Kim Wagner has been an occupational therapist for 26 years with 20 of them in the public school system. She also worked many years at sensory clinic and sensory camp. Kim has a master's degree in occupational therapy with a minor in early childhood development. She has also been certified in Infant Massage, Brain Gym, The Alert Self-Regulation Program, Trauma Informed Trainer (by STARR Global) and the Sensory Integration Praxis Test and Treatment. Kim currently works in Lincoln Park schools as an OT for the general education population. Kim is on the Behavior Support team and is part of the Trauma Informed Team. Kim's focus in her current position is providing regulation, sensory and trauma informed behavior support to students and teachers for a more successful educational experience.
What excites you most about the evolution of the field of trauma-informed, resilience-focused care?
"Over my years as an occupational therapist in the public school sector I have seen more and more students referred to special education programs. Many of these students did not fit into a program, they may have exhibited some “EI type behaviors” (Emotionally Impaired) but did not fully meet the criteria for that eligibility. Or they had sensory seeking behaviors but did not appear to truly have ADHD. I witnessed students in the general education setting who put their heads down and refused to do any work or had severe behaviors and were punished with removal or privileges revoked. Many of us knew these were not “bad kids” or children who belonged in a secluded setting but we did not have the right answers as to the “whys” of their behavior or how to help these children. And then we learned about trauma and how it affects the brain, how it affects a child’s development and a child’s whole life. We started asking the right questions and coming up with some right answers as a result. I am excited that trauma-informed, resilience- focused care is not only being investigated but programs are developing. This means that all children will benefit. This means that educators will have more resources at their disposal. Research shows that all staff and students benefit from trauma-informed practices being implemented in the school system whether they have themselves experienced trauma. The National Association of School Psychologists have identified that trauma-informed practices promote feelings or physical, emotional and social safety for students and staff. I am ecstatic that children are now being looked at as just that, children – not good or bad, not a label or an eligibility, but children first. We have a long way to go but I believe we are on the right path. I know we are in Lincoln Park, I have seen so many positive changes."
How have trauma-informed, resilience-focused practices transformed your approach to your profession?
"I am definitely more curious and empathetic than I used to be. I have worked for a long time with students on sensory regulation, so in regards to sensory processing I have always been open and curious, observing children to figure out what type of sensory input they need for success and comfort. However, that did not always apply to my work with students regarding challenging behaviors. Through education on trauma, its effect on us, and resilience practices I have become more open and curious when challenging behaviors are involved. I observe, interact, engage and explore more, asking students what they need and offer suggestions as to what might help them feel more secure. I notice our district does not go straight to punitive measures anymore and I have become creative with restorative resolutions working on repairing relationships rather than them being further torn down. I, along with my colleagues, hear our students’ voices more now."
Why are you driven to heal the children, families, and/or communities you support?
"I am naturally a very empathetic person; I don’t think anyone who goes into our fields are not empathetic. We are driven to help others. For a long time I thought helping was fixing. I learned through a family difficulty that fixing is not helping. Supporting and providing resources helps others become more independent and leads to healing. In my previous school position, I worked with students individually or a small group but in a setting separate from a classroom. I did not see the change I hoped for, for my students. I transferred to my current school district and my role was vastly different. I was able to help whole classrooms, whole schools and was responsible for the whole district. It was overwhelming but exciting. My primary role is on the Behavior Support Team working with students who have severe behavior. I met a student who had been severely abused by his own family member. He was abused physically and sexually and deprived of any comfort at a very early age. I saw the damage that abuse did to this child. He was in “flight or fight” mode all of the time, never in “freeze” mode. He eloped out of the classroom multiple times in an hour. The slightest challenge or sense of being overwhelmed sent him into acts of physical aggression I had never seen before in anyone. And my heart broke. Cognitively I knew abuse happens, but I had never realized the depths of its damage. This poor child was out of his skin all of the time. He has gotten a lot of help and stability and is doing so much better, but it will take years for him to feel safe. I pray that he finds continued peace and comfort. Any time my job feels overwhelming or difficult, or I am faced with a student who is exhibiting damaging and frustrating behaviors, I think of that first little boy. I know that I have to show up for him and all of our children every single day because they deserve it."