Nine-year-old Tyrek habitually stares blankly into space in class. When the teacher calls his name, hisdreamy eyes are often seen drifting slowly back to the classroom reality as his brain slowly registers his namebeing called. Tyrek witnessed the murder of his older brother only days before the start of the new school year and two weeks later, his cousin of his same age was shot while riding his bicycle to the store. Tyrek is now noticeably irritable, anxious, withdrawn from his classmates and disinterested in the lessons and playing outside with his friends.
Becky is eight years old. She loves school and is enthusiastic about her favorite subjects - reading and math. She enjoys being around her classmates and is always willing to help her teacher. She is a natural leader. Recently Becky teacher noticed that she has been very withdrawn. Teacher asks Becky to stay after class and inquires what’s going on. Becky confesses that her uncle has tried to touch her inappropriately. She says she is very scared as he threatened that if she tells anyone, he will kill her parents and siblings.
Ricky is 11 years old and usually bright-eyed, warm and happy. Today he came to class and was hostile to his classmates. He fought with his classmates twice for no apparent reason. When asked what was going on, Ricky told the principal that his father habitually beats his mother. Over the weekend, they had a major fight and his father punched his mother and she had to be hospitalized. The police were called, and his father is locked up. Ricky resents his father and blames himself for the quarrel that led to the hospitalization of his mother and subsequent incarceration of his father.
These scenarios highlight the reality of many students in our Belizean communities. Trauma is the underlying cause of most behavioral, emotional and social issues at school. It is experienced when children are exposed to stressful events such as death, family violence, gun violence, abuse, neglect, injury and bullying. Trauma has long-lasting adverse effects on the mental, physical, emotional and social well-being of those affected. Children living in gang-afflicted areas in Belize may also experience complex trauma because of the high levels of armed violence and crime in their communities. Childhood trauma turns a learning brain into a survival brain and survival trumps learning. Ultimately, trauma impacts the overall development and well-being of children.
This article briefly explores the broad themes of trauma-informed practice in schools as presented at the capacity building training workshops sponsored by RESTORE Belize. RESTORE Belize recognizes that children are impacted by the high incidences of crime and violence in their communities and that school personnel can play a key role in mitigating the effects of violence and trauma in children. They are the group of duty bearers and professionals that encounter children more than any other group of professionals in Belize. RESTORE Belize also recognizes that trauma affects learning and school performance and if the effects of violence on children are ignored, then poor academic outcomes will continue. RESTORE Belize advocates for an educational response to the pervasive issue of exposure to violence and its resulting psychological trauma on children. School leaders, educators and staff can learn to read the signs and symptoms of a child’s exposure to violence and trauma and respond in ways that are caring and compassionate. If a child is being abused, a teacher/school administrator can notice the “telltale” signs and intervene early and stop it. For this reason, the workshop equipped participating educators and school leaders with the knowledge, skills, and attitudes needed to develop practical and action-oriented strategies to implement trauma-informed practices in their schools.