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  • Janyne McConnaughey, PhD

An Airport Reflection about Creating Trauma-Sensitive Schools

I am at the airport and found a rocking chair with a view of the Potomac. I have a bit of a wait until I can even check my bag since my flight is a few hours away. If a writer can ignore the distractions, a moment like this is perfect for reflecting and writing.

I have spent the last three years thinking about trauma so another three days wasn’t uncomfortable at all. Sitting in rooms with people who cared about the trauma experienced by their fellow human beings was an experience of finally finding a place where I felt I belonged. I realize more and more how trauma informed my teaching methods and choices. No one expected anyone else to be perfect. Stories were received with compassion. The effects of trauma were not judged and everyone understood how desperately we needed to figure out how to help the hurting children in our nation.

I don’t want to say that any other type of conference would not have these elements. Maybe I was better able to notice and receive them. I know that all the ways that I had always felt inhibited in starting conversations and networking were almost non-existent. I can’t say that it was a difference in the conference attenders. I know the difference was very likely inside me.

There were several important personal takeaways. Really too many to express in a blog, but these are the ones I choose to share in this format.

  1. What I have believed about early childhood experiences (including prenatal and birth experiences) was validated. In addition, the beginning evidence in the field of epigenetics is a bit mind blowing and really beyond what I considered. We aren’t just our DNA. Our experiences and the experiences of past generations affect our DNA. It isn’t just what happened to you—it is also what happened to those in your genetic lineage.

  2. The idea that every single human is in control of their own behavior at every single moment of their life is not correct. I suspect this will be difficult for the church community to accept. This doesn’t mean that life choices can’t be made, but for the victims of trauma, it is far more complicated than we want it to be. When a child has been wired for survival, they see danger everywhere, and instinct and reactionary behavior rules. Don’t ask them why they did something. They don’t know, but they will make something up to appease you and go on with their life.

  3. Please let Skinner die. Behaviorist classroom discipline methods are about the worst idea on the planet for traumatized children. I grew up in a generation in which everyone supported corporal punishment and the absolute control of children’s behavior. We may look back on those “golden days” of classroom management with longing, but if you want to know the long-term effects of controlling trauma just read BRAVE. I forced myself to be everything everyone wanted me to be and lived a very successful life; but when I found the small broken child inside of me that I ignored for 60 years, I could not stop crying for the unnecessary pain she had held. My chart was full of stars, but my soul was a hidden wasteland.

  4. Trauma changes the child’s brain and feeling safe is everything. I hid for my three-year journey of healing. At some points, the only place I felt safe was my trailer and the therapy office. That also meant only two people were safe during those times—my therapist and husband (and sometimes I wasn’t fully convinced about them). That brings us to the fact that human connection is the path to healing. Both healthy development and repair depends on the unconditional regard of at least one other human being.

  5. Attachment is the foundation for EVERYTHING. Children who suffer from insecure attachment are NOT wired like children who experience healthy attachments. The only way to heal attachment wounds is to attach. The very thing that is necessary is the thing that the traumatized child’s psyche is wired to avoid—as if their life depends upon it. My healing is miraculous—but it was dependent on becoming as attached to my therapist as a small child is to its mother a when there is healthy bonding experience. I am amused that the constant appearance of the song, Shut Up and Dance, was God’s reminder that I could not allow myself to do the very thing my psyche was convinced would make me safe—leave therapy. The road to independence wasn’t running away. The road to independence was through dependence. (And a skillful therapist who set boundaries, while never allowing me to feel abandoned.) The child’s natural inclination is independence, but they can never go out to explore the world with confidence (or speak at a conference in Washington DC) until the attachment bond is secure. The way to launch a healthy adult is to meet their needs during infancy. Sadly, in our busy world, this had become more difficult. We could change the future of many children by supporting young mothers who are stretched way too thin! My commitment to support my daughter during the first years of my grandchildren’s life was exactly correct.

  6. Our education system lost its way as a result of a complete lack of understanding of child development. When the care of children is left in the hands of politicians, the result is exactly what has occurred. Best methods based in solid research were left behind and the relational elements of classroom learning and culture were replaced by constant preparation for testing. I am well aware that every curriculum developer can cite evidence for the efficacy of their program and arguing about curriculum makes my eyes roll back in my head. The problem is not curriculum, the problem is that we began to see children as data points and test scores. The pressure came all the way down from Washington DC (where I am oddly enough sitting and writing this) to the states, to the districts, to the principals, to the teachers, to the children who have no voice. Everyone wanted the children to learn; what they failed to realize is that the only way children learn is to feel safe. The only way ALL children feel safe is to feel valued and protected. It is in social relationships that reduce shaming, reduce stress, allow for dependence, and help children feel successful that achievement will occur. Yes, standards are important. Yes, some methods work better than others. Yes, Yes, Yes. But there is no limit to what a classroom of children and one teacher who truly cares about them can accomplish. Get. Out. Of. Their. WAY! Teachers are the ones standing in front of children to protect them from bullets. Trust them again.

Finally. (I was really trying to keep this shorter than some of my blogs, but alas.) The plasticity of the human brain is our hope. No, not every severely damaged child can reach the ideal of fully functional (whatever that is), but I am here to say that even a 60+ year old brain can be helped in ways that are truly miraculous. I literally felt my brain rewiring. We know how to help these children!

I am going on one more trip in a week and then I am hoping to devote my time to the next book in which the children will tell the world how much the current child therapy methods would have helped them heal and prevented years of suffering. I am really excited about this! In the meantime, keep talking about BRAVE! Help me heal the world one child (or adult) at a time!

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