I can remember when health experts, researchers, educators, and even policy makers started talking more consistently and systematically about “trauma-informed care“, “trauma-informed practices“, and “trauma-informed services“.
I also remember that the word “trauma” (and associated phrases) didn’t sit well with me.
At first I thought it was because I like to talk in the affirmative and to always work from a place of hope…building upon strengths.
Yet even when I read an article by Dr. Shawn Ginwright, with the reframe of Trauma Informed Care into Healing Centered Engagement, my underlying discomfort wasn’t alleviated.
There was something in the back of my mind…like an itch I couldn’t quite reach.
Yet at the time, I didn’t want to over think it. I didn’t stop using the word trauma when talking about things like bullying, school shootings, weather events, divorce, abuse, or homelessness. And of course at the time of this post, the trauma of living with the uncertainty around the coronavirus.
At the time, I kept thinking…isn’t it more important that we are having conversations around trauma than worrying about the terms we are using?
Fast forward…and I’m still struggling with “trauma-informed (fill in the blank)“.
Here are a few of my “worries” around “trauma” and potential pitfalls when we use the term.
1) MISLEADING MEASURES
When educational professionals and policy makers want to address an issue (at least in the U.S.) they tend to get overly excited about measuring it. This leads to large scale measurement efforts – often without considering the day-to-day implications for teachers, and of course the children and families we serve. And despite our concerted efforts to study student data, we don’t have a huge body of research to show this leads to positive outcomes for students. Likely because just the act of analyzing doesn’t ensure good or matched instruction. Think of it this way. If we measure trauma like temperature; what are the day-to-day decisions we’ll then know how to make for “low-grade” trauma vs. “high-grade” trauma? Do we have enough research, or even wisdom, to measure and (then with discernment) apply, the “right treatment”? How will scores impact our mindset and/or relationships with those with “high-grade” trauma? Will the scores help to humanize or will they continue to dehumanize teachers and children?
Potential Pitfall: The above questions are rhetorical…as I know about things like ACE scores and related guidelines to supporting children, families, and even to some smaller extent, teachers. What I’m questioning is whether or not we should be measuring something as complex as trauma in the first place. Whether it is generational or an isolated experience, trauma isn’t easily defined or placed on a scale. There are many intersecting variables that determine the short-term and long-term impact of trauma on a developing child. Perhaps our time is better spent developing relationships and forming secure attachments with children than rating, sorting, and analyzing data.
2) ONE SIZE DOESN’T FIT ALL
This second worry stems from the first. If we’re going to measure “it”…then can we be sure that subsequent decisions and actions will benefit and help ALL children? As we’ve repeatedly experienced, districts and programs often adopt a “one-size-fits-all” approach to what is measured (e.g., kindergarten readiness, social-emotional learning, reading skills) and what is then implemented (e.g., school-wide interventions, district-wide policies, single source curriculum adoption). What assurances do we have that measuring, and then adopting trauma-informed practices on a school-wide basis, will help ALL children being served? Not only across grade levels, but across differences and the intersection of race, gender, language, religion, ability, culture, etc.?
Potential Pitfall: Again, here in the U.S., when we adopt or generate district or program-wide educational policies and practices, it is generally by those from the dominant white culture (myself included). In such cases, this means various approaches, interventions, and techniques may be (and often are) harmful to Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC). Our all too common “one-size-fits-all” approach selected by those in power (again those who are part of the dominant white culture) allows us to continue to hide behind the real reason for trauma, or as Dr. Bettina L. Love says, “to continue acknowledging dark children’s pain but never the source of their pain”. She goes on to state that “each fix falls short precisely because it fails to acknowledge how these struggles are direct consequences of injustice.”
3) REMEDIATION VERSUS REDUCTION OF STRESSORS
My third worry stems from how we see disability and how empowered we may (or may not) feel to take action on the root causes of trauma. For example, does focusing on trauma cause us to work from a deficit model that sees the child as someone who needs fixed, and that remediation and intervention is necessary? Additionally, I worry that being responsible for delivering trauma-informed practices causes a secondary level of trauma for educators…who can begin to feel inadequate, that solutions are out of their reach- and certainly outside of their control.
Potential Pitfall: Dr. Julie Causton reminds us that disability is just a form of human diversity, and that within a social-model of disability, we look for ways to support and adapt versus remediate or fix. I worry that without more support and training, trauma ends up being just another label or means of classifying without gaining a deeper understanding of the child behind the behavior. I also worry that by using the word “trauma”…we have created a mindset and focus on just the “big stuff”. While of course abuse, neglect, etc. are impactful and damaging, there are many daily stressors that impact development and learning. Ones that go unnoticed when we use words like “adverse” or “traumatic” (see the work of Dr. Stuart Shanker on the five domains of stress). Focusing on the stressors that come with life’s experiences helps us to support development and learning where we can operate from a “yes” or “thinking” brain…from a responsive state versus a reactive state.
So what does all of this mean?
Do the words we use really matter? Should we stop using the term trauma? Don’t the benefits of being “trauma-informed” still outweigh the possible pitfalls?
To be honest, I’m still working through these worries, pitfalls, and possible “replacement” words and actions.
That said…it is becoming clearer that our words do matter and I’m beginning to uncover why “trauma-informed“, as a phrase, still doesn’t sit well with me.
In this article, educator and researcher Shea Miller spells out the underlying problem with a focus on trauma…
“Relying on the consumption of trauma to evoke empathy is not sustainable for our work toward liberation.”
For deeper reflection…
“However, in an attempt to illuminate the plight of black and brown folx in our communities, we actually center whiteness. In so many ways, we sensationalize black trauma to shock white folx into giving a damn about black bodies. When we share these viral images and videos of traumatization, we manipulate and spin pain as a tool to educate and evoke change in aspiring white allies and partners in our work.
Relying on the consumption of trauma to evoke empathy is not sustainable for our work toward liberation. As long as we depend on the consumption of trauma to “empathize,” we will always rely on traumatization of black and brown bodies to create allies. I don’t know about y’all, but trauma does not exist in my dream of liberation. Because of this, I refuse to sacrifice the well-being and lives of our community in order to develop white allies.”
~ Shea Martin