Here’s what “trauma informed” looks like…

Due to startling research on the impacts of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) on children, there is emphasis on “trauma informed care” in many sectors – education, childcare, health care, justice, and more. Far too often, however, trauma informed care is little more than a buzzword. In fact, many community resources exacerbate problems for families in crisis.

Over the last few months, my family has benefited greatly from several examples of truly trauma informed care. Let’s take a look at what “trauma informed” really looks like.

Leaving class to call home

My 12-year-old son Brandon recently lost his father under traumatic circumstances. As a result, he constantly worries about my safety. I receive these types of text from him multiple times a day:

Sometimes he’s texting from a friends house, sometimes just upstairs in his bedroom. If I don’t immediately see the text and respond, he becomes panicked. This posed a serious problem with the start of school where he has to leave his cell phone in his backpack.

When I explained the situation to the school counselor she immediately put in place a practical, trauma-informed solution: Brandon’s teachers have been instructed to give him a pass to Student Services whenever he asks for one. He’s then allowed to go into the office and make a short call home to check on me. While this could be viewed as disruptive, it is no where near as disruptive as his anxiety mounting for hours until it becomes debilitating. This way he checks in – 5 minutes – and is able to go back to learning. Shout out to @nwsarts

Protecting siblings from viewing an arrest

As my kids sat eating snacks at the kitchen table, I had no idea the police were on their way to my house to arrest my 17-year-old son Devon on outstanding assault charges.

When the police arrived they pulled me aside and explained they were about to arrest Devon. Then the officer added, “Do you have a place you can take your other kids so they don’t have to see their brother arrested? We’ll wait for you to take them.” Dazed, I took Devon’s siblings next door.

Once I recovered from the shock of the arrest, I was deeply grateful to the officers. They realized the potential for secondary trauma and were proactive in preventing that. They could have just swept in and handcuffed Devon. Instead, they were trauma informed and acted in the best interest of the whole famiy. Shout out to @CMPDnews

A private place to eat

Food issues are extremely common for kids who have been abused or neglected. My adopted daughter Kayla, now a teenager, has always struggled eating in front of other people. This poses a significant problem in school as she cannot concentrate when she’s hungry. In addition, during basketball season this can become a serious health concern.

Instead of diminishing this very serious concern, my daughter’s teachers have gone out of their way to create an accommodation that is both practical and helpful – one that is truly trauma informed. Kayla is allowed to eat her lunch in one of the teacher’s classrooms. As a result, she gets the daily calories she needs to thrive in school. This has been a simple and effective way of removing a barrier to Kayla’s academic success. Shout out to @LNCharter and @corviancourier

Each of these solutions is straight-forward. Simple even. So what makes them truly trauma informed?

  1. They recognize the underlying trauma
  2. They don’t minimize the issue
  3. They are practical and effective

Families like mine need more community resources who are educated about developmental trauma and willing to implement practical, sensible, trauma informed solutions that will enable our kids grow and thrive.

Tips to work with your child’s school (includes free teacher handout)

I can’t tell you how many days I’ve navigated through carline with a drink holder full of steaming hot cups of coffee. Every school year I’d learn how my kid’s teachers took their coffee. On my way to drop the kids off at school in the mornings, I’d pick up a coffee for myself and one more to go. Especially when they were in elementary school, the kids loved their teacher’s reaction to the nice, fresh cup of coffee – and I loved the good will it built. In fact, when I found a teacher to be particularly challenging to work with, I’d throw in a muffin or cookie. That’s right – kill them with kindness and generosity and 9 times out of 10 it paid off in spades.

Working with teachers and school staff can be challenging for any parent, but more so for parents of children with special needs. Parent’s of kids with Developmental Trauma and/or RAD struggle even more because of the nature of these diagnoses. Few schools are truly trauma informed and our children are often adept at triangulating adults.

I have five children and we’ve got 504s and IEPs. We’ve navigated suspensions and expulsions. We’ve been to alternative schools and been in co-taught classrooms. Below is my hard-earned advice for how to navigate the system successfully.

Behind the scenes

Like any “system” we work with as parents, it’s important to pull back the curtain and understand how that system works and recognize its dysfunctions. Many of us have become so frustrated with a teacher, school administrator, or principal that we blow our top. We feel justified because they are being so unreasonable, causing our child undue hardship, or simply aren’t acting fairly. Unfortunately, our strongly worded emails and outbursts can have long-reaching negative impacts on our child’s school experience.

  • Teachers and school staff talk. Teachers and administrators talk about students, and even more often about their “cranky,” “unreasonable,” “mean” parents. The 6th grade English teacher vents her frustration to the 6th grade history and science teachers. The 8th grade teachers give the high school teachers and administration a heads up. If you are perceived as a difficult parent to deal with – everyone knows.
  • Parents are labeled and handled. Administrators and teachers will make a determination about what kind of parent you are based on even one interaction. While this may not be fair, it’s simply the reality. They’ll often meet ahead of time to strategize how to “handle” you in meetings and conferences which can lead to the incredibly frustration realization it’s the one of you against all of them. And once you’ve been labeled – it sticks
  • You won’t win (at least in the long-term). Sometimes a “strongly worded email” or conference can seem to be effective. But it’s important to realize your child will be in school for 13 years. Winning one battle at all costs can have serious long-term impacts. Once the school labels you as a “problem parent’ they’ll strategize how to best handle you in the future. A nasty email may win the battle – it won’t win the war.

While we all wish this wasn’t true, it’s human nature. For the sake of our children, we must understand the reality and become pragmatic. At least that’s been my strategy and more often than not it’s been successful.

Start off on the right foot

It’s so important to start the new school year in good faith and without a chip on your shoulder. Instead of assuming your child’s teacher is “going to be a problem,” start out by believing they’re going to be a partner. This means seeing the classroom through their eyes and empathizing with their needs. I have several teachers in my family and know it is a hard, often thankless job. Many teachers spend weekends and evenings grading papers and pay for supplies out of their own pockets. Most go into the job because it’s their passion, but can become discouraged and burnt out .

  • Be polite and act in good faith. A little genuine kindness and please and thank you can go a long way – especially with teachers who are overworked. Look for opportunities to compliment your child’s teacher. If called for, apologize and seek to make amends.
  • Be reasonable and solution oriented. It’s so important to recognize and respect the limitations of schools and teachers. Don’t lock yourself into one solution. Be an active listener and go into every meeting with a spirit of collaboration and mutual support.
  • Be ‘that’ parent. Reach out to your teacher in practical ways. Be the parent who they can count on as volunteer. Send in extra supplies when they’re requested – and when they aren’t. For example, all teachers always need extra pencils, tissues, and hand sanitizer.

Let’s not forget that as parents we find it incredibly challenging to care for our child, especially when their behaviors are extreme. Imagine a teacher trying to do that while teaching a full classroom of children. A bit of empathy and consideration can go far.

Work within the system

Fighting the system for reforms is a noble cause and one we all must support. However, the strategy for personal success is almost always learning how to work within the system. Thankfully, there are standard, legal processes to insure your child receives the educational supports they need and are entitled to. It can be a long process to obtain a 504 or IEP (Individual Education Plan), but well worth it because they are comprehensive plans with legal requirements. There are also many free or low-cost parenting advocates who are trained to assist parents in negotiations with their schools and setting up of 504s and IEPs.

  • 504s A 504 is a detailed plan for how the school will remove learning barriers for students with disabilities. Most commonly these include accommodations (how a student learns) like extended time for testing or priority seating. A 504 is easier to get than an IEP and usually the best stepping stone to an IEP.
  • IEPs An IEP is a legal agreement for a student to receive special education services. The IEP agreement can include both accommodations (how a student learns) and modifications (what a student learns). For example, it may include pull out educational services or classes co-taught by a traditional teacher and a special education teacher. An IEP requires an evaluation. Typically diagnoses like ADHD or RAD can qualify a student.

Resources

Be sure to check out this excellent resources on the ins and outs of navigating special education services for your child. From Emotions to Advocacy

Here’s a handout you are welcome to reproduce or email to your child’s teacher: Remember, approach is everything. You don’t want to come across like a patient being wheeled into surgery while handing the surgeon a diagram of the heart. Just offer this handout to teachers and school staff as “helpful information about my child’s diagnoses,” I find it’s always best delivered with a cup of coffee!

Here’s a social media shareable:

As parents of children with special needs, we’ve all had that sick feeling when we realize teachers and school staff have circled the wagons – and it’s “us” against “them.” Use the strategies in this article to make sure you are part of the team and that everyone – teachers, school counselors, principals, and you as the parent – are linking arms and circling your child with the supports they need.

Documentary exploring the school-to-prison pipeline

The PBS documentary, The Kids We Lose, explores how discipline techniques in schools feed the school-to-prison pipeline. It effectively argues for ending punitive practices in schools, but where are the viable and realistic solutions?

One strength of the film is showing how incredibly serious (and dangerous) these behaviors can be. However, it focuses on ADHD, Dyslexia, and Autism as the underlying causes. It’s important to note that the most significant underlying cause of these school behaviors is complex trauma – with nearly half of Americas children suffering at least one adverse experience hurting kids are in every classroom.

One of the highlights of the film is Dylan, an adult man now reflecting on his behaviors as a school aged child. His problems began in 6th grade when didn’t want to do what he was told to do. “I wanted to do things my way,” he says. When discussing his interactions with law enforcement in high school, Dylan says he was rebelling and acting out because he was unhappy. However, the experts on the film don’t address this type of willful behavior. In fact, they specifically say the kids have the motivation, but not the skills to succeed.

While it’s frowned up on in our society to say – some of our kids do have serious, willful behaviors. These children likely also have emotional issues, are disregulated, and may be hyperactive. They may lack the skills they need to succeed. They may also lack motivation and be willful in their behaviors. To find real solutions that work we have to start looking at children’s needs more holistically and realistically. When we deny a child’s control over their behaviors we steal their agency and cripple their chances of sucess in the future.

Photo Credit: The Kids We Lose, PBS

My thoughts…

Teachers need to teach

The film does a great job of showing just how serious and dangerous kids’ behaviors can be. However, it seems to unfairly put the onus on teachers with a focus on the need for teacher training so they can mitigate and manage the behaviors. In my opinion, behavior management (at this level) is not a teacher responsibility. We need support staff that will allow teachers to teach.

Restrains aren’t therapeutic, but we need an alternative

The film effectively shows how shocking and disturbing physical restraints can be. It goes on to explain that restraints are not therapeutic or educational – and therefore have no place in schools. However, the film doesn’t offer an alternative solution. There are cases where a child is completely out of control and unsafe to themselves and others. If we are do do away with physical restrains we must have a realistic acute solution – while continuing to provide long term treatment.

Teachers and peers matter too

It’s often forgotten that these types of extreme behavioral problems create a toxic environment for teachers and peers who are entitled to a healthy environment. The producer argues, “Instead of kids being taught to behave in school they are removed from school.” While this is a valid point, we must consider the needs of everyone – the struggling child, other students, teachers, and support staff.

It’s complicated

Photo Credit: The Kids We Lose, PBS

When my son Devon was in 5th grade he didn’t want to come inside after recess. All the other students were lined up at the door waiting as teachers called for Devon to come. He finally walked over with a large rock in his hand. He slammed the rock into a window and it shattered. Then Devon walked down the line of his peers punching them. When his teacher rushed over to stop him, he punched her in the stomach.

Here’s what I know:

  • Devon’s behavior clearly signaled mental health issues that needed treatment.
  • Physically restraining Devon wasn’t therapeutic or educational, but absolutely necessary.
  • Devon’s teacher had a right to work in a safe and healthy environment.
  • Devon’s behavior was traumatic and disruptive to other students.

These are complicated situations and we will not solve them by painting with a broad brush or focusing on only one prong. To find real solutions for behaviorally challenging students we must be willing to honestly define the problem(s), view the child holistically, and balance their needs along with the needs of others.

The Kids We Lose is a thought provoking film worth your time to watch. After you view it please leave me a comment to let me know what you think.

How to Discipline a Child with Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD)

It’s the million-dollar question. How do we manage the behavior of children with RAD?

Therapeutic approaches can seem scarily permissive. Meanwhile, traditional parenting approaches backfire spectacularly.

At the root, most behaviors children with RAD engage in are intended for self-preservation – by sabotaging relationships and controlling their environments. It’s unlikely, however, that they’re introspective enough to be consciously doing this. These underlying motivations are etched like scars on their psyche.

Most likely, the in-your-face motivations of these kids are far more concrete. For example, our kids may be arguing incessantly because:

  • it’s a habit like biting their nails or spinning a pencil
  • they want to test our boundaries to see how flexible the rules are
  • they don’t really care about anyone else’s feelings or needs
  • they love to push our buttons and get a reaction

When we’re in the trenches trying to manage these behaviors it’s sometimes difficult to embrace therapeutic parenting approaches because they seem to discount these in-your-face motivations entirely. Instead, they focus completely on the underlying, unconscious motivations.

[bctt tweet=”I’ve had therapists tell me that my son has no control over his behaviors – as if they’re as involuntary as a sneeze. I sure know that’s not the case.” username=”RaisingDevon”]

Yes, in the real-world of RAD parenting, we know the in-your-face motivations are every bit as real as the unconscious, underlying motivations. In fact, they’re what make the behaviors so painful to deal with emotionally. As a result, parents often focus on the in-your-face motivations and find themselves angry, frustrated, and easily triggered.

Let’s consider that in many children, both sets of motivations co-exist.

For example,

My child is arguing just because they enjoy pushing my buttons. It gives them a feeling of control which they unconsciously crave because they intrinsically believe the world is unsafe.

When we look at the motivations for the behavior more holistically like this we are able to have greater empathy, more patience, and find energy to invest in long-term approaches. Below are some resources I’ve found useful for specific strategies and approaches. Please be sure to comment and share what’s working for you.

Recommended Resources


The A-Z of Therapeutic Parenting

Sara Naish’s book “The A-Z of Therapeutic Parenting” it a balanced approach that’s both therapeutic and practical. She covers behaviors from Absconding to ZZZZ (sleep issues) and everything in between. For each behavior she helps us understand the broad range of reasons why a child might be doing it. She also provides strategies to prevent the behavior, to manage it in the moment, and to address it after the fact. These suggestions are refreshingly practical and obviously written by someone who has been in the trenches themselves. Read my full review or pick up a copy here: The A-Z of Therapeutic Parenting.


How to Discipline a Child with Reactive Attachment Disorder-2

How-to blog post

Check out this excellent post on how to discipline a child with RAD. This is one of the most complicated topics related to RAD. Most ‘discipline’ is ineffective and it can be quite risky.

How to Discipline a Child with Reactive Attachment Disorder – Every Star Is Different