Trauma-Informed Approaches: A Central California Convening Keynote Presentation Highlights

In October 2017, REL West at WestEd and the California School-Based Health Alliance convened
150 education, healthcare, and other youth-serving professionals from California’s Central
Valley to learn about childhood exposure to trauma, and how schools and clinics can improve
behavioral health outcomes. Here are highlights from the keynote presentation. Research shows that exposure to trauma is
common, that it affects student learning, behavior, health, and development, and that
these outcomes can improve with knowledge and skill. Doc Martha, from the HEARTS program at the
University of California San Francisco, was the keynote presenter. She’s one of the nation’s leaders in bringing
the science of trauma to interventions for children. Together we learned what the impacts of trauma
and stress look like in classrooms, how adults can prevent further escalation both for their
students and themselves, and what to do to help all students feel safe and calm and be
ready to learn. Exposure to trauma can interfere with a person’s
thinking and behavior, overwhelming their ability to cope and causing them to feel helpless
or fearful. Experiencing trauma can even impact how someone
deals with everyday situations, causing their brain to tap into a “fight, flight, or freeze”
response when faced with any kind of stress or conflict. To illustrate this, Doc Martha shared Arvin’s
Arvin is a third grade student. He arrives to school 45 minutes late. His teacher asks him for his homework. He doesn’t have it. She takes away his recess as a result. Arvin makes his way to his desk. On his way to his desk, somebody bumps into
him. Arvin shoves the other kid down. The kid trips over a table … over a chair. The teacher comes over yelling, like, “What’s
going on over here?” Arvin puts his hands over his ears, starts
screaming, hides under his desk. It takes ten minutes to get Arvin out of the
classroom, where he kicks a staff person on his way out and gets suspended for his behavior
as a result. NARRATOR
Most of us would ask, “What’s wrong with Arvin?” DR. MARTHA MERCHANT
If you don’t remember anything else from this morning, what I want you to remember
is to shift your perspective from one that asks, “What is wrong with you?” to one
that asks, “What has happened to you?” NARRATOR
Next, Doc Martha re-told Arvin’s story, but with information we didn’t have the
Arvin is a third grade student who lives in an underresourced neighborhood. There’s a lot of community violence where
he’s been growing up. Next door there are a couple of neighbors
who have a lot of IPV, interpersonal violence. They’ve got a lot of IPV, and he’s been
watching that from outside for most of his life. The night before this event happened at school
they were having a particularly loud fight. Arvin was out riding his bike in the front,
came inside, told his mom something really bad is about to happen. Mom called the police. The police arrive 45 minutes later. By then the argument was over, right? They’re done yelling at each other, but
the police go in. They knock on the door, they have a conversation. They leave and the neighbor then comes to
their door, bangs on the door. “I know it was you.
I know you’re in there. I know you’re calling the cops on us. You better leave my family alone. I’m going to tell immigration where you
Traumatic events like those experienced by Arvin can trigger feelings and behaviors that
play out in classrooms. DR. MARTHA MERCHANT
Trauma is an event, an experience, and an effect. So when we think about the story of Arvin,
no one was actually physically … Arvin didn’t get hit, right? So, what was the event? What was the moment at which his life was
threatened? When they were knocking on the door; when
the woman came to knock on the door and said, “I’m going to send immigration,” right? This is the threat of harm. What happens is, that gives us this experience
of fight, flight, or freeze, right, that we’re helpless to escape. It overwhelms the brain and body, which leads
to disintegration in the brain, which leads to dysregulation, which can have lasting adverse
effects. So the idea is that in your brain you have
all these neurons. When you’re learning something new the neurons
fire together, right? And so, the more you do it, the more you practice
it, the faster the neurons get at firing. So if you’re learning to play an instrument,
for instance, when you first start you have to think about every movement, each finger,
how to do it, where to blow, right, every little piece. But the more often you do that, the more you
practice it, the easier it gets to where it feels a little bit like you’re not thinking
about it at all. Which is awesome if what you’re learning
how to do is play an instrument or drive a car or ride a bike. It’s not so awesome if what you’re learning
is that the world is a scary place to live. NARRATOR
For a student like Arvin, the brain has been conditioned to experience any kind of stress
as if it were an attack. DR. MARTHA MERCHANT
So, so we want to think about what our hot buttons are, what are our triggers that give
us these out-of-proportion reactions, right? That our brain gets confused between the there
and then, and the here and now, right? Because Arvin’s teacher has never hit him. Super bad things have never happened in that
classroom beyond her raising her voice from time to time, but just for a moment he was
triggered into this sense of the there and then. NARRATOR
Key to a trauma-informed approach is understanding these triggers, and helping students manage
their stress in healthy, productive ways. Doc Martha described what happens when students
like Arvin are triggered and lose control. DR. MARTHA MERCHANT
So the analogy we use in schools a ton is the rider and the horse. So, the rider is your thinking/learning brain. This is your rider, right? The rider sits up high, can see for long distances,
can think about context, can say, “Oh, there’s something bad going on over there; I’m going
to go over here instead,” right? This is the, this is the prefrontal cortex
part of the brain. The horse is the amygdala, the feeling center
of the brain, right? And this is the part that makes the decisions
based on safety and protective instincts, right? Which one of those is bigger? The horse.
It’s a very powerful motor. The horse will take over. When they’re working together they can get
a lot of good work done. When they’re integrated, this, this whole
brain is integrated, we can get a lot of cool stuff done. But sometimes the rider goes off the horse,
right? So, so the thing about the rider going off
the horse is that if the rider is off the horse, no amount of sticker charts or what
agreement we made yesterday or talk about that you’re going to get suspended is going
to get in because that part of the brain is not listening. NARRATOR
Doc Martha explained that adult riders can also fall off of their horses, and that trauma-informed
approaches rely on adults who are self-aware and can stay in control. DR. MARTHA MERCHANT
And the other thing I like about this is, that’s a professional rider. I’m talking about kids here, but all of
us have rider-off-the-horse moments, right? All of us. I talk about this stuff all the time and I
have rider-off-the-horse moments all the time. We want to encourage people to keep your rider
on your horse, right? So when we have kids whose riders are off
their horses, if I walk into a room and somebody’s asking me to do something to help, I’m not
looking at the kid first. If you’re the tallest grownup, I’m going
to be looking at you first because I’m going to hope that you have enough resources to
get it together, right? And also to get your rider back on the horse
if it goes off, right? Which means being able to recognize your rider
is off your horse and then having a method for what’s next. NARRATOR
Doc Martha then described a number of strategies to reduce stress which can lead to rider-off-the-horse
moments, and to help them get back on after they fall off. DR. MARTHA MERCHANT
This is my escalation and prevention intervention diagram, right? So when you think about Arvin, when Arvin
walked in, was he at calm, ready to learn? No. Where was he when he walked in the door do
you think? Anxiety somewhere, right? And then the teacher said, “Where’s your
homework?” And now he starts to feel upset because he’s
a bad student. He doesn’t want to be a bad student. He wants to be a good student, right? And then he gets bumped into, and now we have
the peak, right? So most of what I teach when I’m talking
to schools, to teachers and educators and principals, is over here. NARRATOR
One strategy to help kids stay regulated throughout the day is a brain break. DR. MARTHA MERCHANT
One of the things that we talk about a lot are brain breaks. And the basis of a brain break is a belly
breath. It’s such a simple thing that I think people
sometimes dismiss it, but it’s a real thing. The thing is that this actually turns on your
parasympathetic nervous system and tells your body to relax. NARRATOR
Other strategies for creating trauma-informed environments include: creating “peace corners”
or safe spaces in the school or classroom where students who feel triggered can take
an individual brain break or work on getting self-regulated; co-regulating with students
until they are able to self-regulate, including modeling healthy responses to stress and talking
them through a process of de-escalation; recognizing implicit bias, which may lead to hurtful assumptions
that impact students’ feelings of safety and inclusion at school; building positive
and trusting relationships with students so that feedback can be received in a constructive
and non-threatening way. DR. MARTHA MERCHANT
For every “big I” intervention that we talk about, therapy and services and wraparound
and all those things, every one of those is built up of “little I” interactions: “Hi,
how’s it going?” Call you by name. Look you in the eye. “Nice to see you today. What’s up today?” right? All those “little I” interactions make
a difference. Every positive interaction that you have with
a trustworthy other helps to rebuild connections in the brain, right? Such that we can move the song from the fear
song to the compassion song, to the “school is the place for me” song, to the “I know
where to find help” song. NARRATOR
This video is funded by the Institute of Education Sciences at the U.S. Department of Education. To learn more, please email us at [email protected]

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