By Julia Steiny
Today we’re in the brightly painted library of an urban elementary school. It’s the last day of professional development before the summer officially ends. The faculty are still in shorts and sandals. While they sigh over how quickly the season passed, the vibe among them is jolly and warm.
Up next to help prepare this group for the new school year is a presentation called “Helping to Reach and Teach the Traumatized Child.” Amy Simpson, Clinical Director from Family Services of RI, starts us off by having teachers build a list of the sorts of things considered traumatic — death of a loved one, divorce, loss of employment, medical procedures, natural disasters and sexual, verbal and physical abuse, among many others. The list was long. “Unfortunately long,” Simpson called it. But in truth, it was just a list. Perhaps we mused a bit on the tough experiences identified by the list that we’ve actually had.
But without a palpable taste of what trauma feels like, it’s just an abstraction.
Then, with sincere apologies, Simpson introduces her audience to a YouTube recording. Listen to “Lisa 911 Call” only if you’re ready for three memorably upsetting minutes. Or take my word for it:
A girl, presumably Lisa, sounding 7 or 8ish, has called 911 because her stepfather is beating her mother. She’s crying so hysterically it takes a while to get the basics of the situation. Subtitles help you understand that the man goes drinking at “the club” and this happens, according to her, “forever and ever.” You can hear the fight in the background. Terrified, the child barely holds it together to work with the 911 operator.
The operator is super calm and all business. Her tone implies she’s taking a serious problem seriously, but not emotionally. She assures Lisa that the police are on their way and that she will stay on the phone with the girl until help arrives. Lisa is only nominally calmed by the promise of help. The operator asks if the front door is unlocked. “Oh, no,” cries the girl, because she doesn’t think it is. So she just puts the phone down and runs to give the police access. Her end of the line now has only the sounds of the fight, so for an agonizing 10 seconds my mind raced to all manner of horror, including Lisa getting caught by the her stepfather.
But she comes back, and says she unlocked the door. But her hysteria crescendos again, because the man “knocked out” her little sister. Finally, Lisa’s cries rise to a piercing crest because “he’s got the baby.” She’s frantic to see what happened and puts the phone down. The operator calls after her — “Lisa!” The line goes dead. The operator swears.
Oy. We’re all shaken. The point is, as Simpson says gently:
“It is conceivable that this child will be in your classroom the next day.”
Okay. Point taken. But now a whole room of adults are fairly upset. They let Simpson know they did not appreciate that experience. Empathetically, she honors their experience. Without a hint of dismissing their feelings, she explains that “As adult professionals, we can re-regulate. Kids have a far harder time. And when they are traumatized or an old trauma is triggered, their brains go into survival mode and they stop learning.”
So the big take-away is that brain research has shown definitively that trauma shuts down the brain’s ability to learn. The traumatized brain becomes consumed with fight-or-flight and shuts down learning. Multiplication tables? The life cycle of rivers? Greek myths? Forget it. The kid can’t think.
So educators themselves need to become, as the presenters call it, “trauma-informed.” They need to know it’s ubiquitous and to begin collecting techniques to avoid triggering it at a minimum. Trauma might be as fresh as Lisa’s if she goes to school the next day. Or it might have happened in the past, perhaps on a prolonged basis. Either way, it can be triggered in the present time by a seemingly innocuous story, a certain gesture, a harsh tone of voice, or who knows?
Adults have their own feelings and can react in ways that escalate.
Teachers naturally expect cooperation from their students and work to discipline unruly kids. Misbehavior may seem like a choice, and sometimes it is. But it could well be a reaction to unmet needs resulting from trauma. Still, a flare-up of unwanted behavior can feel defiant, insulting and disrespectful to a college-educated adult who’s trying to manage 30 kids and a lesson plan. Still, anyone can trigger a traumatic flashback quite accidentally, and angry responses are known to make matters worse.
The school’s principal summed up the palpably painful lesson, “Getting in a student’s face is never appropriate. But it’s especially inappropriate with traumatized kids. You might feel attacked or the child is defiant, but in truth the child is reaching out. It’s not about you.”
That’s hard to remember when a kid is lashing out at you. And while trauma is better understood, classroom responses to it require time and training, both of which are in seriously short supply, especially in urban schools. Still, knowing how to avoid triggering is a great start.
Julia SteinyJulia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal's education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she's been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.
Looking for a push in your right direction? I sat down with Amy Simpson, a certified personal life coach and Prepare/Enrich® facilitator new to Pawtuxet Village. Amy sheds light on what life coaching really is, who can benefit, and if it is anything like “Dan the life coach” described on Naked Dating. I know you all watch it.
Amy Simpson is a native Rhode Islander. A chic East Side mom of two who has been married for almost twenty years. “I came about being a therapist and a life coach in a very non-traditional way. Previous to getting into this field I worked as a jewelry designer for 20 years.” Amy explained to me that although she loved designing jewelry, which is evident as I look down at her hands to see an elegantly designed ring embossed with the state crest, she desired to do something more meaningful in her work. “I had this whole other career and had experienced some life changing events that inspired me to alter my course and ultimately led me to pursuing a degree in clinical psychology.” Amy received an advanced degree in Marriage and Family Therapy from the University of Rhode Island.
Amy is currently employed at a local social service agency where she works with children and families who have experienced traumatic events. “Although the work I do is very meaningful, I felt I wanted to go back to my couples training. I believe there is a real need for couples work, specifically pre-marital training. I think at times people are a little leery about going to a therapist. I thought about how I could approach this differently from a coaching standpoint. That is what really got the ball rolling. How can I work with couples and how can I do that in a way that wouldn’t be limiting or intimidating to people?” Amy pursued training and certification as a personal life coach and opened a practice in Pawtuxet Village. “My interest in coaching burgeoned into not only working with couples, but also working with families and individuals.”
What is life coaching? Is it just therapy without the title? Amy explains that in many ways life coaching is very different than therapy. “Therapy is analogous to archeology, while life coaching is similar to being an architect. In therapy you look back and connect past experiences to present behavior. Life coaching doesn’t make that connection; it looks at where you are now and where you want to be in the future.” Amy describes life coaching as a very client-driven approach. “I am a firm believer that you are the expert on yourself and that is a driving principle behind my work. As a life coach, I try to elicit from clients what they want and how they think they can get there. This works for individuals, this works for couples, and it works for families. Often times, couples and families are stuck in a situation where they know where they want to be, but not how to get there. They need a third party to identify the cycle they are in and help them work together to find a way to alter or break the pattern, and ultimately move them to the place they know they want to be.”
Who can benefit from a life coach? “I think anyone can benefit from a life coach. As I embarked on this endeavor I thought, Wow! There are so many times I could have used a life coach.” Amy asks readers to, “Think back to points or times in your life when you were struggling with an issue, or a decision, or a transition, and you wanted a neutral unbiased person to help you work through it. Many people can’t call their mother, family members, or even friends because all of those people may have an agenda.” The approach Amy uses with any client is adapted to their needs and unique situation. A core assumption behind Amy’s work with any client is that every individual has the ability to make the changes they want to make. Amy informed the staff at GET that life coaches provide not only an unbiased ear, but they also support clients in developing new skills. “We know what we know, but if we are presented with a new way of doing things that aligns with our goals and values and encourages success, we can adapt.”
Amy is quick to assure readers that although her approaches are tailored to each individual client, she utilizes evidence based practices, with high success rates. She is a certified Prepare/Enrich® facilitator providing effective research driven marriage preparation, marital and couple enhancement, parenting, and adoptive/foster parenting coaching. This model, geared specifically toward couples, is something Amy was very excited to share with readers. “I firmly believe that before a couple spends one dime on wedding preparations, they should have premarital coaching, counseling, or therapy. Couples often don’t want to talk about the tricky stuff. They don’t want to talk about budgeting, extended families roles in the couple’s life, or who does what to keep the relationship and home running. We want to talk about the fun stuff, but it’s the things we don’t want to talk about that are often the things that have the potential of eroding the relationship. These are things that are easy to address proactively and build upon to support a healthy relationship.” Amy encourages all couples, not just those walking the aisle, to utilize couples coaching. “Any couple that can identify areas in their relationship that they would like to work on or need strengthening should think about utilizing couples coaching.”
Amy is also trained through Prepare/Enrich® as a parenting coach, with specialization in coaching pre-adoptive and foster parents. “I think it is so wonderful that couples want to adopt and foster children and I want to help support and prepare them for that journey. Through my therapeutic work I have a unique opportunity to work with many children, and their parents, who are or who have been in the foster care system. This has brought a trauma informed lens to my work with couples interested in fostering and adopting.” The focus of Prepare/Enrich® ‘Foster and Adopt’ is to prepare couples for the obstacles and challenges of fostering and adopting a child. Whether preparing to adopt, foster, or have children of your own it is important to be proactive; address the couple dynamics, identify strengths, and building on room for growth. “It’s all about strengthening the foundation before you build the house.”
1981 Broad Street, Cranston, RI 02905
WRITTEN BY KAYLA DAVID