Child Development

Transforming Tragedies: An effort to build resilience to trauma in school

Everyone experiences distressing events in their lives. You’ve probably heard about trauma, the emotional response to these events. Our emotional reactions to these events can have long term effects on the way we think, make decisions and relate to others. Developing resilience—our ability to cope with stress—makes responding to adversity easier.

I’ve had my share of traumatic and resilience-building experiences, which continue to shape me into the person I am. My experiences shaped me into the kind of person who could recognize the interplay between these factors in the school setting. They also made me the type of person who would insist that my children’s district, the Syracuse City School District, take up the task of intentionally addressing trauma by creating nurturing learning and work environments for students, families, and employees.

I asked Superintendent Jaime Alicea why he found the message about the need to address trauma compelling. He said the loss of people, especially students, couldn’t be ignored. “Syracuse is a small town,” he said as we chatted in his office in July. “Everything is connected.”

What makes an experience traumatic?

A traumatic experience has a few different components. These include: being overwhelming, painful and scary to the person; triggering of the fight, flight or freeze response; threatening the person’s physical or psychological safety; and creating a feeling of loss of control.

I’ve had experiences like this in my life. Moving to a new country at an early age, adapting to a new culture, and going to school were traumatic at times. It’s an experience shared by many students in Syracuse.

One of the most significant events in my life was the death of my sister Sanchia on a sunny August afternoon in 2017. Making the phone calls from the hospital to share that news was one of the hardest things I have ever done. Students in Syracuse have also experienced the sudden loss of family members and friends, often without adequate support to help them learn to live with such dramatic changes.

The death of a close family member or friend is an obvious source of trauma. As an adult who has access to information and support, I nonetheless still struggle with the impact of my sister’s loss. Children have the same struggles with different types of traumatic events. ACEs—adverse childhood experiences—include abuse, household challenges, and neglect, which can trigger the body’s trauma response, as identified by the CDC-Kaiser Permanente ACE Study (which can be found at
prevention/childabuseandneglect/acestudy/about.html). I’ve had experiences that fall into each of these categories. Most people in the United States have had at least one before reaching adulthood.

What makes stress toxic?

It shouldn’t be surprising that we experience events that trigger trauma responses. Life never goes as planned. Our bodies are designed to respond to stressful environments to keep us alive. That’s a good thing.

When we are forced to remain in a state of activated trauma response, it becomes detrimental to physical and mental health. The phenomenon goes by many names: chronic stress, toxic stress, complex trauma, post-traumatic stress. Each describes aspects of the over-activation of a neurobiological system designed to function for brief periods—long enough to escape the threat, to keep us alive.

Several years ago, I heard a homeless veteran explain how he experienced post-traumatic stress: trouble sleeping, always alert to danger, intense startle responses to certain noises, thinking about crisis scenarios, forgetfulness, loss of interest in regular activities. I’ve experienced all of these. The veteran could point to his service in combat zones as a source of his responses.

Meanwhile, the origins of my own stressors at that time were diffuse: worrying about getting the parenting right for both my autistic children and my typically developing children. Concerns about their futures. Slogging through red tape and unresponsive systems of care. Feelings of being cut off from meaningful support. Each of these played a role in activating my body’s stress response systems. As my body burned through physical and emotional energy, I didn’t have much left to spend on other things.

Chronic childhood experiences of this level of stress leave fewer resources for healthy growth and development. Just like adults, children and teens exposed to stressful environments can experience a diminished capacity to learn, make decisions, manage their own emotions, and form healthy relationships with others. It often manifests as problem behavior in the school setting.

What role does resilience play?

It would be a bleak story if it ended here. However, we are built to restore ourselves to a state of healthy functioning. The human capacity to do so is known as resilience. Some of us are better at healing and relearning how to control our trauma response systems, but we all can do it. I learned to recognize and address the effects of my over-active trauma response by relying on and nurturing my capacity to be resilient.

Safe, stable, nurturing relationships can protect children and adults. Growing up, I had my siblings, parents and critical friendships. The sudden loss of one of those protective relationships has tested my capacity to be resilient. I’ve formed new connections and relationships that are helping me navigate the experience.

Four months after losing my sister, a fellow Syracuse parent said to me, “We really need to be addressing trauma.” At that point, I was ready for the message. The school environment tends to magnify the challenges in a community. Overactive trauma response manifests in the classroom as problem behavior in students, weary staff, low graduation rates, and punitive policies and practices.

Superintendent Alicea appreciated the message as well. In January 2019 he created SCSD’s Trauma and Resilience Advocacy Committee, tasking us with overseeing and coordinating the shift to create nurturing learning and work environments for employees, students and families. The process will take years, but the staff in the district are already expressing hope for the coming school year. As Superintendent Alicea says, “Every kid counts,” even when we’ve grown to adulthood.

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