Morning Zen Guest Blog Post - Daun Kaufmann ~
When you look inside a classroom there are some things you can not see….
Jasmine was one of my favorites.
She was one of the shortest, scrawniest children in our second grade classroom. Maybe 45 pounds with her coat on. Her tattered backpack seemed as big as she was. Somehow the tiniest children can hold the most energy, the most emotion, and somehow they manage to get the most compassion from me.
When you peek in our classroom you may see Jasmine stealthily surveying the classroom for the child most likely to respond the most spiritedly when she gives them the “the finger”, or when she “gives them” a freshly sharpened pencil, in the side of the head, perfectly thrown from twenty feet away.
When Jasmine is unsuccessful in provoking a classmate’s response, she can get really amped. I have heard guttural profanity and I have been horrified to see her raise a school chair over her head and heave it at a classmate. More surprising, sometimes Jasmine targets someone twice her size. Sometimes she will even taunt teachers, naming one “Young Buck”. Once juking her way around him, beating him to the hallway fire alarm, and crisply setting it off.
Jasmine’s motivation is not related to anything we can see. It’s complicated. What we don’t see is “why”. Why would such a young child with such a lovable smile be so aggressive and confrontational?
Her teachers (including me) often see these behaviors as ‘disruptive’, which they most certainly are. Even seeing her as “bad”.
What none of us see is that the classroom setting is not necessarily related to Jasmine’s actions either. Jasmine’s confrontational behavior can already be in full swing before she even reaches the school. Sometimes she freely enters the courtyard looking for someone to suckerpunch, or to bait by verbally defiling their mother. The “best” candidate is the one who will respond aggressively. Jasmine wants a fight, not someone who will run. She can’t “release” anything if they run. More than once, Jasmine has physically assaulted a teacher who intercepted her attempts to get physical with a classmate. Our school had no regular nurse and the counselor was on longterm leave. There was not even another room for Jasmine to de-escalate in.
Is Jasmine bad or is there something else? Why is her behavior so volatile; one minute so calm and so agitated the next?
Beginning to “see”
We have to ask questions. Carefully ask the right questions.
It’s NOT a question of what’s wrong with Jasmine.
It is a question of what happened to Jasmine. (See Foderaro, pg. 191 in ‘Creating Sanctuary’ by Sandra Bloom M.D.)
Most immediately what has happened to Jasmine is that she has been “triggered”. The trigger is “thing” that started her visible, physical “release”. You could peek in the classroom all day. In fact, you could look right at the trigger, and not see it.
Jasmine probably can’t identify the trigger either. It was very likely some sensory detail: something Jasmine saw, heard, smelled, touched, or even tasted. It’s locked in her (non verbal) memory and associated with a time of intense fear. It may have been as “innocent” as a ticking clock, or the nail polish color on a finger, an untucked shirttail, or even a backpack. The final memory that registered before abuse.
Meanwhile, as you are looking in our room, make sure you see the other 29 children with Jasmine. Her behaviors have ripple effects. You will see some of the 29 tense up and some may indeed become triggered themselves by something in Jasmine’s behavior.
So, it’s not necessarily the setting, and we can’t identify a trigger, and it affects the whole educational process. Therefore some may surmise that it’s an unpredictable and unmanageable situation. If you are intent at that moment upon relentless pursuit of academics, the situation will be unmanageable.
Back to Jasmine: something else you probably didn’t notice came earlier. Before her visible, physical “release” came neurobiological processes that put her into a hyper aroused defense mode.
Hyper arousal is one of nature’s perfectly logical defenses, in Jasmine’s case, to a sensory memory embedded deeply in her brain (in her amygdala to be precise). Now in “fight-or-flight” mode from a terrifying memory, the brain is flooded with adrenaline and cortisol, preparing for action. When already in this state of hyper arousal, the slightest additional cue can detonate defensive action.
After hyper arousal (from the memory), and the trigger in the moment, the pent up traumatic energy (stress or fear) is released. That release is the defense that we can see.
“Defense against what?” you may still be asking.
Defense against something else that none of us see.
What none of us see is what happened to Jasmine.
Welcome to the world of teaching children.
Welcome to the world of trauma-impacted children.
Public Health Research
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 ethic oppression, and many more. Let’s be clear. Trauma means things like rape. Like physical beatings, like relentless emotional destruction, or maybe complete disregard for basic physical needs. Total neglect of another human being. Often the trauma is inflicted by someone who is a “caregiver”.
The CDC’s public health research says that 22% of our children are trauma-impacted with 3+ categories of trauma, to the point of predictable, lifelong damage and early death. Yes, early death. Early death related to childhood experience. They call it “Adverse Childhood Experience” (ACE).
ACEs are no respecter of demographics, zip code or socio-economic status. The CDC researchers found that even in beautiful suburban San Diego, roughly one-fourth of the mostly middle class, mostly white, working folks with medical insurance had experienced 3 or more ACEs!
ACE rates in urban areas can be double the suburban level, but the 22% rate in San Diego is shocking in itself. Percentages translate to 6 to 7 children (6 to 7 “Jasmines”), severely trauma impacted with 3+ ACEs, in a class of 30, even in San Diego.
Three or more ACEs is significant because experiencing 3 or more ACEs correlates with doubled risk of depression, adolescent pregnancy, lung disease, and liver disease. It triples the risk of alcoholism and STDs. There is a 5X increase in attempted suicide.
Neurobiology tells us that trauma’s impact is deep. Chronic, or complex trauma changes children’s physical brains, and impairs cognitive and social functioning. These injuries relate specifically to the prefrontal cortex and academic processes, especially executive function, memory and literacy
So, the children are not “bad” or sick, they are injured. See ‘Destroying Sanctuary’ p 135 by Sandra Bloom M.D.).
Neurobiology further informs us that cognition shuts down for trauma-impacted children who are overwhelmed by a state of chronic, or complex trauma: it is physiologically impossible to learn.
Trauma-impacted children can not equally access their education.
Another learning from neuroscience is that young children can not “just get over it”. In fact, the younger the child, the more immature the physical brain and the less practiced in social defenses, the greater the damage the more difficult to access and verbalize, and the longer it takes to heal, if ever.
Trauma Informed Education
There is an abundance of literature on the topic of ACEs and Trauma-Informed education. A successful education paradigm requires: a) explicit acknowledgement of childhood trauma, b) screening students, c) training teachers and d) creating “safety” across the learning environment. (See “Common Sense” for much more detail)
Crucial investments towards safety include appropriate class-sizes, with limits on trauma-impacted children per classroom. For example, one teacher alone will struggle to be effective aiding one ‘triggered’ student from among the 6+ who have 3+ ACEs, within a classroom of 30 kids, who are waiting to be taught. Additionally, dedicated appropriate space for children to de-escalate is needed, as well as on-site nurses and counselors; counselors, who build on-going relationships with the children and families.
What no one can see by peeking in the room: What happened to Jasmine?
When I had my first peek at Jasmine, she was in Kindergarten. Someone had confined her in the small, 4X6 entryway of the main office, in the narrow space between the registration counter and the wall with the bulletin board. The veins on her neck bulged and throbbed, as she lay on her back furiously kicking and screaming, her face smeared with tears. She’d already ripped the paperwork from the bulletin board. Why ? Her cousin “didn’t wait” so she could walk home with him… She now angrily refused to leave.
I could see the behavior.
I could not see the ACEs Jasmine was impacted by.
My eyes were opened only later when I sensitively started asking her caregivers” What happened to Jasmine?” Only then did I begin to “see”. I saw of the incarceration of her father. I saw the death of her mother. I heard her uncle’s anger at “having to take in his sister’s baby”. Still, the uncle “caregiver” rarely sees Jasmine because of his night shift work.
Earlier, when I’d walked Jasmine home that night from Kindergarten I was scared (as an adult) to see the squalor and dilapidated row house. The front door was hanging open to the street and it was dark inside. I know there is drug traffic and drug related violence on her block and the surrounding blocks. My alarm shifted to anger when the smell of illegal smoke wafted out the open door with moaning sounds of stupor inside. I was somewhat relieved when Jasmine’s cousin bounded out to meet us. But I have never forgotten what I saw.
Now, when I see a child with a backpack, I still trigger…
Trauma-Impacted Students Do Not Have Equal Access to their Education
Our education systems are NOT trauma informed today. Districts don’t train teachers, children and schools remain unsafe, and trauma informed systems remain unfunded.
Preparing individual “Section 504” plans for individual children does not address system-wide needs and is not a practical option, given the scope: millions of students.
Education “reformers” focus on “Common Core” and standardized testing. They use phrases like ‘no excuses’ and ‘high expectations for all’ without providing appropriate accommodations for all. That contradiction is wrong. Morally wrong.
The system ignores the 22%+ of trauma-impacted children and their classmates. In my urban district, the rate is even higher, at 45+% children with 3+ ACEs. “ACE-blindness” disproportionately penalizes urban districts impacted with doubled rates of trauma. That is doubly wrong. (See “Common Sense” ).
Instead of accommodation, punishment. Punishment at the system level (much like punishment at the personal level).
The system generates wrong decisions, life-changing decisions, based on uninformed, misleading data. Attempting to compare States’ or School Districts’ scores, and even individual schools, given the wide variations in trauma rates, is dangerously wrong. Then realize that the system continues this level of travesty at an even more deluded level: an individual classroom compared to another individual classroom. Even comparing those classrooms to year ago “scores”. None of the above get adjusted for radical variations in rates of trauma of as much as 100%!
An uninformed approach.
We still do not see.
We have the right to be frustrated and angry about what happens to all our Jasmines and her classmates!
Our own U.S. Department of Justice report, “Defending Childhood”, calls childhood trauma a national crisis. The CDC says it is critical to understand. Becoming Trauma Informed is no longer optional. Let’s channel that anger into action.
Stand up and be heard by your politicians:
- An immediate opportunity for action is lawmakers’ rewrite of national education legislation (ESEA), ironically known as “No Child Left Behind”. (See “Common Sense” ). The rewrite is already in House/Senate conference committee, so no time to waste.
Click this ‘OpenCongress’ link to get names of your Congress members. Click on a lawmaker and then find contact information on right side of screen. Email or call them today, or send them a link to this blog. Ask them to acknowledge and fund accommodations in ESEA for trauma-impacted children!
- If you are in Pennsylvania, there is a second opportunity, maybe even larger opportunity for yo, with state lawmakers, detailed here (with contact information at the end).
- If you’re not trauma-informed , read here, or research childhood-trauma or seek training, here, here , here or here.
Note: “What happened to Jasmine?”is a true story utilizing pseudonyms.
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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."