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In Conversation With

In Conversation With ... Miriam Silman

on trauma-informed schools
Kentucky School Advocate
July/August 2018
Miriam Silman
In Conversation With … features an interview between a leader or figure involved in public education and a representative of the Kentucky School Advocate

Miriam Silman is a research associate with the Center on Trauma and Children at the University of Kentucky, where she is also an adjunct faculty member in the College of Social Work. For most of the last 24 years she has been a clinician in the field of interpersonal violence. She discussed efforts to train Kentucky educators through a statewide project called the Trauma-Informed Care for Educators and School Personnel Learning Collaborative, which is part of Project Aware.

Q: What is trauma-informed care?

A. Trauma-informed care means understanding the role trauma plays in the lives of children and adolescents and how it impacts their development. Trauma-informed interventions are strategies designed to mitigate the persistent, negative effects of trauma exposure.

Q. What negative effects are we likely to see in these children?

A. When trauma occurs, the developing brain is altered by our automatic, inherent, self-protective responses. That means cognitive, emotional, social, physical, behavioral and even medical development can be affected. 

Q. What’s a recommended resource for understanding traumatic stress in children?

A. The National Child Traumatic Stress Network has identified “Twelve Core Concepts for Understanding Traumatic Stress Responses.” It points out that traumatic stress responses are inherently complex and varied, occur in the context of the child’s characteristics, experiences and current environment, and that trauma exposure has a profound ripple effect that can last long beyond the actual exposure.

Q. Is trauma-informed care relatively new in K-12 schools?

A. Yes. For 20 to 30 years, it has been used in mental health and behavioral health, but we now realize that all systems that care for children should be trauma-informed because, at minimum, 25 percent of school-age children have had trauma exposure. 
Q. What does it mean to be a trauma-informed system?

A. This is where teachers and educators feel a bit frustrated because it’s not prescriptive. There’s no standardized curriculum; it’s flexible to adapt to different situations. 

Q. But trauma-informed systems do share key elements, don’t they?

A. Yes, the core elements are safety, trust, choice, empowerment, collaboration and cultural competency. 

Q. What benefits might schools see from implementing a trauma-informed system?

A. Studies that measure stress hormones show trauma-informed approaches can alleviate some of that. Schools report decreases in behavioral incidents and some improved academic reports at the individual and the classroom level. 

Q. How is training for trauma-informed care being accomplished in Kentucky?

A. Each school year, through our training, small teams from districts or individual schools have a two-day intensive training and two more face-to-face learning sessions. There also are monthly online learning calls via computer or phone for sharing ideas, problem solving and presenting content. 

Q. What do teams learn?

A. We teach techniques to use with children at the classroom level, school-wide and at an individual level. We include specific examples of trauma-informed responses that can be used in school. 

Q. What happens after teams are trained?

A. They develop a plan and set goals and we help them implement those goals. It looks different for every school. At each step they evaluate what they are doing and how it is working. 

Q. How many schools in Kentucky have had the training?

A. In two years, we’ve trained 286 people from 55 districts across all nine regional educational cooperatives, and 56 of them also completed train the trainer. We’ll do another 150 this year and we have two cohorts of train the trainer. So, by the end of our third year, we’ll have around 400 individuals who have completed trauma-informed care training and around 100 trainers. 

Q. Do educators come to you to seek training?

A. They do. We require teams of at least two people because it’s hard to go back as a single person and say, “Hey, guys, I want to do this.” 

Q. So the training is a framework on which educators can build?

A. Yes, once they get the idea from us, they are incredibly resourceful and creative about how to convey it and use it in their classrooms. 

Q. You’ve said that this training emphasizes the importance of the trusting relationships.

A. Yes, when kids have been trauma-exposed, they may not trust adults, for good reason. Strong empirical data shows that relationships that allow a child to feel physically and psychologically safe and that foster trust and help build resilience really matter. It can be a teacher-student relationship, counselor-student; it could be a principal, a janitor or a food service worker. 

Q. How do you rebuild trust and resilience in these children?

A. We build it through school connectedness and peer support and a sense of self-efficacy. Kids who have been trauma-exposed don’t feel they have much control, which is why empowerment and choice are so important in the trauma-informed system. 

Q. Could you share examples of what techniques look like in actual practice?

A. We teach a trauma-informed safety plan for students who get escalated. When the child is calm, they and the educator go through some steps. “What makes you get upset?” If the child doesn’t know, the educator can say, “I notice that you get upset when this happens.” “How do you know when you’re getting upset, when things are starting to get out of control? This is what I notice: You get red in the face. You start acting up. Your voice gets louder.” Together, they plan what to do about it. They might try some soothing strategies. Self-regulation strategies like mindfulness are a critical piece of trauma-informed care and helping kids feel they have some control. Maybe it’s some deep breathing. 

Q. What are some other ways to use trauma-informed care to help these children?

A. Consistency and predictability are huge for these children. If you are a teacher with students who have had trauma exposure and you know you’re going to be out, you give them a heads up, let them know you will be away and that there will be a substitute teacher. One school developed a form for substitutes, so they’ll know if children have difficulties with change. That allows the substitute to reassure them and let them know they have a plan from the teacher. 

Q. Describe some simple but effective shifts in communication that educators learn through your training.

A. Instead of asking, “What did you do? Why did you do that?” saying “Hey, what’s going on? What has happened to you that this behavior, this way of being in the world, is making sense to you?” That’s an example of creating a psychologically safe space, treating a child with respect, collaborating. 

Q. Why does this work?

A. When you ask, “What happened to you?” you stop blaming the child, and you stop taking it personally. Then, you can problem solve. Maybe there’s something that reminds the child of the trauma and the alarm system in their brain is going off and they can’t think clearly. So, we could be telling them a great solution, but they can’t hear us. We need to help them turn the alarm off before we talk about what they can do about the situation.

Q. What are some other examples of how trauma-informed care can work?

A. You can recruit students to do a particular task, which helps them build some confidence, a sense of connection and belonging, gives you an opportunity to give them some praise and gives them a sense of success. You would adapt that for a child’s developmental level and their age. 

Q. What does adapting a technique for age level look like?

A. Let’s use the example of deep breathing as a soothing technique. For young students you might use an Elmo video. For a 16-year-old boy, you might say, “Special Ops uses this. This is how they learn to manage their stress when they’re going into a conflict zone.” 

Q. Schools are even creating spaces for these students to de-stress?

A. Yes, some schools have what they call peace corners, safe places or think spaces. It’s not disciplinary; it’s a regrouping place. They might be stocked with a stress ball and journals, stuffed animals to squeeze, a bean bag chair and some books. 

Q. How does training in trauma-informed care ultimately benefit educators?

A. When teachers have an understanding of what’s happening with these kids, they don’t feel helpless and hopeless. They start to realize, “I have some strategies I can try.” We have to remember that trauma can change the way brains function, but it doesn’t mean that the students are hopeless. While brains are negatively impacted by trauma exposure, they can also be positively impacted by the corrective trauma-informed actions we take. We have to make that shift to create psychological safety, and we want to have the strong sense of connection with them. 

Q. If a school or district wants to sign up for training, how do they get started?

A. Anyone interested in trauma-informed care, contact Josh Fisherkeller.
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