As the conversation progressed, the diverse group of students began to open up and share some of their most personal stories. Each student spoke about some type of trauma – in some cases, a combination of adversities – that have had a profound impact on them.
I don’t often get emotional, but was literally brought to tears as I listened to the conversations. Happy tears because I was so proud of their courage and honesty, and sad tears because it was heartbreaking to hear some of the awful experiences these children have lived through and/or witnessed in their short lives.
Understanding adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) is critical to the work we do as educators. ACEs are defined as traumatic events such as violence, abuse, or neglect that children experience throughout their young lives. Growing up in an environment with substance abuse, mental health problems, or instability due to parental separation or incarceration of a parent, sibling, or other close family member can undermine a child’s sense of safety and stability. Abuse, neglect and household dysfunction can happen anywhere; and sadly, for many of our students, it is a reality. It's important for us to understand how these experiences impact a student’s well-being and their ability to learn.What an amazing afternoon!!! Students discussing privilege, marginalization and speaking their truths! Thank you to staff, parents and community members. #mindblown #WhateverItTakes No matter what...”we got you!” pic.twitter.com/8i5Aif9cAu— L Caplan (@SuptCaplan) September 11, 2019
Children who have experienced trauma often think and act differently. More often than not, learning can be a big struggle for them. Once trauma is identified as the source of negative or destructive behavior, however, we can adapt our approach to better support students in school.
As a school community, we continue to raise our own awareness of the impact of ACES on our students. We have participated in trainings to learn more about trauma-informed practices in our classrooms. My hope is that the more teachers and staff understand our students’ experiences, the more we can assist in meeting their needs and support them in being successful.
Since that initial conversation in September, students and staff members have gathered in smaller groups to discuss the challenges, the concerns and the struggles our young people face. They have had the courage to address topics that are routinely avoided in conversation, including race, diversity, poverty, and sexual identity.
These conversations are one component of our district’s strategic goal to support students in a safe and positive school environment. Students with traumatic backgrounds benefit from restorative practices, such as these circle discussions, rather than punitive approaches to discipline. To quote a restorative justice coordinator from the New York City Department of Education: “Relying solely on punishment leaves out the important and healing lessons that students of trauma so desperately need.”
Through these discussions, I have learned how incredibly brave our students are, and the reality of how harsh and cruel this world can be to young people. At the same time, I am inspired by their resilience and their determination as they show up for school every day. Which is why we owe it to our students to do whatever it takes to create a safe and supportive learning environment for every student, every day.