Trauma Program in Schools

We are just beginning to understand the trauma some children experience at early ages. As funders of programs that help children, it is important to pay attention to trauma and how to heal it. I heard a person from a local school district say they didn’t want to ask children specific questions because when they hear about something bad happening at home, they are legally obligated to do something about it. But that is exactly why we need to know what is happening in a child’s life. We need to provide the things we know are important for resiliency: 1.) a caring adult in their life, 2.) self-regulation skills such as mindfulness meditation, and 3.) forgiveness rather than punishment (compassionate accountability).

Growing up in homes and neighborhoods where violence, drug addiction, sexual abuse and other destructive behaviors exist, children suffer from PTSD and come to accept these behaviors as their social norm. The ALIVE Program developed by New Haven Connecticut’s Foundation for the Arts & Trauma, Inc., creates a new social norm for children at school and helps them talk about their “worries.” The backbone of the program has a list of the things that no child should have to witness (gun violence, domestic violence) or experience (hitting, biting, sexual abuse), and if they happen, the negative effect they have on the child. The children are given an opportunity to talk about what is happening in their lives in a safe environment. They are also able to communicate with a trained and caring person about their worries and receive caring support in return. The PTSD research is clear that when a traumatic event is shared with supportive people, the burden is less heavy; sharing the trauma, particularly through writing is healing. The program also teaches other techniques to clear their brains of worries so they are ready to learn and helps teachers understand the whole child. And on a macro level, a new social norm is experienced through this program at their school; one that says that gun violence, domestic violence and sexual abuse are not okay in healthy, caring communities.

As funders, we need to recognize that trauma is a root cause of so many of the behaviors we see in our funding areas. We need to understand what trauma is, what is trauma-informed work, and what is work that heals trauma so the person can be free to make healthy choices in their life. And we need to continually learn about this body of work so we can identify and promote best-practices to help people create better lives – free of the child welfare system, successful in education systems that meet their needs, and able to create positive mental and physical health for themselves. We each need to determine where we are going to stand in this space to help systems change the work they have been doing for decades to reflect our best knowledge of trauma. This knowledge changes systems and changes the adults in the systems. It changes how you see behavior and how you react to behavior. Never excusing bad behavior, but understanding that sometimes it is not a choice, it is a reaction and it comes from a place of pain. And that requires a different response to create calm, safety and resiliency in the other person and in yourself.

It is time to pull back the curtain and know what children are experiencing in their lives, even if it blows the image that our community is perfect. Our communities are not perfect, but they are strong. And when connected to the reality of our children’s lived experiences, communities will come together to solve problems. We know too much now to sweep traumatic experiences under the rug. We are beginning to know how to help each other and we need to trust that we can build resiliency together in families, schools and communities. To this end, there will be a funder’s convening about trauma in the schools on July 20th and a more general educational event on trauma-informed work in our community on September 12th at the Minneapolis Foundation from 1:00 pm to 2:30 pm. Staff and trustees of local foundations are encouraged to attend. Contact me for more information at

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