By Kylene Dalton-Koons and Brad VanDenend
In schools these days, there is a lot of talk about trauma—and for good reason. According to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, “One out of every 4 children attending school has been exposed to a traumatic event” (4). Not only does this research support the idea that educators be equipped with tools to recognize and respond to trauma, but the Bible also calls us to do so.
Isaiah 1:17 says, “Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.” By creating a trauma-informed school community within which social and emotional beings can thrive, educators can promote resilience for youth who have experienced trauma.
Trauma is an experience in which a person’s internal resources are not adequate to cope with external stressors.
What Is Trauma?
Many definitions of trauma exist, but perhaps one of the clearest definitions is from the Sanctuary Institute: trauma is an experience in which a person’s internal resources are not adequate to cope with external stressors. Some examples of situations that may be traumatic are
- physical or sexual abuse
- the death of a loved one
- witnessing domestic violence
- witnessing or experiencing community violence (e.g., shootings, robberies, etc.)
- natural disasters
- living in chronically chaotic environments
Children often do not have the necessary internal resources to navigate the impact of traumatic events such as these. Equipping oneself and one’s classroom with the necessary tools to respond to trauma can help students build internal resources with which to cope with external stressors.
Shifting Our Perspective
Trauma is a universal experience, and it changes who we are. But more importantly, traumatic events change the physical structure of the brain, disrupting connections and activations in the brain. Here’s the basic science: The amygdala (which activates the fight-or-flight response when environmental threats are detected) goes into overdrive when trauma occurs. At the same time, the prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain that regulates attention, awareness, and emotions and makes decisions about the best response to a situation) is impaired and unable to regulate the amygdala’s threat response. The result? Hyperarousal, hypervigilance, anger, impulsivity, and other maladaptive behaviors.
Poor academic outcomes are associated with these brain changes, as students must manage classroom expectations and stressors with a brain that is shaped and programmed to feel fearful and in danger. Negative or maladaptive behaviors, such as outbursts, bullying, fighting, and lack of application, may actually be survival skills that appear as a traumatized child synthesizes stressful situations with an ill-equipped brain.
Yes, Jimmy’s constant interruptions are frustrating and disruptive to the classroom. But Jimmy is unlikely to openly state, “My dad hits my mom,” or “I watched my grandpa die of cancer,” or “An adult hurt me.” Rather, Jimmy’s brain is wired to be hypervigilant and in constant fight-or-flight mode, which makes sitting in a classroom for a prolonged period of time an almost impossible activity.
It is important for educators to shift from the question “What’s wrong with you?” to the question “What happened to you?”
To account for the physiological reality that trauma changes the brain, it is important for educators to shift from the question “What’s wrong with you?” to the question “What happened to you?” The word “trauma” stems from the Greek word meaning “wound.” Viewing traumatized children, individuals, or systems as wounded helps us maintain the proper perspective (what happened to them rather than what’s wrong with them) in light of their maladaptive behaviors, emotions, or reactions.
Genesis 1:27 says, “So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them.” Asking “What’s wrong with you?” presupposes that God, in creating us in His image, erred. Asking “What happened to you?” can be a first step in recognizing the impact of the past on current behaviors and functioning, while acknowledging the student as made in the image of God. That doesn’t mean the behavior should be tolerated or excused. Rather, it helps to provide some context for the behavior and elicits a revised response.
Perhaps one of the simplest ways to support a trauma-informed classroom is to start each day with a community meeting.
Bloom, Sandra, and S. Sreedhar. “The Sanctuary Model of Trauma-Informed Organizational Change.” The Source, vol. 16, no. 1, pp. 48–53.
Kris, Deborah Farmer. “The Timeless Teachings of Mister Rogers.” PBS.org, March 20, 2017, https://www.pbs.org/parents/thrive/the-timeless-teachings-of-mister-rogers.
National Child Traumatic Stress Network. “Child Trauma Toolkit for Educators.” National Center for Child Traumatic Stress, 2008.
Remen, Rachel Naomi. Kitchen Table Wisdom: Stories That Heal. 10th ed. Riverhead Books, 2006.
Kylene Dalton-Koons is the director of care coordination and innovation at West Michigan Partnership for Children. A licensed masters-level social worker, she has over fifteen years of experience working with children and trauma in both the child welfare and domestic violence fields. In her free time, Kylene enjoys spending time with her family, cooking, and gardening.
Brad VanDenend is a licensed MSW and the clinical liaison for West Michigan Partnership for Children, responsible for connecting youth involved in the child welfare system with appropriate mental health services and supports. With over sixteen years of experience working with children and families, Brad was drawn to this field through his own family history with foster and adopted siblings. In his free time, Brad enjoys golfing, jogging, and playing games with his family.