By Sam Piha
It is very difficult to promote social emotional learning and character building among youth who have suffered trauma. We know that many of the young people we serve have been affected by trauma - trauma through abuse, through violence in their community, bullying, the threat of deportation, discrimination against LGBTQ youth, racial oppression, and other experiences. How can we be sensitive to and better serve the needs of these youth? We asked Dr. Marnie Curry (UC Santa Cruz) to help us answer these questions by presenting at our upcoming How Kids Learn VII conference on December 5, 2017 and being interviewed for this blog post. Below are some of her responses to our interview questions.
Q: How do you define trauma?
A: Trauma occurs when an individual or community experiences physical or emotional harm or serious threats of such harm. Stressors like community violence, domestic violence, child abuse, chronic neglect, hunger, traumatic loss, severe bullying, household substance abuse, police brutality, homelessness, and racism can by themselves or in combination have lasting adverse effects on children’s development and wellbeing.
Trauma can be acute (resulting from a single incident), chronic (occurring repeatedly over prolonged time periods or generations), or complex (involving multiple kinds of trauma).
Q: Is being part of a group that suffers oppression included in your definition?
A: Members of oppressed, nondominant groups, who daily confront racism and discrimination, who are surrounded by media images that criminalize and demonize black and brown people, who are mistreated and marginalized by the education system, justice system, immigration system and economic system, face persistent and toxic experiences that impair their health and wellbeing. However, because trauma is a subjective phenomenon and people respond differently to stressors, I do not assume that membership in an oppressed group automatically translates to trauma. I do, though, believe that many oppressed groups suffer from chronic, complex trauma.
Additionally, I think the impact of trauma is experienced differently due to the intersectional nature of oppression. Trauma-informed practitioners need to be sensitive to how being, for example, an LGBTQ person of color or an undocumented immigrant woman inevitably involve unique contexts that differently shape a person’s response to trauma.
Q: What is trauma informed practice that is appropriate for afterschool workers?
A: In some ways, I resist the notion that after-school workers, school-based teachers, hospital clinicians, social workers, etc. each have a different set of trauma-informed practices. For me, the compartmentalization of children’s lives into after school, home, school, community, etc. suggested by these silos, is antithetical to the holistic approach that trauma-informed care demands.
Instead, I prefer to focus on trauma-informed practices, which prioritize an integrated and coordinated approach to youth development. Within this frame, trauma-informed practice involves adults recognizing the high likelihood that some (or many) youth participants have or are currently experiencing trauma. Skillful adult mentors possess a basic understanding of how trauma can impact children’s behavior and development and they strive to organize a program that is sensitive to the vulnerabilities and triggers of trauma survivors. They focus on providing a safe, supportive environment to promote healing from trauma and healthy development so youth may not only survive, but also thrive. They orchestrate activities and form networks of care aimed at restoring a sense of belonging to young people, their families and communities.
Marnie W. Curry is a researcher at the Center for Educational Research in the Interest of Underserved Students at UC-Santa Cruz. Her areas of specialization include: urban schooling; teaching and learning to support culturally and linguistically diverse learners; and teacher professional communities. She is deeply committed to bridging the worlds of research and practice and promoting educational equity for youth who have been historically underserved by their schools and districts.
Sam Piha is the founder and principal of Temescal Associates, a consulting group dedicated to building the capacity of leaders and organizations in education and youth development.