An article in this month’s Social Work Today is a must read for all social workers practicing in the field of education. New research is uncovering the effects that trauma has on a student’s ability to think clearly. When traumatic experiences that children bring with them to the school setting aren’t identified, it can lead to a dysfunctional circular process of mutual retraumatization in school.
A national sample found that in one year, more than 60% of children were exposed to some form of abuse or violence. (Finkelhor, Turner, Ormrod, & Hamby, 2009). In the article, Dr. Deborah H. Siegel PhD, UCSW, DCSW, ACSW, expands our understanding oftrauma beyond the florid experiences of physical and sexual abuse to: betrayal of trust, emotional neglect, a caregiver’s life threatening illness, automobile accidents, poverty, discrimination, frequent moves, and separation from primary caregivers.
EFFECTS OF TRAUMA
Trauma affects the limbic system causing uncomfortable physical sensations, intense arousal, numbness, or avoidance. Common limbic responses to these phenomena are “fight, flight, freeze”. School personnel often misconstrue a youth's noncompliance in school as willful disobedience when, in fact, because of previous traumas, apparently capable youngsters are unable to activate their prefrontal cortex. They are having a limbic response.
When school personnel, including the school social worker, focus primarily on the child’s cognitions, they can miss what is actually a sensory process that requires sensory interventions. Teachers, staff, and administrators in a trauma-informed school are trained to both recognize and respond to the effects of traumatic stress on children. Dr. Siegel states that what the child needs in the hot moment of misbehavior is a warm, nurturing, empathic response that facilitates a positive, calming , safety-enhancing emotional attachment to the adult. A trauma-informed approach helps disrupt the dysfunctional, self-perpetuating pattern and opens new possibilities for change by using disciplinary methods that convey warmth, empathy, and safety, while teaching the child emotional self-regulation and distress-tolerance skills. The intent is to minimize triggering children’s trauma responses and to give children and adults some voice and choice over what happens to them in school.
SOCIAL WORKER’S ROLE
The key roles for the school social worker are to educate both staff and children about what trauma is, how it affects people, and how to cope with it. The school social worker in this model takes a comprehensive "person-in-situation" perspective, avoiding the narrow focus on the individual student in favor of a thorough biopsychosocial, spiritual perspective that takes trauma into account. The school social worker’s role is to be a catalyst, educator, advocate, and mediator as part of an interdisciplinary team focused on co-creating a trauma-informed school culture.