Written by Julie Kurtz
A hug may be comforting to many children, but for a child who has experienced trauma, it may not feel safe.
That’s an example used by Julie Kurtz, co-director of trauma-informed practices in early childhood education at the WestEd Center for Child / Family Studies (CCFS), as she begins a trauma training session. Her audience, preschool teachers and staff of the San Francisco, CA-based Wu Yes Children’s Services at San Francisco’s Women’s Building, listen attentively.
Kurtz leads them into a description of how a child’s young brain functions, how young children – regardless of whether they have experienced trauma or not — live in their reptile brain.
“What’s the job of the reptile brain?” she asks.
“Survival” comes a response. “Yes, it’s fight, flight or freeze,” she says.
With guidance from adults, she explains, children’s immature brains develop neurons that build bridges to the rational part of the brain. The rational, executive part of the brain, she continues, is a place of calm, where we can plan, solve problems, and imagine how someone else interacting with us is feeling.
But if a child is in a state of terror, explains Kurtz, all bets are off. In that state, a child can’t hear what you’re saying or express herself in words, Kurtz says.
“What’s the strategy to calm a reptile brain?” she asks.
“It depends on the child…one idea is holding the child,” offers a teacher.
”Reassure the child,” suggests another teacher.
“Bring them to the current time,” another chimes in.
“You remembered!” says Kurtz. It’s the third session she’s had with these WuYee staff members, which include teachers, coaches and site managers. In the first session, Kurtz covered an overview of trauma and traumatic stress, and the impact it has on learning and development, including an explanation of the science associated with adverse childhood experiences (ACEs).
ACEs comes from the CDC-Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACE Study), groundbreaking research that looked at how 10 types of childhood trauma affect long-term health. They include physical, emotional and sexual abuse; physical and emotional neglect; living with a family member who’s addicted to alcohol or other substances, or who’s depressed or has other mental illnesses; experiencing parental divorce or separation; having a family member who’s incarcerated, and witnessing a mother being abused.
Subsequent ACE surveys include racism, witnessing violence outside the home, bullying, losing a parent to deportation, living in an unsafe neighbourhood, and involvement with the foster care system. Other types of childhood adversity can also include being homeless, living in a war zone, being an immigrant, moving many times, witnessing a sibling being abused, witnessing a father or other caregiver or extended family member being abused, involvement with the criminal justice system and attending a school that enforces a zero-tolerance discipline policy.
The impetus for the workshops was an awareness that many children in San Francisco, including many served by WuYee, are experiencing trauma and adversity, according to Wu Yee Associate Program Director in Child Development Kimberly Jones. The organization serves 648 children in 12 locations across the city, according to its 2015/2016 annual report.
Some teachers reported having difficulty managing challenging behaviors among some of the children, and wanted to learn new skills to better help them.
A deeper look into the histories of those children revealed that many were living in communities heavily affected by violence and trauma. “A highly anxious child, a child that’s hard to calm down may have been up all night listening to gunshots,” says Jones, as an example of what a child in their preschool might be facing.
Among the takeaways from Kurtz’s earlier training was that staff learned more about trauma caused by domestic violence, intergenerational trauma, and historical sources of trauma, such as “the impact of racism, its lingering effect in how it impacts people,” Jones says.
Another adverse childhood experience that was clearly affecting some of the children they serve is homelessness. Three percent of the 648 families who have children in the organization’s preschool are homeless, according to the most recent annual report, a figure that Jones says may not accurately reflect the actual toll. Some families who have lost housing may have moved in with relatives, “but there’s lot of shame with that, so it’s underreported,” she says.
To help children ensnared in such turmoil, Kurtz reviews some strategies about how to defuse a child who has been triggered into “fight, flight or freeze” mode. In the midst of a trigger, she explains, the world is dangerous, the child sees you “as a lion or a monster.” They can’t see you or hear you. Words don’t work.
“How do they express themselves?” she queries.
“They shake,” says another teacher.
If they’re hitting, Kurtz says, “It is a sign they need to expel energy.”
Then Kurtz pivots to some ways to pull the preschoolers back to safety. It’s all about bringing them into the present moment. The teachers call out strategies to draw the child from the time warp of trauma to a designated safe space in the room: Have them throw a ball inside a box or crumple up paper and throw it in the trash. Kurtz ticks off other calming activities: Have them walk with you in nature, run, cry, squeeze Play Dough, color.
To be able to lead a child away from a moment of terror, however, Kurtz reminds the teachers, is easier and more effective if the adults are actively managing stress in their own lives. In the second training session, Kurtz helped guide WuYee staff through exercises to recognize their own experiences with trauma and what triggers stress for them. Those participating were asked to identify what activities rejuvenate them, and were taught how to shift “self-talk” — the internal chatter that we all have in our heads in reaction to the world outside — from negative to affirming and kind.
The tools provided in the self-care session really struck a chord for Merced Rocha, a lead teacher at Wu Yee’s New Generation Center in Visitation Valley. “I lost my daughter to cancer 5 years ago,” says Rocha. She says she would give 100 percent in the classroom, “but when I’d go home, I’d shut down. The training helped me acknowledge my own emotions, and think about how I feel and take care of myself before I go to work.” That self-care plan included walking around a nearby lake, an activity she had stopped altogether when her daughter died.
After reviewing the previous sessions, Kurtz walks participants through a series of exercises to help them develop plans tailored to the needs of children who have experienced trauma. A handout asks them to identify what triggers a child, where the trigger occurs and how to interact with the child based on whether she’s in fight, flight or freeze mode.
To highlight how expressing feelings may feel dangerous for a triggered child, for example, Kurtz recounted to the WuYee staff how she knew instinctively as a child that to stay safe and keep her brothers safe, they couldn’t show any emotions.
ACEs science, she says in subsequent emails, “was foundational in my personal transformation.” It also sparked her interest in sharing what she learned with others. “When you heal yourself,” notes Kurtz, “you want to share the hope for others and carry a torch as a change agent.”
Kurtz and her coworkers at WestEd have trained preschool teachers and other groups working with children from infants to 8-years-old all over California, including in Bay Area counties and Sacramento, Tehama, Kern, Ventura, Los Angeles and San Diego counties. What’s included in trainings varies based on need, as does the cost, which Kurtz stresses they strive to make affordable and cost-effective. The Packard Foundation funded trainings that her group provided in Oakland.
Following the training — which included around 65 WuYee staff members, including lead teachers, managers, mental health consultants and coaches — Jones says they’ll survey the participants to see what they’ve learned and figure out the next steps.
The bottom line for much of the trauma training is finding ways for children to feel safe. It’s an endeavor, counsels Kurtz, that will likely take time.
“If a child pushes me away, I have to show that I’m safe, and won’t reject him. Over time, it will build resiliency: ‘There’s an adult who makes me feel safe’ (the child will think). But,” she says, ”it won’t happen quickly.”
Keywords: childhood trauma, ACE Study, reptile brain, neurons