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 Tyrek is now noticeably irritable, anxious, withdrawn from his classmates and disinterested in the lessons and playing outside with his friends.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 Recently Becky's teacher noticed that she has been very withdrawn.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.

WHAT IS TRAUMA?

The three E’s of Trauma

“Individual trauma results from an EVENT, series of events, or set of circumstances that is EXPERIENCED by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or life threatening and that has lasting adverse EFFECTS on the individual’s functioning and mental, physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being.” (SAMHSA, 2014)

Here are other definitions:

Trauma is a response to a major catastrophic event or a negative event or series of events that is so overwhelming it surpasses the person’s ordinary coping skills and leaves that person unable to come to terms with it. It is the emotional, psychological and physiological residue left over from heightened stress that accompanies experience of threat, violence and life changing events. Traumatic events come in many forms and experiences such as maltreatment, witnessing violence, or the loss of a loved one. Traumatic experiences can impact brain development and behaviour inside and outside of the classroom.
Trauma is a response to exposure of actual, perceived, or threatened death, physical violence, sexual violence, neglect, serious injury, catastrophic natural disasters, unhealthy early relational attachments, racism, and/or oppression.
Trauma is an overwhelming event. It takes away our safety, creates a sense of helplessness and continues to affect our perception of reality.

How is trauma experienced?

  • Direct experiencing: Victim. Being a direct recipient of the traumatic event
  • Witnessing the event, in person, as the event occurs
  • Learning the event happened to a family member, close friend, or member of one’s community, ethnicity/race, or sexual minority group
  • Repeated exposure to details of the event via social media, images, intrusive thoughts, and/or conversation

Types of Traumatic Events:

  • Physical abuse
  • Psychological/emotional/verbal abuse
  • Sexual abuse
  • Abandonment, neglect or betrayal of trust
  • Witnessing or experiencing family/domestic violence
  • Life-threatening illness in a caregiver
  • Grief and loss: The death of a loved one or primary caregiver or loss of something valuable (i.e. house)
  • Tragic automobile accidents or other serious accidents
  • Life-threatening health situations and/or painful medical procedures
  • Witnessing or experiencing community violence (gang/gun violence, street violence, assault, robbery)
  • School violence which encompasses physical violence, including student-on-student fighting and corporal punishment; psychological violence, including verbal abuse; sexual violence, including rape and sexual harassment; many forms of bullying, including cyberbullying; and carrying weapons in school
  • Witnessing police brutality or having a close relative incarcerated
  • Life-threatening natural disasters such as hurricanes, floods, fires, tsunami, earthquakes
  • Acts or threats of terrorism
  • War zone trauma
  • Refugee trauma (i.e. displacement of migrant families and children)

What are the effects of trauma on children and why are schools addressing trauma?

  • Trauma overwhelms a child/student’s ability to cope with the traumatic event and consequently with daily life stressors
  • Trauma results in feelings of terror, helplessness, and powerlessness. This affects their ability to think clearly and learn
  • Complex Trauma results when there is chronic exposure to trauma that begins early in life, often within care-giving relationships and leads to immediate and long-term difficulties in many areas (i.e. ongoing interpersonal violence or neglect and other forms of chronic stress experienced without adult support).
  • Trauma affects the physiology of the brain such as its size and structures
  • Fewer neural connections are made in the child’s brain
  • Heightened baseline level of arousal. Children are frequently in their fight, flight, freeze or faint survival mode and this significantly interferes with their thinking and ability to learn
  • Difficulties with learning and memory
  • Difficulties with emotional regulation. When children are in their default mode (using their primitive reptilian brain- often on their fight, flight, freeze alarm system, they cannot access parts of their pre-frontal cortex that helps them to make better choices and decisions)
  • Difficulty trusting others and forming healthy relationships. Trauma affects children’s ability to trust other children and adults in their life
  • Increased behavioural issues in school as children will express their hurt through inappropriate behavior
  • Dissociative responses in children as they often check-out and can disassociate themselves from their present reality. They may not feel their bodies for example, or feel like if they are somewhere else to avoid the emotional pain they are suffering
  • Increased risk for mental health issues on the long term
  • Lower self-esteem in children
  • Focus on survival vs. a future orientation
  • Increased risk for other system involvement (i.e. juvenile justice system, police, human development department)
  • Difficulty paying attention and learning
  • Trouble building relationships with teachers and peers
  • More time out of class
  • Increased risk of failing and poor test scores
  • More likely to be suspended or expelled
  • Higher rates of referral to special education
  • Children affected by trauma are functioning in their survival mode. Trying to survive affects their ability to learn and succeed in school
  • Negative impact on school safety and culture. Traumatized children do not feel safe and this has an adverse effect on the school
  • Environment less conducive for learning
  • Increased risk for harm

What are signs and symptoms of trauma that school personnel can learn to identify?

  • Physical symptoms: headaches, stomach aches, poor appetite, and a decline in self-care
  • Intense feelings of fear, anxiety, and concern for safety are also common following a traumatic experience
  • Students may have trouble identifying their feelings, calming themselves down, and expressing their emotions in safe ways
  • Inability to sleep or interrupted sleep
  • Not able to attend to learning and/or concentration
  • Inability to focus on what is going on
  • Difficulties regulating emotions can lead to behaviour problems such as angry or aggressive outbursts, over or under reacting to situations, and becoming impulsive
  • Some students may withdraw from peers and adults, or engage in risky behaviours such as alcohol or drug use, sexual behaviours, fights, or self-harm as a way to manage feelings related to trauma
  • In some cases, students become overly clingy and attached to adults and peers without a sense of personal boundaries
  • Difficulties with concentration and thinking

What are the effects of trauma on School/academic Performance?

  • Lower grades and GPA
  • Higher rates of truancy
  • Increased dropouts
  • Increased suspensions and expulsions
  • Decreased reading ability
  • Increased undesirable behavior (i.e. aggressive behaviors and emotional outbursts)
  • Youth exposed to trauma and interpersonal trauma have trouble trusting adults and peers, reading social cues, and building relationships. They assume people will hurt and betray them and react negatively to authority and misread social cues – perhaps perceiving a neutral gesture or tone as threatening. These could compromise relationships with adults and peers which may reinforce patterns of response.
  • Significant long-term issues: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, anxiety, and depression

TRAUMA INFORMED PRACTICES IN SCHOOLS (TIPS) RESTORE BELIZE

Components of trauma-informed practice in schools

  • Creating a Safe Environment
  • Building Relations With Connections
  • Supporting and Teaching Emotional Regulations

 

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What does it mean to be trauma-informed?

Educators and school leaders are informed about and sensitive to the ways in which trauma affects children and young people. Trauma-informed practices promote a culture of safety, stability, and healing in the school environment. A fundamental goal is to prevent re-injury or re-traumatization by acknowledging that Belizean children are exposed to traumatic events and some may be experiencing trauma. They recognize the triggers in the classroom and school system and try to reduce them. Teachers and school leaders avoid stigmatizing and punishing students who are affected by trauma as they recognize that some undesirable and disruptive behaviors from students may be because of trauma. Children may not be able to express their psychological and emotional pain and may therefore express their emotions in inappropriate ways. In essence, TIPS require a paradigm shift at the staff and organizational level to focus on understanding what happened to a child rather than focusing on the conduct of the child.

What is trauma-informed practices in schools?

It is a systems-wide organizational approach that involves understanding, recognizing, and responding to the effects of all types of trauma on children. It requires the commitment of school administrators, teachers, and staff to transform school norms to be more trauma-sensitive. Understanding and responding to trauma can help to reduce its negative impact, support critical learning, and create a more positive school environment.

Whole School Initiative

RESTORE Belize is using a whole-school approach to build the capacity of school personnel to transform common practices and culture that address the way children affected by violence and trauma are treated. Instead of ignoring children who are affected by family violence, gun/gang violence and school violence, school personnel will be able to recognize that certain behaviors displayed in the classroom may be trauma related and respond to it sensitively. Instead of asking, “What is wrong with this child?” educators can ask, “What is happening to this child?” This moves educators away from a deficit-oriented pathologically-based paradigm to a trauma-sensitive lens that seeks to understand the whole child in its social environment. School personnel are being taught to recognize the signs and symptoms of trauma and respond to children in ways that demonstrate care and concern for children. The approach provides school personnel with practical strategies to calm a triggered child using a calm face, calm body and calm voice. Educators and staff can use grounding techniques to respond to children who are ‘checked out’ and who are staring into space.
What is Restore Belize doing?
During the month of August 2019, RESTORE Belize held two training workshops titled ‘Developing Safe Schools: Trauma-informed Practice in Schools’ (TIPS) with primary and secondary school teachers from four schools in Belize City. RESTORE Belize is currently working with St. John’s Anglican Primary school, Queen Street Baptist Primary School, and Maud Williams High School in the Safe School Initiative. Other school personnel from Ebenezer Methodist Primary School and St. Luke Methodist Primary School were also present at the training workshop.
The workshops focused on the definitions of trauma, ‘Trauma-informed Practices in Schools Framework’, the effects of adverse childhood experiences on children and individuals, trauma and its effects on the brain, the behavioral and psychological effects of trauma on children at different developmental periods, family violence and its effects on children, children’s experience of grief and loss, and vicarious trauma and strategies for personal self-care at the individual and collective faculty level.

Methodology of the Workshop

Anna Sambula, a Counselor, facilitating Grief & Loss sessions at workshop with teachers and school leader

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Alex P. Vega, Human Development Consultant & Safe Schools Coordinator led the TIPS workshop with teachers and school leaders

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  • Large group Power point presentations
  • Large group discussions
  • Small group task-oriented work
  • Small group discussions
  • Experiential activities
  • Individual introspective exercises
  • Dyad exercises
  • Use of multi-media technologies
  • Practice sessions

On the last day of the workshop, teachers collaborated with each other to identify common practices in their school that can be transformed by applying the principles of trauma-informed care. They created realistic goals that they want to achieve this academic year 2019-2020 to transform their school to a trauma-sensitive and ‘safer’ school.

They identified specific and achievable SMART objectives that will help them to reach their goals. These had to be specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-bound. They then created practical steps and success indicators that will help them to know when they have achieved their goals and made progress with their action plan.

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The Workshops

 

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Successes

  • Facilitators built rapport and trust with teachers and school personnel to work on TIPS initiative.
  • In a safe workshop environment with explicit group agreements (ground rules) teachers felt comfortable sharing their personal experiences of trauma.
  • Teachers had an opportunity to critically discuss the psychosocial issues (i.e. stressors) children are confronting in their daily life
  • Teachers ventilated the challenges and hardships they confront in the profession
  • Teachers were exposed to techniques to calm children affected by trauma
  • Teachers learned about trauma and its effects on the brain and ways to respond to triggered youth
  • School administrators whole-heartedly supported the initiative and its relevance to their school

Challenges

  • Time constraints to practice hands on skills, to do more role-plays on working with an angry, disruptive, hostile or checked out child
  • Some teachers struggle to see the link between trauma and undesirable/problematic behaviors (i.e. ingrained cultural beliefs that the root cause of undesirable behavior is that the children are just rude, disrespectful or they are, in colloquial terms, ‘bad pikni’)
  • Staff members are also affected by trauma or vicarious trauma and need help and support in order to personally heal. If they address their own wounds, they will more likely be more responsive, compassionate and sensitive to children’s trauma.

Way Forward

Restore Belize will continue to build capacity with the identified schools they are working with, will strengthen its collaboration with the Ministry of Education, Education District Centers, and TEDS, and other key partners in the business sector to support this ‘Safe Schools: Trauma-Informed Practice in Schools initiative.’ This approach engages all actors to achieve the goal – the creation of safer schools for our Belizean children.

In addition, RESTORE Belize plans on enhancing its monitoring and evaluation of the trauma-informed practice approach to ensure that it remains relevant and effective.

 

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