bipolar.

Junior year she ran away when the stepfather’s abuse started again and lost contact with her mother for years to follow as a result.  Back to the Bronx, motherless, with her dad who, though loving, was very absent from grieving the death of his wife.  Lehman High School was great because she could slip out unnoticed, and she stopped going to classes entirely – except the English ones. Of course. She loved to write and it gave her life and hope. One of few things. But it was so easy to cut class and drink in the cemetery. Kids make mistakes, they do.  But this girl was on antidepressants and antipsychotics – which means mixing that with alcohol intensifies the effects and worsens the illness.  This student had trauma + multiple mental illnesses.  With a history of suicide the family never disclosed to the schools.  So when she skipped class more and more two weeks into her new school and no one called home to tell her father, she worsened.  Until the day she broke again, and once more, once more – this time she took all of her pills.  Every bottle.  She self-harmed and had alcohol poisoning too.  Yet something in her cried for help and she handed her father her empty pill bottles and said – “I did it again” before going to lay down in her bed. Her aunt was screaming in the background – how could you do this to us? Us??? The girl closed her eyes and waited for her father to drive her to the hospital.  There was no choice this time.  Though he too, told her to tell them she took less pills than she really did. He said otherwise she’d get lost to the system and he won’t get her back. 

Here’s the thing about hospitals and psych patients.  It’s not helpful often.  Oftentimes it is a bigger trauma in itself.  Mental Illness gets pushed to the side, literally – this young girl was sitting in the back of the ER for 3 days before she was even seen by a psychologist.  A 16 year old girl who tried to commit suicide for the third time had to wait three. Whole. Days. To be seen.

This was just the first time. Eleven years old.

She was sent to Four Winds Hospital for a few weeks. The hospital is restrictive, jail like, with a “calm room” which is just an empty room they medicate you before tossing you in – their solution to meltdowns.  They wouldn’t allow her to have a pen because of self-harm – so how could she write? That was her one outlet. Only during “school hours” and someone had to watch her use it.  School is offered in the hospital for youth, yes. But here’s the thing teachers – when you send your work to these places, kids don’t often get them. The delays are enormous and instead of therapy OR learning time this child sat in a room without purpose. By the time this child left the hospital and the work came she returned to regular school.  Every teacher was frustrated she was so behind.  “I sent the work!” they fussed.  One math teacher would let her sleep through the bell. A trauma informed teacher would have known her new medication made her very sedated and she needed a reassuring tap to wake up. A trauma informed teacher knows that a child with trauma has trouble concentrating or retaining information. Being a borderline personality, this student would disassociate in stressful situations, and math class was her trigger. A trauma informed teacher may not have known a math teacher upstate expressed racism towards her and that was why math was a trigger – but a trauma informed teacher is patient regardless of knowing why, because there’s many reasons why our kids can’t focus and though we may not know those reasons our patience must be consistent. A trauma informed teacher models how to communicate what’s going on inside so that maybe a child can eventually cope in the healthy way, and you will see that child improve.

There is always a light, always.

🥀 🌹

It felt like school lost that magic for her. It was her safe place when home wasn’t. Some teachers ruined that. However there were many many others that carried her through in the past. But in that moment returning to school after the hospital, she lost hope again.  But one. This one. One teacher signed her hospital note, looked up and smiled and said “I am so glad you’re back.  The first pieces you wrote were so incredible.” And for the first time this girl felt seen. Heard. Noticed.  She was seen for a talent, as a person, and not a problem kid. From then she attended his writing class every day.  And eventually all her other classes. And in his class he would read to the students from his memoir and she was mesmerized – he shared how his mother was bipolar and growing up with a big family in the Bronx. How his father was murdered by burning in a car drunkenly passed out. He would tell such stories with eloquence and beauty, learning new words and soaking knowledge but absorbing something else that can’t be taught.  And he was the first person this girl spilled her guts to, and for the first time in her life, told someone about the sexual abuse.  And then she wrote about it – and she began to heal.

Senior year she had his class again, and they teamed up to create a literary magazine. A publication just for Lehman Students.  She was editor.  She was a leader.  She felt power so she no longer needed to self-harm.  She was on track to graduate.  She saw a promising future for herself to one day become a teacher.  Helping students feel love and like they are somebody.  Publishing a book and sharing her story in the hopes it can save a life.  That was the dream.

That teacher responded as a trauma informed teacher.  He listened.  He gave support. When she needed a time out for panic attacks from PTSD he let her sit in the dean’s office because he knew that was the most helpful thing specific to her and safest place for her. He didn’t judge.  He was also the first teacher to show and admit flaws to students but demonstrated ways to cope with them. He was human and imperfect, perfectly in tune to the needs of the whole child. To his student he said to her- “You are brave and have a story to tell. So turn your dark into art. You are so important to this world.” He was the first teacher to not just see her talent – of course every English teacher loved her writing – however he was the first person to see her capability as a human being.  A functioning and successful human being. A light and agent of change. He said his mother was bipolar therefore he understood this student – but that she has a choice to better care for herself – he said “I tell my story and hers for a reason. Stories have lessons.”

And that’s why I tell mine. Because without Mr. McSherry I would not be here.  He signed a copy of his book for me saying “I know one day you’ll be signing your book for me.”  Eight years of teaching and three publications later, I still feel like that student that is overjoyed when he told me he was proud – as I proudly hand him my signed book. I lacked the parental figures so his model of being an advocate stuck with me and is incredibly relevant to the person I am shaped to be today. Without his influence, I would be long gone. I found my purpose in life through pen and paper and also teaching others love, light and compassion.  There is always a light, always.

I could’ve been lost but there were several important teachers along the way that saw me for who I really was.  We used to be told that children should be seen and not heard, but imagine how powerful it could be to a child if we just see them? Seek to understand?

Because when you can’t see past the bad behavior you miss the real beauty and potential a child has. So never assume.  Ask. Just ask. To be seen is the most powerful thing. That is the lesson.

-Kristina Rose Garcia 2020

Published by misskris726

Bronx poet, artist and educator.

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