By Cheryl Ichikawa
In the silence of nap time, the desperate sobs of a child can be heard through the walls. Her teacher talks to her in a controlled, soft voice, helping the child work through emotions that seem to leave her helpless. Together, they walk down the hall looking in the storage closets for something that the child needs to be okay. The teacher opens the closet door and gets the item the child is desperately asking for. She holds it tightly as her body relaxes and her sobs subside. Now she is able to join in the silence of nap time.
Being a teacher in a trauma-informed classroom involves the mind-frame of letting go of the idea of what should be and simply dealing with what is. It’s about seeing the child, not the behavior; understanding the motivation, not just the cause. It’s about being able to balance choice and containment. Containment (structure/routine) provides children with a feeling of safety and control, which they desperately need, while choice provides these children with an exhilarating taste of personal freedom that some of them desperately want.
I watched a child walking around in circles, using profanity as if he was talking to someone, but no one was in the area. I knelt down and said to him in a soft voice, “You are having a lot of feelings. Can you tell me what those feelings are?” “I am mad!” he exclaimed. I paused and then I asked him, “Do you want a hug?” He stopped pacing, ran over to me and grabbed me around the neck. I held him tight, hugged him and told him that I was sorry that he was so mad. I let him hug me as long as he needed and when he was ready I put him down and watched him run over to his sister and start playing as if nothing had happened.
Being trauma-informed means always approaching a situation with an understanding that something traumatic has happened to this child (or parent) and that their outburst, overwhelming sadness, or anger may have nothing to do with what is happening at this moment in time; that an action, smell, sound or conflict may have triggered a trauma that they had endured in the past.
This understanding filters how I react to situations, always looking beneath the outburst, looking for what the child needs in that moment in time. It may be a hug, kind word, or confirmation that their feelings have value. Children (and adults) need to feel safe, loved and cared for. They need to know that they matter.
The relationships we form with our children (and parents) are critical components in the work we do. Once trust is established, the learning process can begin. This is when children (and adults) begin to experience life, not just living. Being trauma-informed means embracing humanity and helping others envision a better tomorrow.
By Dora Jacildo
For over 13 years, Children Today has been providing services to young children and families experiencing homelessness. Through the years our delivery model has evolved in response to our understanding of the needs of the children and families we serve. We have always been a relationship-based organization. We understand that the most effective way to assist families is by providing a safe, nurturing, and welcoming environment and by establishing a culture of respect and responsiveness.
Four years ago, we were working with a child who was diagnosed with cognitive delay, had severe behavior problems, speech delay, and was visually impaired. His mother admitted to using drugs during the pregnancy and spent time in jail before giving birth to him and becoming homeless. When they arrived at our facility, they were dis-regulated, overwhelmed, and scared. Mom did not trust us and her son’s behavior quickly became dangerous in the classroom. We worked closely with both of them. We enrolled Mom in our mental health program, scheduled regular visits with our Licensed Clinical Social Worker, and provided the child with a caregiver who spent a great deal of her day assisting him in the classroom.
The multiple needs of this family forced us to look closer at our effectiveness working with families experiencing homelessness. We realized that despite our best efforts to help families in distress, there were new strategies we needed to employ if we were to truly make a difference in the lives of those wanting our help. Every day we open our doors to families struggling with substance abuse, enduring domestic and community violence, living in severe poverty, who are homeless, scared and alone. The one condition that described the experience that all the children and families were suffering with was trauma. In many ways, we’ve known this all along, but it took us years to define it and to develop the Trauma-Informed Services that would impact every aspect of our programming.
Judith Herman, MD, author of Trauma and Recovery (1992) states that traumatic events:
(1) Render victims helpless by overwhelming force; (2) involve threats to life or bodily integrity, or a close personal encounter with violence and death; (3) disrupt a sense of control, connection and meaning; (4) confront human beings with the extremities of helplessness and terror; and (5) evoke the responses of catastrophe.
In June of 2012, we made a commitment to be a Trauma-Informed organization. The board of directors approved this direction and staff immediately began a series of comprehensive trainings on trauma and its effects on young children. We assessed our environments, recruitment and enrollment practices, curriculum, and policies and procedures. We made sure we were looking at everything through the lens of trauma. Given our newfound understanding of trauma, the first priority was to make sure the children and families felt physically and emotionally safe. We accomplished this by maximizing choices for families, developing authentic relationships, providing consistent information regularly, setting clear limits, and allowing families to express feelings without fear of judgment.
On a daily basis, we acknowledge that the families we work with have histories of trauma. We know that in young children, trauma changes the brain and can cause long-term damage to their ability to develop into healthy adults. We also know that it has been scientifically proven that a safe, nurturing, and loving relationship with a consistent and predictable caregiver can heal the brain, the body, and the spirit.
We work hard to accomplish our mission every day at Children Today, and now that we are a Trauma Informed organization, we can do it even better.
By Elia Rocha
It’s Child Health Day, a federal observance day the purpose of which, according to the 1928 presidential proclamation, is to “acquaint the people of the Nation with the fundamental necessity of a year-round program for the protection and development of the health of the Nation’s children”. Child Health Day has been around for 75 years and since that time child health outcomes have certainly improved.
But not for everyone. There still exist today startling disparities in health affecting minority groups and populations in low-income communities. Children who have experienced homelessness are disproportionately impacted by health problems including higher rates of asthma, anemia, dental caries, ear infections and stomach problems. Probably not surprisingly, children who have experienced homelessness are also less likely to receive regular medical care.
At our Play House programs we can see evidence of these disparities first-hand. While the vast majority of families have some form of medical insurance (usually Medi-CAL) at enrollment or receive it shortly thereafter, periods without insurance or an inability to seek out preventive care may have already taken a toll. For many of our young children, health challenges add another set of obstacles that they will have to overcome just to get to the place where other children started from.
When children leave our Play House programs we’ll often make a goodbye album filled with photographs of them and their time with us. For many of our families, these photographs may be the only visual record of a difficult time in their lives. Looking at the pictures, though, you’d mostly see smiling faces; active children intent on the thing they’re doing.
A quick note about the use of photos on this blog. When we do post photos, children’s faces will be obscured to protect their privacy. On the rare instance when a child’s face is shown, we will have written consent from their parent or guardian.
Cast your mind back to when you were younger and your teacher announced that your class would be doing a Show & Tell. Maybe you’d go home and search through your treasures to find the perfect thing to share. Maybe you’d be nervous about what your classmates would make of your choice, and by extension, of you.
This ritual that most of us have participated in is freighted with significance. The objects or stories that we choose to share are sacrosanct because they act as our stand-ins and describe something important about who we are and what we value.
That’s what this blog will be about. We’ll be posting every week (or thereabouts) and sharing stories about the work we do in the classroom and with families, about our struggles and successes, about who we are and what we value. We hope you’ll tune in.
Various members of the Children Today staff contribute to these blog posts.