Increasingly, public K-12 schools have noted and looked for ways to incorporate the ever-growing research that toxic stress or trauma affects the brain development and function of children, as shown in numerous reports by the Harvard Center on the Developing Child. In response to this research, Dr. Bruce Perry from the Child Trauma Academy has developed the Neurosequential Model of Therapeutics, which provides neuroscientific approaches to working with children who have experienced serious, chronic or extreme forms of trauma. As a result, schools, administrators and teachers are bringing trauma-informed practices onto school campuses and into classrooms in order to create the physical and emotional safety required for the student’s nervous system, including the brain, to respond successfully to instruction and information. The Santa Cruz County Office of Education recognized that these approaches could be relevant and very important for students in the Alternative Education Programs, where effects of trauma are widely seen, and so launched a yearlong initiative to study the effectiveness and impact of this approach.
Some stress is a normal part of life, and learning how to cope with stress is an important part of development. Research shows that, even under stressful conditions, supportive, responsive relationships with caring adults can prevent or reverse the damaging effects of toxic stress response. If children experience overwhelming or scary situations without a safe, supportive adult, their nervous systems try to protect them by becoming overly reactive (or in some cases under-reactive). Over time, a dysregulated nervous system can end up making the child feel bad, exhausted, depressed, worried or hopeless. What is meant to be a short-term physiological protective response can end up in a self-destructive cycle that very often results in unsafe actions as the child tries to feel better, at least in the short term.
Over the past several years, research strongly indicates that children who are under a lot of stress, who don’t feel safe or who engage in unsafe actions like substance abuse, truancy or violence, are actually communicating behaviorally that their nervous systems are under threat. In other words, unsafe actions—like cutting school or smoking pot—are a way that children try to tell adults that they do not feel safe (neurobiologically).
Watch a video on this from the Harvard University Center on the Developing Child.
Trauma-Informed Care builds upon this growing body of research, helping teachers and school staff to develop skills to teach students of all ages to learn to self-regulate, reduce intense negative emotions, decrease reliance on unsafe actions, and improve their ability to inter-relate, communicate, and make safe decisions.
This model is called “trauma-informed” but what it actually means is safety-focused. All adults interacting with any student can be “trauma-informed” if they recognize the need that all children have for physical and emotional safety. The model is termed “neurosequential” because the brain processes operate in a hierarchic manner with safety first, then relationships and finally cognitive abstraction: a brain sequence moving from the brain stem to the limbic system to the neocortex. Most people understand that it is hard to learn algebra if you are starving for food. First things must come first. It is the same, although less obvious, for someone who is experiencing dissociation or unconscious fear aroused by triggers in their environment or interactions with others. Bringing these processes into awareness and crafting new responses for both adults and students can repair these maladaptive patterns and enable a true learning-ready brain.
This school year, Alternative Education teachers have been learning the Neurosequential Model and trauma-informed approaches to help students who have a range of school-related challenges. Some of the skills tested and approved by teachers include scaling (having students silently rate the level of their negative feelings), grounding (using their five senses to become aware of their surroundings to assess actual safety), safe coping skills (84 ways to cope safely with any situation), and an approach called “It Makes Sense” to acknowledge the underlying need of the student who is engaging in unproductive behaviors, in order to create an agreement to try something more productive. The goal is to provide needed information to teachers about the impact of toxic stress on the brain to be able to develop strategies to help students feel safer, be able to learn and study better and to be able to understand their own nervous systems in order to meet their own needs for safety and connection.
After a short training in the spring of 2014, Santa Cruz County Office of Education’s Alternative Education Department decided to contract with Gabriella Grant, Director, California Center of Excellence for Trauma Informed Care, to develop this teacher-focused, trauma-informed initiative. Titled “Teaching Neurosequentially: A year-long experiment to integrate didactics and neurobiology,” the process started with a strategic visioning process that identified skill building as the first priority, then classroom management and instructional strategies and, finally, program-wide and school-based policies to increase teachers ability to work with a wide range of challenging student behaviors.
The first third of the school year was based on developing specific skills from the trauma-informed, Neurosequential Model. Teacher-generated data on the specific skills was gathered through a simple process of encouraging teachers to try the skill and notice what occurred as a result. Overall the skills generally worked and teachers reported being more aware and attentive to the emotional needs of their students.
The second third of the school year will be focused on addressing common themes that undermine student success. An online survey completed anonymously by Alternative Education teachers and administration provided feedback related to the process and identified many of these themes. The final third of the school year will look at possible policy changes and related measures to be able to quantify the impact of the initiative and ensure systemic sustainability.