As Starr Commonwealth continues to foster healing in 2019 through trauma-informed and resilience-focused care, we are celebrating the professionals who make our groundbreaking work possible, and who are driven to heal through their hard work in the field. Kathryn Hart, MA, director of Professional Training & Coaching and senior trainer, travels throughout North America providing trauma and resilience training to agencies and schools, including Trauma-Informed Resilient Schools and Healing Trauma and Restoring Resilience in Schools. She has dedicated her 25-year career to helping children and families in a variety of capacities. With a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Bowling Green State University and a master’s degree in professional counseling from Liberty University, her experience with youth and family services have encompassed both clinical and administrative roles.
Awareness for trauma-informed practices has been continuously growing over the last few years, what do you see as the greatest factors attributing to that rise?
More people are becoming informed about the link between physical health and mental health. The ACE [Adverse Childhood Experiences] Study, as well as Dr. Nadine Burke Harris’ subsequent campaign for behavioral health since are key examples of this. Additionally, childcare trends have changed from removing at-risk children from their homes and communities to keeping children in their homes and communities, and therefore, schools are seeing more problematic behaviors. This has resulted in schools asking for help in dealing with these behaviors in order to keep these young people with problematic behaviors in school.
How has that growing awareness shifted your perspective/strategy as a trainer?
As we learn more about the mental and physical effects of trauma and toxic stress through our work in our behavioral health clinics and other direct services for children, we’re able to apply those lessons to our courses. Because we’re constantly collecting more data, we always have a need to develop new content and resources to serve our trainers and customers with the latest research and information in the field of trauma and resilience. By offering our courses online, practitioners anywhere in the world can access this information through a medium that feels personal and polished. We also continue to utilize our 300 Certified Trainers across the globe to deliver our content at conferences, professional development days, and private consultations. The combination of these approaches has allowed Starr to ensure we remain on the leading edge of trauma-informed and resilience-focused care!
What barriers remain, whether in classrooms or communities as a whole, to ensuring trauma-informed practices are embraced and implemented universally?
Education about how trauma affects a developing brain is a huge barrier. I will hear comments like “everyone has challenges, they just need to pick themselves up and deal with it.” There is a common misbelief that it simply is a choice to let trauma affect you. This is not true; trauma is a body experience. Children who have experienced trauma need help with emotional regulation if it was never taught. Their brains are often wired for fear, to fight for survival. They often do not have access to their cognitive parts of their brain.
Sometimes the barriers are financial. Schools know and accept that children of trauma need more help from caring adults but do not have the finances to add additional staff or reset spaces to help children of trauma release their activation and regulate their emotions. As the health of our schools is vital to the health of our communities, Starr has found that local partners, such as community and education foundations, are excited to work to overcome these cost barriers. In many ways, the cost is even greater when we don’t fund training and resources to help children with trauma responses, as these issues lead to a need for more support staff, outside intervention, etc.
Another barrier I have observed is the need for teacher education around trauma and trauma-informed classrooms and schools. Many new teachers become overwhelmed with the behaviors in their classrooms and without the tools to help these children, the teachers experience burnout and leave the field.
So what are the solutions to these barriers?
Explaining the biology behind trauma and how children of trauma’s brains are developed really can create a mindset shift for teachers. No one goes into the education field to hurt kids; they just need to be educated more on the effects of trauma and be given the appropriate tools and resources to help. When they realize our cognitive functions literally shut down in times of stress, fear, or a trauma response, I start to see this “ah-ha!” moment as they begin to understand that behavior is communication. The child needs something to help them re-integrate the cognitive and sensory parts of their brain, because “stressed brains literally cannot learn.”
Another solution is for educators or professionals to understand trauma-informed practices not as another curriculum or behavior management system, but as a way of doing what they already do. This includes how we greet our students, measure behavior, structure recess and specials, and more. I think of it as universal care–not everyone needs it but it will hurt no one to do it AND will help our young people develop healthy and nurturing relationships.
You’re on the front lines across the country on a weekly basis, what are some of your favorite stories in the schools you’ve been to lately?
I’m so proud of a phys ed teacher who, in the past, was quick to kick a student out and send him to the office to deal with in times of behavioral communication. After learning from Starr, he was able to calm the student down by getting on his level and taking deep breaths with him until he was ready to talk. A situation was de-escalated, and this student felt heard!
In general, teachers are reporting more and more the desire to resolve behavior issues instead of sending students out of class. Through these breakthroughs, they’re feeling refreshed and hopeful that they can help their students. Thus, more time is dedicated to learning and growth!
What are some quick tips readers can begin implementing into their care today?
- Ask what has happened or what is happening to a student instead of what is wrong with that student.
- See behavior as communication and ask yourself, “What is this student telling me?”
- Greet every child by name every day.
- Do not take problematic behavior personally. See it as communication for what a child needs.
- Use a value-based classroom behavior management system that is based on community values versus shame-based compliance systems. And stop using publicly displayed behavior management systems like clip charts, point systems, and so on! Instead, track behavior data privately to learn what does and does not help that individual.
- Praise the positive and the efforts, and dig for the gold in each child!
- Ask for feedback from peers! Sometimes we need an objective opinion about behavior.
Where do you see trauma-informed education heading in the next 5-10 years, and what can teachers do now to stay ahead of the curve?
I see more schools understanding the importance of educating all staff in trauma-informed practices. What a teacher experiences with a student each day may be different than a bus driver, lunch attendant, or administrator. By all being trauma-informed, we are all able to remain constantly curious about every student, in every setting, every day. And it’s not only about identifying toxic stress, but the importance of building resilience in each child as well. Every interaction is an opportunity to help our children grow, and it takes a village. The sooner we begin looking at our students through a trauma-informed lens, the easier it is to be intentional in your care. Therefore, I see colleges and universities implementing curriculum that will produce trauma-informed educators by graduation.
What’s the next step in your schools’ trauma-informed journey? A full list of Starr’s courses is available at starr.org/courses, or attend an in-person training at starr.org/conferences.