Serve and Return: Building the Cognitive Capacity of Children with Early Trauma Histories


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Happy African American Father and Mixed Race Son Playing in the Park.Instruction in trauma-sensitive schools honors the social nature of children’s developing brains. In this way, it is closely aligned with other educational best practices, particularly Carol Ann Tomlinson’s differentiated instruction, and Columbia’s workshop model. These designs emphasize collaboration, and group problem-solving. Both processes build children’s capacity for representational thought and perspective taking.  These are critical elements of empathy and inferential comprehension.

Children with early trauma histories often miss out on the “serve and return” interactions which develop the strong neural pathways needed for reciprocal communication. A neural pathway is like a path in the woods that gets worn down by frequent use. The more the path is used, the easier it becomes to get from the beginning to the end. It’s the same way with neural pathways. The more they are used, the more efficient they become.

“Serve and return” interactions occur during  rather mundane exchanges between the caregiver and child. A baby rolls a ball to a caregiver and the caregiver rolls it back. Or a child asks a question and the caregiver responds and perhaps extends the communication by asking another question. The child learns to initiate an action and get a response. With enough practice, he learns that different actions elicit different responses and adjusts his behavior accordingly.

“Serve and return” activities form the basis for intentional thought, anticipatory set, and role taking ability.  Children with secure attachments have had many “serve and return” experiences by the time they enter school. Opportunities for classroom instruction that involve collaboration and problem-solving strengthen already established neural pathways.

For children with histories of attachment failures, the stakes are higher. Lacking opportunities for “serve and return” experiences, their neural pathways for higher order thinking are still pretty much covered with brush. These children don’t just benefit from collaboration and group problem-solving. They require sustained exposure to these instructional practices to make sense of the academic environment they find themselves in. The truth is, children with secure attachment histories can tolerate poor pedagogy. Children with early trauma histories cannot. They require us to give them the best we’ve got.

For more information visit

Trauma-Sensitive Schools: Learning Communities Transforming Children’s Lives, K-5  is available at Teachers College Press and

Please visit my blog at



Trauma-Sensitive Schools: A Framework for Building Children’s Resilience


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DSC08372On March 16, 2016 I had the opportunity of participating in the Echo Parenting and Education Conference on Trauma-Sensitive Schools. It was the first international conference of its kind, attracting close to 300 participants. As we begin Child Abuse Awareness Month, I would like to share excerpts from my presentation.

Trauma-Sensitive Schools: Teaming Up to Move Along

“What a wonderful event – a conference on childhood trauma for educators! I want you to know that there is so  much to be hopeful about.

We now know that the brain’s neuroplasticity can be engaged to remedy or compensate for earlier adaptions to trauma that are no longer productive or beneficial. Brain based teaching and trauma-sensitive school experiences can help children move beyond trauma to embrace a future that includes academic and social mastery.

So what is the vision of a trauma-sensitive school? What makes trauma-sensitive schools so powerful in helping children move forward?

To be sure, they are inclusive school communities – no one needs to worry about not being good enough. They are communities characterized by what Carl Rogers referred to as unconditional positive regard.

One of the most devastating effects of childhood trauma is the paralyzing sense of isolation that accompanies it. Traumatized children are lonely children. They are alone in their shame, alone in their belief that they unlovable, alone in their efforts to contain very frightening feelings that cause them to behave in unpredictable ways. Trauma-sensitive schools embrace these children, and help build their capacity to connect with others.

Trauma-sensitive schools view children’s sometimes difficult behaviors as normal reactions to the adversity and trauma present in their lives. Staff don’t pathologize these behaviors but rather seek to understand them. I cannot emphasize this enough. Trauma-sensitive schools are not special placements.

They are neighborhood schools that follow the principles of universal curriculum design.

Using prevalence data, staff assume that a percentage of enrolled children have trauma histories. And they act accordingly. They build trauma-informed practices into everyday instructional routines throughout the school.

The trauma-sensitive framework does not subscribe to earlier paradigms for providing services to at risk children. Children do not need to be singled out to get what they need.

Rather, trauma-informed care is the norm. It is at the heart of the school’s philosophy, code of conduct, classroom behavior management.

A basic tenet of trauma-sensitive care is to avoid re-traumatization. We need to recognize that past efforts to address the needs of behaviorally disordered children have, in fact, been stigmatizing and sometimes coercive. We cannot afford to repeat these mistakes. Trauma-sensitive instruction cannot become a new category of special education provided only after an arduous identification process. It must be available to all children, all of the time.

That being said, trauma-sensitive schools do provide a flexible system of tiered interventions. Like PBIS, the first tier are universal supports that are sufficient to meet the emotional and cognitive needs of most children. But there may be days or weeks when these supports are not enough for some children to continue to succeed. More targeted interventions may be needed to help a child survive a crisis or other short-term problem. But I cannot stress enough the need for these interventions to be  short-lived, and always with the goal of an eventual return to everyday activities and routines.

A new paradigm of professional development is needed to sustain this type of nurturing environment for traumatized children – one focuses on increasing staff awareness of the long-term disruption of cognitive, social, and emotional processes that may result from trauma exposure.

Educators cannot be expected to respond to children in a trauma-sensitive manner if they are not provided with state of the art training on how trauma effects neural development.

The goal is not to turn teachers into social workers or school psychologists. Rather, it is to give them the insights needed to prepare for occurrences of trauma related behaviors. Only then will they be able to respond in a manner that promotes resilience and rehabilitation.

The first priority is to integrate an awareness of the neurobiology of trauma into an educational framework. In particular, teachers need to understand the dynamics of traumatic re-enactment, and the effects of trauma on children’s regulatory systems.

Dynamics of Re-enactment

Teachers need to understand that children’s compulsive need for re-enactment jeopardizes teacher-student relationships. The drive toward re-enactment is like a rip tide that threatens to bring both child and teacher down. Here’s how it works. The child is always on the lookout for a parental figure, an authority figure to engage in his ongoing struggle to replay past traumatic experiences with him, with the hope they might have a different outcome.

Of course, none of this is conscious, but it is the basis for much of the provocative behavior demonstrated by traumatized children. Unless teachers are trained to recognize these behaviors as bids for re-enactment, they can get pulled into the undertow in one of two ways: by acting out of anger or by feeling victimized by the child’s rage. In either case, the child’s behavior will escalate and feel even more out of control.

Stress and Self-regulation

Teachers need to recognize trauma’s effect on children’s stress regulation. A whole host of behaviors ranging from low energy and lack of motivation to aggression and defiance, can be attributed to traumatized children’s inability to find and sustain a comfortable level of arousal. It’s the old “fight, flight, or freeze” problem. Children who “fight” in stressful situations become hyper aroused under stress. In a classroom environment they are likely to be defiant, noisy, and capable of prolonged acting out behavior. They are hard to manage and not much fun to have around.

Children who demonstrate “freeze or flee” behaviors downshift when their stress level becomes intolerable. They become hypo aroused, as indicated by their zoned out behavior. They appear unmotivated, disinterested, and may even fall asleep.

Now understand that we all have our own moments of “fight, flight, or freeze”. But these are quite different from the dysregulation experienced by children with early trauma histories. For one thing, ours are transitory – we know that “this too shall pass” and if we’re old enough, we even know ways of speeding up the process – taking a walk, calling a friend, taking a few deep breaths.

Not so for children with early trauma histories. Remember, trauma is the island where time stands still. Traumatized children see no way out. They can’t heal alone. They need our help.

Staff in trauma-sensitive schools know this, and with proper training, are able to engage children in a type of co-regulation similar to that observed in secure attachment relationships.

But here’s the rub. As Bessel van der Kolk and Bruce Perry so eloquently describe it, this is not a higher order thinking exercise. Rather, this co-regulatory relationship between teachers and students is sensory. Teachers in trauma-sensitive schools are trained to understand the physical nature of trauma. This knowledge enables them to integrate soothing, sensory activities into classroom instruction. Repeated often enough, these help children identify their internal state, and eventually, learn to control it.

We are  talking about activities that have  been understood as instructional best practices for years – things like movement, deep breathing, music, stretching, and frequent opportunities for self-reflection.

But integration of the sensory aspects of co-regulation into classroom instruction does appear to a place where trauma-sensitive schools break from their more traditional counterparts.

Certainly since the advent of “zero tolerance” policies, children are assumed to always be in control of their behavior, and it’s their choice to behave in defiant, self-destructive ways.

Nothing could be further from the truth in regard to children with early trauma histories. It’s not that they don’t know the difference between right and wrong. It’s that their behavior is reactive. They act before they think. They are stuck in survival mode, and can’t find a way out. And that’s where trauma-sensitive teaching comes in. It’s the means by which teachers and children working together create an exit ramp “.

To read more about the trauma-sensitive school movement, see Trauma-Sensitive Schools: Learning Communities Transforming Children’s Lives (2016). Available at Teachers College Press of

To learn more about Echo Parenting and Education, see

Please visit my blog at





Education Week, February 17, 2016


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We recently spoke to Craig about the book and her advice for teachers. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What was your goal with this book? What led you to write it?

I’ve spent my whole life in public schools working with teachers trying to help them manage children that have a lot of behavioral issues. I’m also trained as a reading specialist, and it became very clear to me that a lot of children who don’t learn how to read are often children who are very dysregulated, in terms of their ability to manage their behavior and emotions.

About 30 years ago I went back to school and got a PhD in sociology studying child abuse and neglect. My dissertation dealt with cognitive effects of exposure to violence on children and their ability to learn. Since that time I’ve been a voice in the wilderness saying we really need to pay attention to the fact that childhood adversity is a really important issue when it comes to how they succeed in school. I feel like I’m in a unique position to be able to bridge that because I know schools very well, I’ve worked with teachers a lot, I understand where they’re coming from, and I really thought this would be important information for them to have.

Why do you think people in education are not more aware of the importance of the relationship between violence and children’s cognitive development and its effect on learning?

It’s because teachers haven’t been invited to the table. I go to a lot of research conferences on childhood trauma and the people that are there tend to be either researchers, or sometimes mental health experts and psychologists. Even when I raise questions about why teachers aren’t invited, it’s like they fall back on me with “Well, teachers teach, they don’t deal with mental health.” My argument is that yes, teachers do teach, and one of the ways out of the effects of trauma is to help them teach in a manner that works for the brain to overcome trauma.

The effect of having all of the research on trauma be in the hands of physicians and mental health people, to the exclusion of it being transferred into the work with some of the teachers, is why there’s not a greater awareness. There’s no requirement in teacher-formation programs to take courses on trauma and the effects on children’s development. The primary issue for policymakers is to make sure we’re giving teachers the information they need on that topic before we send them into classroom placements.

What do educators need to understand about the relationship between violence and children’s cognitive development?

Children exposed to violence and other types of trauma often present with behaviors that in traditional paradigms of behavioral management and discipline are explained in terms of defiance or noncompliance. The interventions that teachers have been taught to make tend to be very behaviorist, and there’s a lot of use of contingency reinforcement [i.e., consequences based on behavior] in school. Teachers need to understand that that’s not really what’s happening when children are behaving out of a trauma experience. What’s happening is that in the school environment something is triggering a reenactment of the original trauma that children may not even be aware they went through—but are implicitly accounting for in their behavior. Usually children who are acting out in school don’t feel safe in some way. They may not be able to tell you that, but that’s what their behavior is telling you. “There’s something in this environment that is threatening me and I’m either going to fight you or I’m going to withdraw or I’m just going to freeze in place.” That’s where I think teachers need more help and understanding. Contingency reinforcement does not work to help regulate a child who has suffered traumatic early experiences.

Besides contingency reinforcement, what do you think is the most common mistake that administrators and teachers make in trying to address student’s behavioral problems?

Sometimes teachers wind up getting caught in what in trauma literature is referred to the “reenactment triangle,” where the kid pulls them into a reenactment of the early trauma. If teachers aren’t trained to anticipate what the triggers might be and work around them, they might find themselves inadvertently getting caught up in a struggle with the kids—and they can get to a point when they can’t control the situation and they can become very frustrated.

A lot of the traditional things we do in school, like threatening kids with things like timeouts, and a lot of exclusionary practices to get them back on track, just reinforces the image of themselves as bad. So they withdraw and it’s really hard getting them back.

School systems have suffered terribly from the zero-tolerance policies that were put into place after Columbine. It’s just not constructive to take legitimate authority away from school administrators by criminalizing behavior that, when I went to school, people at school dealt with. That authority in many places has been taken over by representatives of the criminal justice system which is a much more criminative response. So what schools don’t do well at this point is partly because of policies that were passed.

I worked with one principal for about 20 years and he spent most of his day every day calling aside kids that were kind of out of sorts and working with them to create a plan to do better. That’s what adults do with children. They observe behaviors that are not beneficial to the child and they work with them to find a way to do it better or differently so that the outcome is better for the child. I don’t think people set out to make an environment unsafe for children, I think that they’re often times misdirected and the zero tolerance stuff really was the bad turn that we’ve now made a lot of efforts to correct.

So say teachers were trained on what to do, they’ve created this safe environment, there’s no zero-tolerance policy, etc. What can teachers and administrators do if the techniques and approaches you recommend aren’t enough?

That’s where the need for a team and collaboration with community resources really comes in. There will be some children who at least for short periods of time require more intense intervention than a class and teacher is capable of giving. But the role of the teacher at that place is to continue to be the ongoing support of the child in the classroom working with the mental health person to extend intervention back into the classroom. Most of the time most kids can be managed well, but when there are flare-ups–and there will be flare-ups–you need a team you can fall back on. It’s a rare event, but I’ve certainly been in situations where children have had to go to the hospital to be evaluated for mental health. It then becomes the school’s role to be the welcoming back place for the child. The role of the teacher and administrator at that point becomes facilitating the reintegration of the child back into the school community as a respected member. In the rare situations when things do fall apart, you need help and you need the established collaboration between other helpers and the school to make that work.

On this path toward a school-improvement reform through a trauma-sensitive lens, what is the most effective way to begin?

I think the most effective way to begin is to really work at the district level first and then eventually at the school level to create and sustain a real vision of what we’re talking about. You can’t just sit down and say “OK, next week we’re going to be a trauma- sensitive school.” There has to be a lot of professional development, and helping people understand the neurobiology of trauma. From there you begin to slowly tilt instruction toward trauma sensitive interventions using what they already do.

People need ongoing professional development, an inclusive leadership style that makes them feel like they’re working with the principal to facilitate the change, and probably a lot of conversation. This needs to be seen as something that integrated into other best practices rather than an add-on.

What are the most significant challenges and how can educators succeed in overcoming them in a transition to a trauma-sensitive school?

People don’t really want to know how bad children’s lives are—and so those of us who work with children all the time tend to create “buffers.” Overcoming people’s denial about the role trauma plays in children’s lives is hard. It’s made even more difficult by the fact that it’s a very big pill to swallow to think that the problem that children are having may have been caused by their caregiver’s behavior toward them. That’s really hard for people who love kids to accept. There’s a challenge there to give people a framework to absorb that and then know what to do.

The second thing is getting people to change their minds about the best ways to practice classroom management and discipline. We’re very ingrained in a behaviorist orientation which holds that children will work for rewards or they’ll work to avoid punishments. That all assumes that there’s a level of motivation that’s very conscious in children, but for kids that have been traumatized, most of their problems are stemming from a part of their brain that was developed before they could talk.

Another challenge is giving teachers enough information and support to avoid being traumatized themselves by their over-exposure to the trauma children. It’s a very serious mental health issue that can come up for people that work with traumatized populations. I don’t think we do enough to help teachers recognize that and get the support they need to avoid having their own mental health compromised because of how stressed they are by the lives of the kids they’re working with.

You emphasize that building trauma-sensitivity in schools requires a whole-school approach. Why is that? Can’t individual teachers take steps on their own?

There are several reasons. One is policy and procedural issues. They have to be schoolwide. You can’t have one person at the end of the hall telling a child one thing and then have a different set of expectations on the other end, because it creates a lot of confusion and it underscores the predictably and the consistency kids with early trauma really need. Unless it’s a school wide program, and has a lot of leadership from the administrator, it’s going to fragment over time. It might work initially but you want to be able to sustain the changes you’re making and that requires collaboration across different teachers and with the administration.

You’ve touched on what policymakers can do earlier, and in the book you explain a lot of what teachers and school administrators can do to better address effects of trauma on students. What can the greater community, the average citizen do?

We really need to raise a consciousness in people about how serious the issues are for children. Building awareness is a really important thing that people in the community can do and integrating some support to families–however that can happen, either through child care or through outreach to families and disseminating information about the neurology of the brain. We need to talk it up.

The Role of Trauma in Health Care Costs


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Center for Disease ControlNo one questions that health care costs in the United States are out of control. Excessive drug prices, unnecessary medical procedures, and continued reliance on an outdated fee for service treatment model, are frequently discussed reasons for this economic dilemma. Childhood trauma and household dysfunction are seldom cited as possible factors. This oversight limits any viable solution to the problem.

Adverse childhood adversities (ACEs) have serious consequences for both  mental and physical health. Depression, anxiety disorders, and reliance on “risky self-soothers” such as smoking, drugs and alcohol are highly correlated with early childhood trauma and adversity. But so are common physical illnesses such as Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, COPD, and obesity.

Today’s research challenges policy makers, physicians, and insurers to view the drivers of health care costs through a more trauma sensitive lens. Pediatricians, “well baby” clinicians, and school nurses need to be alert to the level of stress or household dysfunction their patients are exposed to. They can then link families to needed services and supports. Adult health care programs need to integrate strategies for managing stress and unresolved childhood maltreatment. These additional supports hold the promise of more effective symptom management than interventions emphasizing cessation or life-style changes alone.

Like so many social problems, lowering health care costs starts with acknowledging the elephant in the living room – in this case, childhood adversity.

Finding Your ACE Score

While you were growing up, during your first 18 years of life:

  1. Did a parent or other adult in the household often or very often…

Swear at you, insult you, put you down, or humiliate you?


Act in a way that made you afraid that you might be physically hurt?

Yes No If yes enter 1 ________

  1. Did a parent or other adult in the household often or very often…

Push, grab, slap, or throw something at you?


Ever hit you so hard that you had marks or were injured?

Yes No If yes enter 1 ________

  1. Did an adult or person at least 5 years older than you ever…

Touch or fondle you or have you touch their body in a sexual way?


Attempt or actually have oral, anal, or vaginal intercourse with you?

Yes No If yes enter 1 ________

  1. Did you often or very often feel that …

No one in your family loved you or thought you were important or special?


Your family didn’t look out for each other, feel close to each other, or support each other?

Yes No If yes enter 1 ________

  1. Did you often or very often feel that …

You didn’t have enough to eat, had to wear dirty clothes, and had no one to protect you?


Your parents were too drunk or high to take care of you or take you to the doctor if you needed


Yes No If yes enter 1 ________

  1. Were your parents ever separated or divorced?

Yes No If yes enter 1 ________

  1. Was your mother or stepmother:

Often or very often pushed, grabbed, slapped, or had something thrown at her?


Sometimes, often, or very often kicked, bitten, hit with a fist, or hit with something hard?


Ever repeatedly hit at least a few minutes or threatened with a gun or knife?

Yes No If yes enter 1 ________

  1. Did you live with anyone who was a problem drinker or alcoholic or who used street drugs?

Yes No If yes enter 1 ________

  1. Was a household member depressed or mentally ill, or did a household member attempt suicide?

Yes No If yes enter 1 ________

  1. Did a household member go to prison?

Yes No If yes enter 1 _______

Now add up your “Yes” answers: _______ This is your ACE Score.


Learn more at:

Childhood Trauma: The Hidden Health Crisis

Karr-Morse, R. & Wiley, M.S. (2012). Scared sick. Basic Books: NYC, NY

Household and community-level Adverse Childhood Experiences and adult health outcomes in a diverse urban population.

Wade R Jr, Cronholm PF, Fein JA, Forke CM, Davis MB, Harkins-Schwarz M, Pachter LM, Bair-Merritt MH.

Child Abuse Negl. 2015 Dec 23. pii: S0145-2134(15)00452-4. doi: 10.1016/j.chiabu.2015.11.021. [Epub ahead of print]

PMID: 26726759

Long Term Physical Health Consequences of Adverse Childhood Experiences.

Monnat SM, Chandler RF.

Sociol Q. 2015 Sep; 56(4):723-752. Epub 2015 Jul 3.

PMID: 2650037 Free PMC Article


Visit my blog at:

Trauma-Sensitive Schools: Learning Communities Transforming Children’s Lives (2016) TCP: NYC, NY  is available for purchase at


Poverty and Politicians


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2016 presidential elections concept

In the run up to the Iowa Caucus and New Hampshire Primary,  candidates struggle to gain a foothold on potential voters. Many fault economic disparity as the root cause of other troubling issues like the over incarceration of minorities, limited job creation, and class based differences in health, education, and overall quality of life. All legitimate 2016 problems – ones that require 2016 solutions. And that’s where the politicians’ rhetoric falls short.  Too often these rely on policies that ignore the science of the 21st century. Nowhere is this more apparent than in discussions of poverty and economic disparity that ignore the neurology of brain development.

The architectural foundation of neural development is laid down during the first three years of life. The stress associated with poverty, which includes not only economic insecurity but also inadequate housing, and limited opportunities for enrichment activities, disrupts this process.  The effects of poverty on areas of the brain related to emotional regulation are of particular concern, as these threaten children’s academic success.

Income is associated with differences in the hippocampus and amygdala. The size and volume of both structures are smaller in poor children than in their more affluent peers. Similarly, recent research finds that income also effects how these structures connect to other regions of the brain. The neural connections of children living in poverty are less efficient, making it more difficult for them to regulate their emotions and behavior (Barch & Luby (2016). Effects of hippocampal and amygdala connectivity in the relationship between poverty and school depression. The American Journal of Psychiatry).

Why should politicians care?

Because if left unattended, the effects of these early neurological alterations result in children’s academic failure and compromised mental and physical well-being. These drive the costs of special education and health care, two high cost items for federal, state and local governments.

More importantly, these early deficits can be overcome with appropriate early intervention to families with children under three years old.  The intergenerational cycle of poverty can be broken. But only when policy makers promote solutions that are informed by what science teaches rather than by what they think voters want to hear.

Please visit my blog at

Trauma-Sensitive Schools: Learning Communities Transforming Children’s Lives is now available at

Spare the Rod, Save the Child


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Angry father hitting her little baby daughter

Ted Cruz’s off the cuff remark about his willingness to spank his five year old daughter, Catherine, if she said “something she knows to be false” got the attention of many concerned about children’s well- being.

Apparently Mr. Cruz is unaware of the detrimental effects of spanking on children’s development. He’s certainly not alone. Despite over 40 years of published research on topic, experts’ report that nearly 50% of toddlers in the United States are spanked more than 3x per week (Peters-Bennett, 2013).

So where is the disconnect? Maybe it lies in society’s belief in the biblical adage “spare the rod, spoil the child”. Or in the fact that spanking can be effective in the short term.

But consider the costs. Spanking is a major childhood stressor known to disrupt the neural pathways needed for emotional regulation. Children’s fear and anger about spanking interfere with their ability to internalize their parents’ disciplinary message. Instead they learn that the  use of force is an acceptable problem-solving technique. It demands compliance.

Spanking children under age five is associated with aggressive behavior and depressed language scores in school. By adolescence, the incidence of binge drinking and other types of substance abuse is highest among those who report being spanked in their home. If that’s not enough to discourage the use of corporal punishment, there’s more.

Research conducted in countries that outlaw spanking (these include most countries in the developed world) show a sharp drop in violent crime that correlates closely with a similar decrease in the rate of children being spanked (

It is time for policy makers concerned with reducing the rates of violent crime, gun ownership, and incarceration to take a closer look at the very real and serious consequences of spanking. Join with organizations such as the U.S Alliance to End the Hitting of Children ( and Hands Are for Holding ( to recognize the use of corporal punishment against children for what it is: an accepted form of domestic violence.

Please visit my blog at

My new book Trauma-Sensitive Schools: Learning Communities Transforming Children’s Lives is available at




New Year’s Resolutions, 2016


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New Year's  Resolution handwriting on a sticky note

The Raising of America (www. was released just in time for the holidays. It’s an excellent resource for anyone resolving to use the New Year to make a difference in children’s lives.  A commitment to any of the following endeavors can offer new hope for youngsters worn down by the adversity in their lives.

  1. Learn to regulate and control the fear generated by living in a dread-inducing age.

Whether living in a landscape marred by wars, a neighborhood torn apart by economic insecurity and violence, or simply persistent exposure to overly demanding expectations and performance, children need adults around them who can offer them comfort and support. Adults have a responsibility to manage their own terror. This means finding safe ways to manage stress and reduce anxiety. Yoga, physical movement, time outside, journaling, meditation, involvement in the arts are all tried and true ways of achieving the emotional regulation needed to remain calm and connected to children.

  1. Practice perspective taking.

The “wow” factor associated with acts of terror triggers the brain’s fight-flight-freeze response, and draws attention away from ordinary and reasonably safe everyday routines. The constant replaying of these frightening events in the media keeps them in conscious awareness, and eventually results in cognitive distortions that can limit one’s sense of optimism and hope. Adults have a responsibility to avoid over estimations of danger. Instead, they need to draw children’s attention toward positive experiences and meaningful relationships. Point out examples of people being kind to one another, encourage participation in activities that build physical strength and endurance, acknowledge situations where children avoided potentially dangerous situations by making good choices. Have a plan for addressing emergencies at home, teach them basic First Aid, and turn off the television!

(For more information on how to address cognitive distortions, see Friedman, Richard National Cognitive Therapy. (NYT December 6, 2015).

  1. Know the Facts About Gun Violence.

According to Nicholas Kristof (NYT, December 6, 2015) on average 92 people a day in America die from gunshot wounds. Every 30 minutes in America a child is killed or wounded by a gun. And the number of Americans shot by toddlers last year was 265, as compared to 151 shot by terrorists. Surely, this is not what the Founding Fathers envisioned when they guaranteed a citizen’s right to bear arms. Adults have a responsibility to ensure children’s physical safety. Gun owners can reduce accidental injuries in the home by ensuring that firearms are unloaded when not in actual use. Store guns in a locked location that is inaccessible to children or others who may seek to use the firearms without the owner’s permission. Store ammunition  in a locked location AWAY from the firearms. Organizations like the Newtown Action Alliance (, Moms Demand Action (, and Parents Against Gun Violence ( offer interested parties an opportunity to learn more about gun violence and its effects on the quality of children’s lives.

Remember, trauma is not caused by an overwhelming event. Rather, it occurs when adults are unable to restore children’s sense of safety and security by their unwavering ability to offer their protection.

Please visit my blog at

Trauma-Sensitive Schools: Learning Communities Transforming Children’s Lives is now available at


Learning Grounded in Empathy and Self-control


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Word cloud for Mindfulness

Social –Emotional-Learning (SEL) has been around a long time (1994). The fact that it’s recently gained the attention of the New York Times (11-15-15) suggests the general public’s increased awareness that children’s mental health and resilience can’t be assumed. They have to be carefully taught.

As the Times article notes, the neural pathways responsible for emotional regulation and academic mastery are closely related. Learning is a social process that relies on children’s ability to recognize what’s going on inside them and adjust their thoughts and feelings to academic goals.

There is no dichotomy between promoting children’s social development and ensuring access to academic content. The trick is to design instruction in a manner that encourages children’s exploration of their internal state as a way of learning to solve problems and work collaboratively with others.

Deep breathing and mindfulness exercises at the beginning of instruction increases children’s capacity to notice how they are feeling. If necessary, they can then rein in any feelings that threaten their ability to attend to the task at hand. Goal setting and opportunities for progress monitoring with a caring adult helps children develop the self-regulation needed for challenging academic endeavors.

Instructional strategies that encourage children to take the role of another or investigate different perceptions of the same event develop empathy and tolerance for others. Strategies can be as simple as board games or as complex as debating a topic from alternative points of view. What’s important is to encourage children to think outside the box.

As children become more empathic, their capacity to learn the social skills required for clear communication, conflict resolution, and friendship improve. They are able to collaborate with others to advance their own academic and social success.


Watch for Trauma-Sensitive Schools: Learning Communities Transforming Children’s Lives available November, 2015 at Teachers College Press and Amazon.

Visit my blog at








Student Resource Officers in an Age of Trauma-Sensitive Schools


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cute little boy with the hand cuffs on his hands

The recent video of a Student Resource Officer dragging a high school student across her classroom floor is a stunning example of the growing tendency to criminalize the misconduct of children and youth in public schools. Since the 1990s this blurring of the lines between school discipline and legal intervention has led to the incarceration of students who do not (or cannot) conform to the social, behavioral, or academic demands of school. In many cases, these are youngsters with histories of early adversity or trauma. Their frequent suspension or expulsion from educational environments denies them access to the instructional experiences and adult guidance they need to develop the resilience necessary to overcome a difficult past.

When schools defer to law enforcement, they abdicate their responsibility to shape the behavior of children and youth.  Self-regulation and impulse control develop within a social context that relies on collaboration with adults committed to teaching the next generation the skills they need to achieve social and academic success. Coercion and threats do nothing to encourage this process. Rather, they serve as reinforcements of the helplessness and reactive behaviors that are detrimental to the learning process.

It’s time for adults to view the disruptive and self-destructive behaviors of minors through a trauma-sensitive lens. This requires recognizing common “triggers” in the school environment and knowing how to de-escalate students’ reactions to them. These include violations of physical space, changes in routine, confusion about expectations, and the similarities between parent/teacher roles.

Attention is often drawn to the cognitive distortions of “disturbed” children and youth. Perhaps it’s time to attend more to the cognitive distortions of those charged with caring for them. Chief among them is the belief that students’ failure to comply signifies defiance rather than poor emotional regulation and behavioral control.

Increased force is not the answer to promoting safety and cooperation within schools. Instead, educators need to take back their responsibility to teach age appropriate behaviors and self-regulation. This will require above average ability for self-monitoring and managing one’s own emotions when engaging difficult students. But the benefits far exceed the risks. These include providing access to educational opportunities to children and youth who are currently disenfranchised by the criminalization of their behavior.

Check out Trauma-Sensitive Schools: Learning Communities Transforming Children’s Lives. Available in November from Teachers College Press.

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Finding Time for Conversations


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Beautiful woman walking down a lane in park with her little daughter in pushchair, text messaging on mobile phone and smiling. Full length view

Babies love people’s faces, especially when they convey feelings of affection and the willingness to play and entertain.  Expressions of joint attention and interest that pass between young children and adults lay the foundation for important skills like language development and empathy.

Meeting children’s needs for joint attention is difficult when opportunities for face time are limited.  Parents may find the time constraints of work, commuting, and managing household tasks rob them of the energy needed to engage children in playful, reassuring conversations. Teachers may struggle with the competing needs of standards based teaching and children’s social-emotional development.

But however difficult it may be to schedule, the role of joint attention in children’s development is too important to ignore. If you need further proof, check out Sherry Turkle’s new book Reclaiming Conversation. In it she defines real time conversations as opportunities for children to learn how to attend to the thoughts and feelings of others. Repeated frequently enough, conversations help children discover who they are, what others think, and how they can contribute to the success of those around them. In other words, conversation is the vehicle through which children learn self-reflection, empathy, and mentorship.

Here are some tips to get the conversation going:

Turn the stroller around. Taking walks with toddlers is a great opportunity for observing things together and enjoying one another’s company. But only if they can see their caregivers. Otherwise, they move through the experience of being outdoors with no one to label what they are seeing, or interpret what they are experiencing.

Get off the phone. Every child cherishes individual attention from an adult. It is a very special experience which lends itself well to forming close ties, and sharing dreams and ideas. Unless the adult’s attention is diverted to someone on the phone rather than to the child walking beside her. Being ignored or left out diminishes children’s sense of self-worth and importance.

Organize a “Just Say Hello” chapter at your school. Created by Oprah Winfrey, the Just Say Hello Ambassador program provides schools with a forum to promote friendship and inclusion through the art of conversation. The starter kit is available at

Coming soon:

Trauma-Sensitive Schools: Learning Communities Transforming Children’s Lives, K-5

Available in November at or

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