By Susan DuFresne. 

In my first post,  I tell you why advocacy for children of trauma is personal. Here, while protecting their identities, I tell you their stories and why we must create Compassionate Schools.

Childhood trauma has impacted my health across my entire lifetime. This is not uncommon according to the Adverse Childhoold Experiences study [ACES]. Daun Kauffman, a teacher in Pennsylvania, writes:

The deep impact of childhood trauma changes children’s physical brains, and impairs their cognitive and social functioning.

Over time, trauma in childhood changes life trajectories and likely results in early death. See Levine and Kline p.4,  Perry p.245,  Perry (again),  and the CDC Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) research.

ACES: Adverse Childhood Experiences 

Over the years as a para-professional teacher’s aide and teacher, the stories of children told by those I have had in my classroom who experience trauma are heartbreaking. No names will be mentioned to protect confidentiality.  These stories have occurred across multiple states. Listing these experiences may give readers a sense of coldness, but knowing each one of these children personally requires a depth of empathy and compassion to make a difference in their lives. Today, I wonder how each child is and often hope that they remember that I love them: Children with a parent in jail – another child whose father was a pimp, mother one of his prostitutes… mom OD’s and forces the 4 year old child and a sibling to carry the dead body of their mother to the car, then drives them all to ER where dad drops them all off to abandon them. A child who is sexually abused. A child whose mother has died of cancer. A child whose mom abandoned the family when they were 2 months old. A child who was witness to parents who are enraged, drunk, and physically attacking each other. A child living in a car. A child living in an overcrowded apartment filled with garbage – no toys, no books, no clean clothes or healthcare, no food except for what they get at school.  A child shuffled from one foster family to another after abuse from their parents caused CPS to remove them from their home. A child who was beaten and bruised repeatedly for not knowing their letter names and sounds. A child whose siblings bully them, call them “the fat one”, chase them, and beat them up when they catch them. A child who has witnessed gang violence and murder. Three children between a few months of age and 5 years old left for weeks to fend for themselves while mom and dad are on a drug binge. A child who spent all of his years in a refugee camp before coming to my classroom. A child who witnessed his home and his entire family burned during conflict in Africa. A child sitting on their front steps alone, shouts often heard in the home, CPS called but still the child is found dead – face down, disposed of and likely murdered in an outdoor toilet. These are not stories of fiction. These are real children who come to schools not ready for them, but schools where children are supposed to be “ready for kindergarten.” Right? 

Each of these children come to us in our public schools in search of a safe adult. They don’t say that directly. It takes a noticing teacher to read between the lines. Some act out, often violently – in ways that cause great disruption to a classroom. Some are quiet – curl up in fetal position under the table day after day – too traumatized to trust anyone, much less ready to learn academics. Some have a gang-swag – attack other children, smile when they hurt others, or use words no 5 year old should have been exposed to much less be able to use in context. They appear to be on offense, like predators but it’s all moxy to cover up their constant state of fear.  Most have little self-esteem or confidence, have little persistence, have great fears – high anxiety – are afraid of being punished if they make a mistake, have difficulty focusing, trouble with organization, planning, following routines – struggle with how to join a group – don’t trust others enough to ask for or expect help – are depressed and sometimes very needy as if they have a hole inside of them that cannot be filled. Some seek constant attention, blurt out, or act out with violence to avoid the shame of not being able to complete a task. Some isolate themselves in class and on the playground. Some try to escape the class, the school, running in search of a safe adult when they really trust no one at all.  Some have tantrums, hit, kick, pinch, bite, and destroy classroom and school property. Some have so much food anxiety all they can focus on is snacks, lunch, and they cry when it is time to go home. For these children, weekends and breaks from school are devastating.

Often there are only 3 ways children of trauma respond: Fight, Flight, or Freeze/Submit. Some are victims of domestic violence and grow up into adults who still demonstrate these brain responses to stress. [Freeze/submit likely explains the #WhyIStayed response of women as victims of domestic violence.] Some children/adults dissociate completely to feel nothing… Some respond in rage to feel control.

Yes, 5 year olds can wipe every surface in a classroom to the floor, throw chairs, desks, and computer parts across the room when enough adrenaline is flowing. These children are all likely victims of some kind of trauma or – as Compton, CA is grappling with the question – do children of trauma have the same rights to treatment in our schools as students with special needs due to a disability?

“If you really want to do something about the achievement gap, childhood trauma is the place to start,” said Mark Rosenbaum, an attorney with Public Counsel, a Los Angeles-based pro bono law firm that filed the lawsuit along with Irell & Manella LLP…

Wong added that not one four-year teacher training program in California currently includes a class on how to recognize and deal with trauma in students.

“This is really the civil-rights issue of our time for our children and their futures,” she said.

’ – Teresa Watanabe, LA Times

Read more poignantly specific experiences of teaching children of trauma here on Daun Kaufman’s blog: Lucid Witness series:

“Peek Inside a Classroom” is a series about childhood trauma in public education.  Another part, Peek Inside a Classroom: Jasmine:“ is here.  “Jasmine” defends against childhood trauma differently, completely differently, than José.  “Danny” at Peek Inside a Classroom; Danny” uses each of their defenses at times.

Response to Trauma: Are the reformers “safe adults?”

Children who have a history of trauma are often assumed to be connected with poverty. Poverty does create stressors on families that push the caregivers to an edge, removes opportunities for support, often leading to addiction to mask their feelings of helplessness, depression, and rage. But trauma comes into the lives of the affluent as well and addiction doesn’t have socioeconomic boundaries.

As teacher Daun Kaufman points out: Childhood trauma is not poverty.

 Even in affluent schools there is trauma – for example in Silicon Valley where a burst of increasing suicide takes its toll on a community due to the pressures of reformers and the parents who buy into their ideology: 

“I think we have to look at the attitude of all the adults in this community,” one person wrote. “It is we who are to blame putting the pressure on the kids to succeed … No amount of school counseling will change the parents’ attitudes.” Another insisted: “There are ways to teach students so they learn but are not tortured.” …

What disturbs Levine most is that the teenagers she sees no longer rebel. They have no sense of agency.

Speaking of “agency”, how have top-down PreK-12 policy reforms impacted children who have experienced trauma?

The stress of reform takes its toll from Pre-K through university.

There has been a big push recently for universal Pre-K. In my state of Washington, a former Bill Gates’ employee, Ross Hunter is now in position as head of the Department of Early Learning. As a result, preschools and kindergartens are now mandated by the state to implement assessments of academic and behavioral expectations called WaKIDs at the beginning of the year. WaKIDS provides a developmental continuum, but teachers need to find or create their own assessments for each data point then complete the data entry for the state by October 31st. This time-consuming process interferes with relationship and routine building as all assessment is 1:1 and no kinders are independent at this time of year. The results on all children are harmful, but the results on children of trauma are devastating.

When these children who are suffering greatly come to our schools – reformers have mandated policies resulting in schools that are not at all ready for them, schools stripped of humanity. As education reforms have increased testing, rigor, and grit – reducing play and recess, hands-on-learning, music, movement, and the arts these children experience additional trauma from reformers as they enter schools not ready for them.  In fact, as recently reported in the New York Times, these reforms are literally making our children sick.

Nearly one in three teenagers told the American Psychological Association that stress drove them to sadness or depression — and their single biggest source of stress was school. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a vast majority of American teenagers get at least two hours less sleep each night than recommended — and research shows the more homework they do, the fewer hours they sleep. At the university level, 94 percent of college counseling directors in a survey from last year said they were seeing rising numbers of students with severe psychological problems.

At the other end of the age spectrum, doctors increasingly see children in early elementary school suffering from migraine headaches and ulcers. Many physicians see a clear connection to performance pressure.

“I’m talking about 5-, 6-, 7-year-olds who are coming in with these conditions. We never used to see that,” says Lawrence Rosen, a New Jersey pediatrician who works with pediatric associations nationally. “I’m hearing this from my colleagues everywhere.”

Experience tells me repeatedly that reformers’ demands for grit, rigor, and near-constant testing create a toxic – rather than SAFE environment for all children. But for children of trauma, this is a recipe for escalated behaviors, setting the stage for increased behavior referrals, suspensions, and decreased trust. These increased behaviors often cause a ripple affect that impacts the entire building, taking valuable administration time, other teachers and para support, disrupting other classrooms, often requiring a safety evacuation plan for other students to leave the classroom in order to be safe. In my district and most districts across the nation, there is no plan and little help. Teachers are often left to deal with this on their own.

When children have experienced trauma, they often don’t trust adults. When they see their teachers pull away from them to complete 6 1/2 days of 1:1 testing, followed by 2 days of data entry – they fall apart – trust newly earned unravels, unsafe behavior increases, the child spins out of control.  It impacts the entire classroom and often the entire school. When children are under so much pressure to compete and excel in school, this pressure alone can prove to be trauma enough to cause suicide.

When children who have already experienced such trauma so desperately need help, are reformers being “safe adults?”

Money spent on testing and implementation of defective Common Core standards strip funding from the very things children of trauma need – school counselors, nurses, the arts, sports, etc. and focus all district missions on data rather than human beings. These reforms strip the joy and supports needed by students of trauma from our schools, destroying the very equity and access required to meet the needs of our children of trauma.

What can we do to ready schools for children of trauma?  

“In any case, it is physiologically impossible to learn for children in the midst of complex trauma.”

As Daun Kauffman points out:  

Screening students can be as simple as using the “ACE score” derived by counselors as part of annual school registration or re-registration.  A wide range of other screening measures is available at the National Child Traumatic Stress Network website.

Hidden in plain sight on WA State’s OSPI site is a resource called  Compassionate Schools.

Compassionate Schools benefit all students who attend but focus on students chronically exposed to stress and trauma in their lives. These schools create compassionate classrooms and foster compassionate attitudes of their school staff. The goal is to keep students engaged and learning by creating and supporting a healthy climate and culture within the school where all students can learn. It is not a program; it is a process and as such is not “one size fits all.” Each school and community will develop their own unique compassionate “personality.”

They go on to provide 10 principles of Compassionate Schools:

  • Focus on culture and climate in the school and community.
  • Train and support all staff regarding trauma and learning. 
  • Encourage and sustain open and regular communication for all.
  • Develop a strengths based approach in working with students and peers.
  • Ensure discipline policies are both compassionate and effective (Restorative Practices).
  • Weave compassionate strategies into school improvement planning.
  • Provide tiered support for all students based on what they need. 
  • Create flexible accommodations for diverse learners.
  • Provide access, voice, and ownership for staff, students and community.
  • Use data to: 
    • Identify vulnerable students, and
    • Determine outcomes and strategies for continuous quality improvement.

Reformers have pushed development of Zero Tolerance policies and the school to prison pipeline. School discipline of children of trauma leads to increased suspension in schools that are not “trauma informed” and shifting their culture to one of compassionate schools. I challenge the reformers to explain how we can weave in compassionate strategies into school improvement plans when current school improvement plans are hyper-focused on constantly improving test scores through increased non-compassionate Pre-K-12 education policies. Children are not the only ones traumatized by these policies. As teachers, we carry the burdens of the children in our classrooms on top of the burdens of workload increases, de-professionalization, scrutiny, and demonization by reformers.

Why are reformers demonizing and even contributing to the mis-evaluation of compassionate teachers as Katie Lapham points out, and even firing of our most compassionate teachers?

Instead of promoting test and punish schools, why aren’t reformers scaling up Compassionate Schools?  Why aren’t the reformers – aka colonizers – investing in preparation of all schools for children of trauma? These would be schools teachers can envision – schools of hope, not fear and added trauma.

Are the reformers “safe adults” or are they increasing trauma for all children? Perhaps the answers can begin to be understood here, as we explore the term colonize vs reform.

Jitu Brown made this statement at the Network for Public Education Conference in Chicago. “Stop calling these people ‘reformers.’ They are ‘colonizers.’ ”

Colonize, by definition means:

  1. To form or establish a colony or colonies in.
  2. To migrate to and settle in; occupy as a colony.
  3. To resettle or confine (persons) in or as if in a colony.
  4. To subjugate (a population) to or as if to a colonial government.

Our public schools have indeed been subjugated, occupied by means of control, and our teachers and children have been confined by these reforms or controls by the privatizers/reformers.

In this Huff Post piece by Joy Resmovits the meaning of school colonization becomes more clear.

 Similarly, Howard Fuller, a Marquette University professor, said he spent time talking to stakeholders in New Orleans about school reform and was told that “education reform has been done to us.”

“This cannot be the way that this movement operates,” Fuller told the panel audience. “The people who are being liberated must be a critical part of their own liberation.” ‘

Based on our experience in the classroom, many teachers believe reformers are NOT safe adults for children, nor teachers. Childhood stress and teacher stress, as outlined by the Badass Teachers Association in collaboration with the AFT Union, are on the rise due to reformers’ education policies.  Daun Kauffman refers to this variable as the “elephant in the room.”

A key variable is missing from the discussions about education reform:  before money, before a “common core”, before standardized testing and before “value added” measures.

Childhood Trauma is “the elephant in the room”.

Reformers don’t acknowledge childhood trauma, but it affects every classroom.  There are more trauma-impacted students than English Language Learners (ELL) or those with an Individual Education Plan (IEP).   In some urban locations (pg. 17 map) the prevalence is greater than ELL and IEP students combined! – Daun Kauffman

Children of trauma often feel as if and often have the least control over their own lives, especially over the adverse events that have happened to them. Reforms are adding to, not subtracting from those adverse events. Reformers have not given students, parents, nor teachers a voice in creating education policies. All children and teachers, in public schools must be given a voice and power in their own liberation. I will talk about this in more detail in post 4 of this series.

In my next post, I explain how we can develop a different culture and some interventions that have proven effective over time in my classroom and other classrooms across the country.

How does your school support children of trauma? How does your administration meet the needs of children of trauma? How is reform aka colonization impacting children of trauma in your schools?

Part 1: In Search of Safe Adults and Compassionate Schools: This is Personal

Part 2: In Search for Safe Adults and Compassionate Schools:Why We Must Create Compassionate Schools 

Part 3: Being the Safe Adult: In Search of Compassionate Schools

Part 4: Beautiful Trouble: From Compassionate Schools to a Compassionate Society


Anthony Cody
Anthony Cody

Anthony Cody worked in the high poverty schools of Oakland, California, for 24 years, 18 of them as a middle school science teacher. He was one of the organizers of the Save Our Schools March in Washington, DC in 2011 and he is a founding member of The Network for Public Education. A graduate of UC Berkeley and San Jose State University, he now lives in Mendocino County, California.

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