Monday, March 12, 2018

What Happened to You?

Last night I watched a piece on "60 Minutes" presented by Oprah entitled "Treating Childhood Trauma".  Oprah explored a new strategy for working with troubled kids called "Trauma Informed Care".  The basic premise of this approach is that when adults observe challenging or risky behaviors in children, they should change their initial question from "What's wrong with you?" to "What happened to you?". Trauma Informed Care proposes that the best way to correct self-destructive behavior is to focus on the personal experiences that preceded it.

In a post I wrote in December, "Where Are You?", I thought out loud about how the interplay between the uncontrollable factors in our lives and our decisions about what we do with those factors determines who and what we become.  But another piece to this involves the unconscious reactions we make in response to our environments, and how those reactions may remain with us for life. Often, destructive behaviors are coping mechanisms that we develop in order to help us block out physical or emotional pain; and even when the painful experience is over, consequent feelings that echo that pain will trigger this self-taught behavior.  For example, one of my favorite TV shows is "My 600 Pound Life". (I'm the only one in my family who can bear to watch it, but I find it absolutely fascinating.)  Just about every person who gets to be this size has experienced child abuse and turned to food for comfort.  Even after the abuse stops, food is associated with comfort and the victims continue to rely on it when faced with stress.  As the people in this show struggle to give up their food addictions, they inevitably become depressed.  They require psychological counseling to tell their stories, understand their misguided relationship with food, and replace it with healthy behaviors.

These are important ideas for teachers.  Every year and every class will present children with challenging behaviors.  Of course I'm not suggesting that every child with challenges has been traumatized; but rather that before attempting to manage a child's behavior, we should take a look at her as whole person, with a life outside the classroom.  What can we learn about her family dynamic? How does her culture affect her behavior?  What has her school experience been like up to now?  I once had a student who I considered defiant.  She slouched in her seat, didn't seem to pay attention, and often expressed herself with wise cracks.  I met with her personally and was humbled by my ignorance and prejudice.  This girl's mother was dying of cancer.  She had a twin sister who was severely handicapped.  Her father traveled a lot for business, so she was often in charge of the household.  My G-d, I looked at all my students differently after that.

The best way for educators to start any new school year is to take some time to get to know our students.  Some teachers use ice breakers for the students to discover and share information about each other.  Others may use a "sharing circle", surveys, or individual meeting times.  A broad picture of our students will help us understand them, develop their trust, and truly, effectively teach them.  

Life takes its toll on all of us.  I love this verse from Judy Collin's "Both Sides Now":  

"But now old friends are acting strange
They shake their heads, they say I've changed.
Well something's lost, but something's gained
In living everyday".

(Check it out:

Yes, we have our ups and downs.  And when we have the courage to look inside, at ourselves and others, we gain the strength to make the most of what life has to offer.

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