When Christina Bethell was little, she lived in a low-income housing complex in Los Angeles where her neighbor, a quiet lady the kids called Mrs. Raccoon, always had her door open for the neighborhood kids. Every Saturday she threw a little tea party with candy to celebrate any child with a birthday that week. Bethell fondly remembers the woman’s kindness as source of comfort during her challenging childhood.

Dr. Bethell, now a professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, shared this story in an NPR interview last September on the release day of her study on the long-term effects of Positive Childhood Experiences (PCEs) on mental health.

Like the well-documented effects of Negative Childhood Experiences (NCEs) on childhood trauma and adulthood health outcomes, she found PCEs have a greater effect when they’re cumulative. That means every encounter makes a difference — especially for children living in conditions where problems like poverty and discrimination propagate negative experiences.

“Every interaction with a child has a reaction in that child,” says Bethell. “Even as we keep working to address the many social and cultural factors we need to address to prevent negative experiences, we should be focused on proactive promotion of the positive.”

Getting schools ready for a ‘tsunami of trauma’

The findings of Bethell’s study are especially significant for educators today as we face huge emotional fallout from the ongoing pandemic. While trying to support students with their varying degrees of anxiety, negative experiences and trauma — educators are grappling with their own.

In an Education Post article, sixth grade social studies teacher Stephen Guerriero writes about the paradox of offering his students support and consistency every morning at 9 a.m. on Zoom despite the anxiety and turmoil churning inside him.

“In my lifetime or even in the past century, there has never been a situation quite like this, where trauma is systemic, sustained and societal,” he says. “What is certain is that a coming tsunami of trauma will test our schools as never before.”

How districts and schools face that challenge will impact students long term.

The priorities Guerriero would set include training and support for teachers: putting student social and emotional well-being before academics; manageable counselor caseloads that foster personal connections such as a tiered approach where students with more intensive needs would work with counselors that have a much smaller counselor-student ratio.

While the severity of the situation is clearly beyond the scope of the individual teacher, each teacher has a critical role in proactively promoting positive experiences for the children in their care — as does each pediatrician, law enforcement officer and even community member like Mrs. Raccoon.

Building relationships that value and validate students

“The strong, stable, and nurturing relationships that we build with our students and families can serve as a conduit for healing and increasing resilience,” says Matthew Portell, executive principal at Fall-Hamilton Elementary, in an Edutopia article where he debunks myths around a trauma-informed approach to education.

He clarifies that helping students with trauma is not in lieu of professional therapy. The focus of educator and administrator’s is on developing relationships, as we do with all students. A trauma-informed approach isn’t about fixing our kids — systems and structures that alienate and discard students who are marginalized are the problems, not the children.

Khafre Jay, founder and director of the non-profit Hip Hop for Change who has invested in trauma training for all its artist educators, shares an incident that illustrates how educators may slip into bias that alienates students.

Once as he initiated a hip-hop project with a group of teens, the educator in charge pulled Jay aside and said, “And get those boys to pull up their pants!”

Jay’s response was this, “If that's the first thing you want me to do is try to tell these kids not to be themselves, you’ve got the wrong guy.”

He explains that young Black, brown or trans kids constantly get the message that they’re not valued, and they don’t see themselves up on the walls in their classrooms. Even worse, their identity and culture are actively devalued. In such incidents, it’s important to call out other educators for how they approach, value and validate kids, otherwise instead of supporting them, we’re adding to their negative experiences.

“When you're dealing with traumatized kids where they don't have any understanding of self-worth, you cannot come in that room and evaluate them first off,” he says.

Along with creating positive experiences for kids, Jay’s work with Hip Hop for Change gives kids tools for personal and artistic expression that helps them process traumatic experiences.

Supporting kids with trauma during virtual learning

“Just listen without trying to fix things, often kids just want to be heard and validated,” advises Caprice Young, superintendent of the Learn4Life charter schools network, in an Education Post blog on how trauma-informed approach especially applies in a virtual environment.

Research shows that when adversity feels like a shared experience, we cope better emotionally and neurologically, she explains. This is why we should reassure our students that they’re not alone in their struggles. One way is by creating opportunities for peer support.

Young also tells us to be clear with students about our expectations, which should be appropriate based on that student’s ability and circumstances. Finally, never forget to notice and celebrate each success, no matter how small.

“Traumatized children who learn to thrive have someone in their life who encourages them and believes in their success,” says Young. “Educators should strive to be that support, and make sure this is a constant part of their educational experience.”

As we face this daunting reality, Portell reminds educators that trauma-informed work is a journey and not a destination. Sometimes, like Dr. Bethell’s kind neighbor Mrs. Raccoon showed us, it’s about being there with the door open.