August 25 — 2:04 pm, 2015

What happened to Jasmine? Open your eyes to childhood trauma

Jasmine was one of my favorites.

She was one of the shortest, scrawniest children in our 2nd-grade classroom. Maybe 45 pounds with her coat on. Her tattered backpack seemed as big as she was. Somehow the tiniest children can hold the most energy, the most emotion, and somehow they manage to get the most compassion from me.

When you peek in our classroom, you may see Jasmine stealthily surveying the classroom for the child most likely to respond the most spiritedly when she gives them the finger, or when she gives them a freshly sharpened pencil in the side of the head perfectly thrown from 20 feet away.

When Jasmine is unsuccessful in provoking a classmate’s response, she can get really amped. I have heard guttural profanity and I have been horrified to see her raise a school chair over her head and heave it at a classmate. More surprising, sometimes Jasmine targets someone twice her size. Sometimes she will even taunt teachers, naming one “Young Buck.” Once juking her way around him, beating him to the hallway fire alarm to set it off.

Jasmine’s motivation is not related to anything we can see. It’s complicated. What we don’t see is why. Why would such a young child with such a lovable smile be so aggressive and confrontational?

Her teachers, including me, often see these behaviors as disruptive, which they most certainly are, even seeing her as "bad."

What none of us see is that the classroom setting is not necessarily related to Jasmine’s actions either. Jasmine’s confrontational behavior can already be in full swing before she even reaches the school. Sometimes she freely enters the courtyard looking for someone to sucker-punch or bait by verbally defiling their mother. The best candidate is the one who will respond aggressively.

Jasmine wants a fight, not someone who will run. She can’t “release” anything if they run. More than once, Jasmine has physically assaulted a teacher who intercepted her attempts to get physical with a classmate. Our school had no regular nurse and the counselor was on long-term leave. There was not even another room for Jasmine to de-escalate in.

Is Jasmine bad or is there something else? Why is her behavior so volatile one minute and so calm and agitated the next?

Beginning to ‘see’

We have to ask questions and carefully ask the right questions.

It’s not a question of what’s wrong with Jasmine. It’s a question of what happened to Jasmine. 

Most immediately, what has happened to Jasmine is that she has been “triggered.” A trigger is the thing that started her visible, physical release. You could peek in the classroom all day. In fact, you could look right at the trigger and not see it.

Jasmine probably can’t identify the trigger either. It was very likely some sensory detail, something Jasmine saw, heard, smelled, touched, or even tasted. It’s locked in her (non-verbal) memory and associated with a time of intense fear. It may have been as innocent as a ticking clock or the nail-polish color on a finger, an untucked shirttail, or even a backpack. The final memory that registered before abuse.

Meanwhile, as you are looking in our room, make sure you see the 29 other children with Jasmine. Her behaviors have ripple effects. You will see some of the 29 tense up, and some may indeed become triggered themselves by something in Jasmine’s behavior.

So, it’s not necessarily the setting, and we can’t identify a trigger, and it affects the whole educational process. Therefore some may surmise that it’s an unpredictable and unmanageable situation. If you are intent at that moment upon relentless pursuit of academics, the situation will be unmanageable.

Back to Jasmine. Something else you probably didn’t notice came earlier. Before her visible, physical “release” came neurobiological processes that put her into a hyperaroused, defensive mode.

Hyperarousal is one of nature’s defenses — in Jasmine’s case, to a sense memory embedded deep in her brain (amygdala to be precise). Now in "fight or flight" mode from a terrifying memory, the brain is flooded with adrenaline and cortisol, preparing for action. When in this state of hyperarousal, the slightest additional cue can detonate defensive action.

After hyperarousal (from the memory) and the trigger in the moment, pent-up traumatic energy (stress or fear) is released. That release is the defense that we can see.

Defense against what? you may ask. Defense against something else that none of us sees. What none of us sees is what happened to Jasmine.

Frustrated? Welcome to the world of teaching children. Welcome to the world of trauma-impacted children.

Public health research

Childhood trauma is the response of overwhelming or helpless fear or terror. Specifically, it is a response to abuse or neglect from a missing parent or a household that can include violence, mental illness, or substance abuse. Other childhood traumas can include experience with community violence and ethnic oppression.

Let’s be clear: Trauma means things like rape, like physical beatings, like relentless emotional destruction, or maybe complete disregard for basic physical needs. Total neglect of another human being. Often, the trauma is inflicted by someone who is a caregiver.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s public health research says that 22 percent of our children are impacted by trauma in three or more trauma categories to the point of predictable, lifelong damage and early death. Yes, early death. Early death related to childhood experience. They call these ACEs, or “adverse childhood experiences.”

ACEs don’t respect demographics, zip code, or socioeconomic status. Researchers from CDC found that even in beautiful suburban San Diego, roughly one-fourth of the mostly middle class, mostly White, working folk with medical insurance had experienced three or more ACEs!

ACE rates in urban areas can be double the suburban level, but the 22 percent rate in San Diego is shocking in itself. Percentages translate as six to seven children (six to seven “Jasmines”) with severe trauma (three-plus ACEs) in a class of 30, even in San Diego.

Having three or more ACEs is significant because experiencing three or more ACEs correlates with doubled risk of depression, adolescent pregnancy, lung disease, and liver disease. It triples the risk of alcoholism and sexually translated diseases. There is a fivefold increase in attempted suicide.

Neuroscience research

Neurobiology tells us that trauma’s impact is deep. Chronic or complex trauma physically changes children’s brains and impairs cognitive and social functioning. These injuries relate specifically to the prefrontal cortex and academic processes, especially executive function, memory, and literacy.

So, the children are not “bad” or sick, they are injured.

Neurobiology further informs us that cognition shuts down for trauma-impacted children overwhelmed by a state of chronic or complex trauma. It is physiologically impossible to learn. Trauma-impacted children can not equally access their education.

Neuroscience also teaches us that young children can’t “just get over it.” In fact, the younger the child, the more immature the physical brain and the less practiced in social defenses. Which means that the greater the damage, the more difficult it is to access and verbalize, and the longer it takes to heal, if ever.

Trauma-informed education

There is an abundance of literature on ACEs and trauma-Informed education. A successful education paradigm requires: a) explicit acknowledgement of childhood trauma, b) screening students, c) training teachers and d) creating “safety” across the learning environment.

Crucial investments toward safety include appropriate class sizes, with limits on trauma-impacted children per classroom. For example, one teacher alone will struggle to be effective aiding one "triggered’ student from among the six-plus who have three-plus ACEs, within a classroom of 30 kids, who are waiting to be taught. Additional critical investments are dedicated appropriate space for children to de-escalate is needed, as well as on-site nurses and counselors, who build ongoing relationships with the children and families.

What no one can see by peeking in the room

What happened to Jasmine?

When I had my first peek at Jasmine, she was in kindergarten. Someone had confined her in the small, four- by six-foot entryway of the main office, in the narrow space between the registration counter and the wall with the bulletin board. The veins on her neck bulged and throbbed, as she lay on her back furiously kicking and screaming, her face smeared with tears. She’d already ripped all the paperwork from the bulletin board.

I could see the behavior. I could not see the ACEs Jasmine was impacted by.

My eyes were opened only later, when I sensitively started asking her caregivers: "What happened to Jasmine?” Only then did I begin to see.

I saw the incarceration of her father. I saw the death of her mother. I heard her uncle’s anger at “having to take in his sister’s baby.” The uncle “caregiver” rarely sees Jasmine because of his night-shift work.

Earlier, when I’d walked Jasmine home that night from kindergarten, I was scared (as an adult) to see the squalor and dilapidated rowhouse. The front door was hanging open to the street, and it was dark inside. I know there is drug trafficking and drug-related violence on her block and the surrounding blocks. My alarm shifted to anger when the smell of smoke wafted out the open door with moaning sounds of stupor inside. I was somewhat relieved when Jasmine’s cousin bounded out to meet us. But I have never forgotten what I saw.

Now, when I see a child with a backpack, I still trigger.

Keep in mind that Jasmine is not an unusual child. That year, there were nine-plus other trauma-impacted children in our classroom.

Trauma-impacted students do not have equal access to their education

Today, our education systems are not trauma-informed. Districts don’t train teachers, children and schools remain unsafe, and trauma-informed systems remain unfunded.

Preparing individual “Section 504” plans for individual children does not address systemwide needs and is not a practical option, given the scope: millions of students.

Education reformers focus on Common Core and standardized testing. They use phrases like "no excuses" and "high expectations for all" without providing appropriate accommodations for all. That contradiction is wrong. Morally wrong.

The system ignores the more than 22 percent of trauma-impacted children and their classmates. In my urban district, the rate is even higher, at more than 45 percent of children with three-plus ACEs. “ACEs blindness” disproportionately penalizes urban districts impacted with doubled rates of trauma. That is doubly wrong

Instead of accommodation, punishment. Punishment at the system level.

The system generates wrong decisions, life-changing decisions, based on uninformed, misleading data. Attempting to compare states’ or school districts’ scores (and even individual schools) given the wide variations in trauma rates is dangerously wrong. The system then continues this level of travesty at an even more deluded level: an individual classroom compared to another individual classroom.

None of the above gets adjusted for radical variations in rates of trauma, which can reach up to 100 percent!

An uninformed approach. We still do not see.

Action steps

We have the right to be frustrated and angry about what happens to all our Jasmines and her classmates!

Our own U.S. Department of Justice report, “Defending Childhood”, calls childhood trauma a national crisis. The CDC says it is critical to understand. Becoming trauma-informed is no longer optional. Let’s channel that anger into action.

Stand up and be heard by your politicians:

Besides what is outlined in the earlier section in this post, here are some additional action steps:

1. An immediate opportunity for action is the rewrite of national education legislation (ESEA) ironically known as “No Child Left Behind.”

The rewrite is already in House and Senate conference committee, so no time to waste.

Click this ‘OpenCongress’ link to get names of your Congress members. Click on a lawmaker and then find contact information on right side of screen. Email or call them today, or send them a link to this blog. Ask them to acknowledge and fund accommodations in ESEA for trauma-impacted children!

2. If you are in Pennsylvania, there is a second, maybe even larger, opportunity, with state lawmakers, detailed here (with contact information at the end).

3. If you’re not trauma-informed, read here, or research childhood-trauma or seek training, here, here, here or here.


This is a true story using pseudonyms.

Daun Kauffman has been a teacher in Philadelphia for 15 years.

This article originally appeared at 

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