Morning Zen Guest Blog Post - Daun Kaufmann ~
Jose was one of the calmest, quietest, most peaceful boys in the classroom. The kind of boy everybody loves.
Jose had thick, coal-black hair and matching black-marble eyes. He was always in an immaculate, crisp school uniform, often with a warm sweater around his sturdy frame. Jose’s family never adjusted to the cool northeastern temperatures in winter. They were from a small town in Panama, emigrated here shortly before Jose’s birth and now live in a quiet, clean, working class neighborhood.
Jose lived with two cousins, an uncle, an aunt, Mom, baby brother and sometimes Dad. He had been an only child until October of second grade, when his brother was born.
Jose is very proud of “his country”, Panama. His passion is soccer. He loved everything about soccer. If there was a televised soccer game involving Panama, Jose knew all about it.
Jose’s strong academic performance had begun in first grade. His reading level in September, at the start of second grade, was about half-year ahead, in the top 10% of the class and his math results were in the top quarter of the class.
Looks great so far, right ?
When you look inside a classroom there are some things you can not see
A few weeks into the new school year Jose’s reserved social traits began to intensify. He was always polite and respectful, but at that point he became unusually silent, a moody silent: frowning. He began ‘forgetting’ his glasses about half the time. He stopped participating in class. When called on to answer a question, Jose often hadn’t heard the question. Inattentive and forgetful, he sometimes completely checked-out with his head in his arms, down on the desk. He was unresponsive and avoidant with classmates. At first, I thought sleep-deprived, which usually resolves itself after adjusting to new school year routines. Now that the calendar reached into October I began to suspect something more.
As the year continued on into late October/November, Jose’s academic pattern emerged to be wildly inconsistent. A student’s literacy results are usually in a narrow range. There aren’t usually wild swings between ‘A/B’ and ‘D/F’, week by week, which was Jose’s pattern.
Jose’s behaviors were more than ‘daydreaming’: he was detached, forgetful, ‘stunned’ even, with muted responses, low energy, easily fatigued and more – all in context of fluctuating academics.
Public Health Data
Childhood trauma is the response of overwhelming or helpless fear, or terror. Specifically, it is a response to abuse, neglect, to a missing parent, or a household which includes violence, mental illness, or substance abuse. Other childhood traumas can include experiences with community violence, or ethnic oppression, and more.
See more detail at “Common Sense” on varying rates of trauma (3+ “Adverse Childhood Experience” or ACEs) from 22% to 45+% of all children. From idyllic middle class suburbs, to rough urban settings. Childhood trauma is no respecter of demographics.
The child who is hyper-aroused, hypervigilant, aggressive and disruptive is the ‘Poster Child’ for abused or neglected experience. They get the attention in a classroom setting where learning for 30 students is the goal. See “Jasmine” at “Peek Inside a Classroom“.
However, children can respond to trauma within a wide spectrum of defensive behaviors. Besides hyper-arousal a different defense to trauma is “dissociation”. See here, here, here (especially Chapter 3), and here (especially Chapter 14).
Students like Jose can be overwhelmed by the same life-altering fears as “Jasmine” and yet, may react with totally opposite behaviors: compliant, but “disconnected”, “in a fog”.
Dissociating students are much more likely to be unsupported, or even completely unnoticed. Even when teachers (I have been guilty too) are trained and are able to notice “Jose”, it can be tempting to ignore him, and take advantage of the calm classroom to teach the other 30 children. Simultaneously, it’s very frustrating, because Jose gets absolutely no learning. “Roberto” was another student in dissociation, while “Danny” exhibited behaviors of both hyperarousal and dissociation.
I had suspicions about deeper, life issues for Jose, but my goal was to hear directly from Jose. I started by sharing that I was surprised at his score on the latest reading test, because I knew from his other tests that he was able to do the work. In an empty classroom, in private I reassured him that he was not in trouble (the location and the message and tone were all part of establishing “safety”). I mused that sometimes when things change at school, that’s because they had changed at home first. I wondered out loud if everything was okay?. . .
Jose hesitated, but eventually shared that he “missed dad”. “He doesn’t come home any more”. Instead dad goes to Jose’s aunt’s (dad’s sister’s) house in the evenings “because dad says ‘it’s more fun there. He thinks it’s boring at home’”. Jose believed final divorce was near.
Jose, head hung low and he broke into tears at this point. At first he was turned away and “hidden”. A confused, powerless, embarrassed posture. I hugged him lightly and said ‘it must be hard’. He nodded and went silent. I decided to wait to talk with Mom till we could talk in person. I knew that children’s versions of their parent’s lives can be hazy and incomplete.
Dissociation: One more thing you can not see when you look in a classroom
Two days later, on a gray rainy day, Mom came to school to pick up Jose. When I shared what Jose had said to me, she had the same response as Jose: very soft and fragile emotionally, with quivering lip and almost immediate tears. It was clear that they were both suffering deeply from the broken marriage. I suggested that it might help Jose to have someone to talk to outside of school. She took Jose home, promising she would find someone.
Relation-based, on-going, or “Complex”, trauma is the most heinous type of trauma (versus ‘environmental-based trauma, and one-time events). Complex trauma occurs during childhood, within the family system. The trauma originates from caregivers who are accountable for protection and love. Instead, chronic, overwhelming fear and pain, and no escape: incest, physical abuse, witness to intimate partner violence, are examples. As another example, Divorce, no matter how “friendly”, rocks the child’s world. It is a terrifying loss of security and love to young children. Results of Complex Trauma impair least seven domains, as detailed at Cook, et al,(2005).
Back to Jose: his mom returned the following week and abruptly announced that “all that stuff we talked about” last week was “fine” now: the father was not an issue. Jose was “incorrect” according to her. She was curt, did not want a discussion, turned and left quickly. It happens too often. Guards are down, things are shared, but then later denied.
I planned to be exceedingly clear at upcoming Report Card conferences about what I was still seeing at school, in spite of Mom’s denial. I had every intention of being brief and crisp (and probably too cold). I was frustrated about lack of attention to Jose, and his pain and the secondary status of his learning, after all, I was his teacher, and (I felt), his advocate.
Some adults dismiss the impact of adverse events (ACEs) on children, thinking “they’re too young to understand anyway, or “they’re young, they’ll get over it”.
Actually, this common adult perspective is exactly wrong. It is precisely BECAUSE the child is “too young” that their ability to defend against intense stress and trauma is far weaker and the results are far worse than an adult exposed to the same event.
Children’s brains are still developing: 1) Their brains are not fully ‘wired’. The immature brain is “use-dependent”, meaning it develops in areas that are used, and therefore more vulnerable to mis-wiring from chronic defensive usage. See …early brain development p.3-6, 2) The chronic, powerful chemical baths of cortisol and adrenaline during “fight or flight” cause direct damage to still-developing brain cells, and 3) children’s frontal cortices are not yet experienced in processing and logically understanding the source of fear. Their immature coping mechanisms are easily undermined and their sense of helplessness or powerlessness is relatively greater than an adult. So, over time, unaddressed trauma causes changes the physical structure and functioning of children’s brains and will lower the quality of their lives and likely result in early death. Levine and Kline p.4, Perry p.245, and the CDC Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) research.
Mom arrived for our conference cuddling a new infant, Jose’s 5 month old brother. I shared preemptively, and somewhat formally, that Jose’s academic performance was now distinctly below average.
I had struggled to give him “C”s. I also shared that Jose’s performance continued to be wildly erratic. I described the swings as clear evidence that he still has very high ability. Students don’t just have ability ‘on occasion’.
Erratic academics often mean there is “something ‘inside him’ troubling the student”. I wondered aloud if there was anything she could think of?
I stopped. The room was silent.
A dependent, child can not be known in a vacuum. The child is an integral, dependent member of a family system. See summary of M. Bowen (in Louis Cozolino; Chapter 3). When one person in the system is impacted by trauma, all others are impacted in relation to that member. Jose (and mother) were impacted by a variety of insecurity and abandonment issues, related to his father. The divorce was a pending fracture to their system, and even more in Jose’s eyes, a pending earth-splitting re-definition of his entire world.
It suddenly became overpoweringly emotional. An intense, flooding release. Mom struggled to share through heaving sobs. Her wounds were obviously still open and tender. First she shared that, yes, there was something bothering Jose “inside”. The phrase ‘inside of him’ had seemed to translate powerfully. Suddenly, Mom blurted “Yes, ‘inside’ Jose is still dealing with the death of his aunt, Maria, his Dad’s sister”. Maria had died about only 8 or 9 months ago, in the summer right before school. She had been Jose’s favorite aunt. Apparently their love and affection were mutual.
Dissociation: One more thing you can not see when you peek in a classroom
It got more intense. Mom continued: Maria suffered painfully and ultimately died from burns covering 100% of her body. . . the result of a gas leak, explosion, and fire. Maria’s brother, Jose’s dad, was working on the same street, heard the explosion which caused the fire, heard his sister’s screams and was completely powerless to help.
Mom shared that Dad then went “deep inside himself”, completely shutting out the entire family. Mom described dad as ‘totally unavailable’ for two to three months – increasing insecurity and abandonment fears for the rest of the family.
Yet, to this day, Jose has never made mention of Maria or her death to me.
Mom herself was close to Maria. Grieving and preoccupied, she tried to disconnect by wrapping herself in preparations for her baby-to-come. The baby came in October, a brand new “attraction” in the family. Mom acknowledged that she also dramatically cut time and communication with Jose. Her words, translated; “ignored”, “forgot”.
Even so Jose never mentioned his little brother to me. He seems to have no affect for him. If Jose refers to him at all, it is only by his ‘position’, “my baby brother”. He doesn’t speak his name.
At this point in the report card conference (yes it was still the same conference). We were all weeping.
I asked Mom if she would be willing to see the School Counselor (yes, there is one at our school) with Jose. Mom agreed, at the time.
Successful education is centered on Jose — not on Jose’s test scores
Trauma Informed Education
Jose must be understood holistically and helped personally.
Jose, defending himself “invisibly”, in dissociation, needs every bit as much support as Jasmine, on the “front page”, in hyperarousal. They simply defend themselves differently in “fight, or flight”.
Neither defense allows trauma-impacted children to access their education.
Conversely, a trauma-informed education paradigm requires: a) explicit acknowledgement of childhood trauma, b) screening students, c) training teachers and staff, and d) creating “safety” across the learning environment.
Crucial investments towards safety include appropriate class-sizes, with limits on trauma-impacted children per classroom. Additionally, dedicated appropriate space for children to de-escalate is needed, as well as on-site nurses and counselors; counselors, who build safe, trusting relationships with the children and families. (See “Common Sense” and here and here and here for more detail on some “beginnings”).
Presently, the education “reform” environment has resulted in the opposite — disinvestment — in Public Education. In our own city the total local/state/federal funding is described as an “Empty Shell” Budget. How long will we keep trying to do what can’t be done? The emperor has no clothes. The children have a right to more than ’empty shells’.
Further, reformers’ paradigm which focuses on education as a single ‘silo’ of only one (testing) dimension, blocks our view of the whole child. See “Failing Schools or Failing Paradigm?”. Their system generates wrong decisions, life-changing decisions, based on uninformed, misleading (test) data — it’s not ACE-adjusted data – it’s without any perspective on wide differences in trauma rates.
We have a right to be impatient and angry.
- Trauma-competent schools with equal access to education are a moral and legal right for children. . . now.
- Call, write or email your legislators today! Or send a link to the Common Sense blog post.
- Contact info and a sample note is HERE at the end of the Common Sense blog post.
(Note: Names of all people and places are pseudonyms, in a true narrative.)
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Be sure to follow Daun Kauffman at lucidwitness.com
Daun Kauffman has been teaching in Philadelphia public schools for 14 years. "I live, and work, and worship in the Hunting Park neighborhood of north Philadelphia, with students we’ve served. The Philadelphia Inquirer has described the neighborhood as 'a gritty, drug infested barrio'. Nevertheless, my neighbors and students are steadfast, creative and inspiring in the way they wrestle with many life challenges. They have taught me much."