Following are thoughts and reflections from the Institute of the Center for Education Diplomacy that took place in Washington, DC from April 20-22, 2017.
Children face challenges as they grow and develop – and some can have lasting effects that can impede socialization, achievement, and physical health. During a panel discussion called “Trauma Informed Approaches to Education,” experts examined ways that trauma is being addressed around the world to ensure that children have the best opportunity to learn, develop, and be safe.
Kathleen Price of Douglas College and Georgianna Duarte of Indiana State University talked about some of the unique considerations for refugees in North America. While our Canadian neighbors offer welcome centers to help Syrian refugees access services and become acclimated to life in their new home country, some communities along the southern border of the United States are quick to apprehend undocumented immigrants and place them in detention centers where they have very little to live, let alone thrive. There was discussion about how even the different labels – “refugee” vs. “undocumented” or “unaccompanied minors” – reflect the cultural perspectives of how people are viewed and treated. For children in these situations, language and culture differences are not the only factors that affect learning. The trauma of violence and war that led their families to seek refuge in another country may set a person’s world view. For some, this way of living may be all they have ever known – their “normal.” Some of these children have been trafficked, abused, isolated, and separated from their loved ones.
Maryam Sadat Sharifian of the University of Buffalo echoed this concern. Her dissertation research explored the dire conditions in Syria and the inability for children to find safety – even in schools. Military officers often take over schools as their shelter, making them targets for warfare. Children are not finding the ability to attend school or even safe places to play – and that is affecting their development. Many children have PTSD and other war response conditions.
War and violence are not the only disruptions of education. Natural disasters often cause great damage to school infrastructure forcing children out of school. In a country like Nepal that is vulnerable to earthquakes, panelist Bishnu Hari Bhatta of the Partnership for Sustainable Development-Nepal explained that schools teach kids to “drop, cover, and hold” to shelter their bodies and cover their heads. However, during the devastating earthquake of 2015 which happened over the weekend when children were out in the fields, their training sent them back into buildings that were unsafe. The result was devastating loss of life – more than what might have been had they stayed outdoors. More is being done to teach kids different ways to stay safe during a natural disaster. The earthquake of 2015 destroyed more than 35,000 classrooms, and the need to rebuild continues – meanwhile, learning is delayed.
In my portion of the presentation, I discussed how children in the United States may experience abuse, neglect, violence, bullying, disaster, terrorism, or war (i.e., challenges that arise in military families), which can have similar trauma effects. We know from the ACE Study that children who have multiple adverse experiences may have a lifespan decades shorter than their peers who live more peaceful childhoods. Children and youth who experience trauma may cope with self-injury, substance use, violence, promiscuity, and social isolation. And while trauma knows no bounds – affecting people of all ethnicities, religions, and socio-economic backgrounds – it is especially prevalent in the lives of Black youth in America.
There are measures being taken in the United States, and in other countries like the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand, to address trauma and to raise children that are healthier and less violent. For example, in Chicago, schools are trying empathy and restorative justice as a way to resolve conflicts that come up during the school day. Talking or Peacemaking Circles are also being used by schools as a method to address conflict and classroom discourse. These strategies employ what we know works – discussion and connection, rather than the punitive and blaming practices of the past.
We are also doing more to promote healthier children and to prevent bullying and violence in our schools. Incorporating empathy lessens into classroom curriculum helps children to better identify their own feelings and to understand how others might feel in different situations. Social emotional learning is taking place at the preschool and grade school levels to teach children skills to regulate their own emotions and to build compassion and understanding for their peers. For kids that have grown up in violent homes or communities, or have otherwise experienced trauma, schools becoming trauma sensitive. Every staff person is trained – from the teachers and administrators, to the cafeteria staff and bus drivers – to understand the nature and impact of trauma and how this can affect kids and their learning. The training and skill-building isn’t a one-time exercise, but rather something that takes place over a longer period of time – generally, ongoing for years. By being trauma informed, these adults can recognize shifts in academic performance and behavior that may stem from trauma – and they can offer support and understanding.
While the presentations offered perspectives on distinct circumstances and people, a few common themes arose:
1. Understand Behavior as Communication – Kids often lack the emotional maturity or language skills to articulate what is happening, so they communicate in their behaviors. And sometimes they “let it out” in an environment where they feel safest. For some kids, school may be that place, so it’s especially important for school staff to see behavior as communication, and to hold back from discipline that could do more harm than good.
2. Healing Happens in Safe and Trusted Relationships – Connection is essential to heal, so for children that have been traumatized, they need trusted and safe attachments that can be a consistent support. Additionally, it was noted that peer support from someone who has had a similar experience and is from the same country provides added understanding and empathy that can be very healing.
3. Healing Environments are Creative – The ability for art to transcend language, culture, age, and experiential barriers, was noted by many of the panelists. Especially when we know a child has experienced trauma or a significant hardship, giving them artistic methods to express themselves can be helpful.
4. Language and Labels Matter – While we, as academics and professionals, use labels to describe situations, conditions, and illnesses, in many cultures the labels create shame and stigma that add barriers to getting help. We need to remember that the way a person responds to a traumatic experience is normal for a brain that has become overwhelmed, and that people can cope and manage differently in the aftermath. Additionally, we need to understand that language matters. The words we choose are important – especially if they can be interpreted differently by people who know English as a second language.
Yvette G. Murphy is the Director of the Center for Education Diplomacy, a program of ACEI, and she shared some additional thoughts about the conference and this presentation. “Attendees of the 2017 Institute are engaging in essential education diplomacy to bridge agendas across sectors to ensure the needs of children and youth around the world are met so that they may learn. It was important for ACEI’s Center for Education Diplomacy to virtually share this roundtable discussion segment to build awareness among a broad audience for educators who are leveraging change through interdisciplinary and cross-cultural approaches to serve our most vulnerable children – particularly those who have experienced trauma.”
The conference also included other interesting sessions including “Bridges Not Walls: A New Era in Diplomacy,” “Global Trends in Education,” “Negotiation Skills for Education Diplomacy,” and “Bridges to 2030: Education and the UN Sustainable Development Goals.” ACEI and the Center for Education Diplomacy support the education needs of children around the world through conferences like this and in other programs and initiatives.
Institute of the Center for Education Diplomacy Panel (from left): Yvette G. Murphy, Kathleen Price, Georgianna Duarte, Maryam Sadat Sarifian, Helga Luest, and Bishnu Hari Bhatta
Originally published content from Huffington Post