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On-Site Staff / Partnerships and Building Relationships / Program Design, Development, and Quality / Staff Leadership and Management

A Holistic Approach To Helping Traumatized Kids, Adults, and Communities

I’m a voracious consumer of news. Each morning or lunch break, I set aside time to read headlines, scan news tickers, and flag the day’s trending developments on social media. Later in the day, I pick a few headlines or bookmarked videos, and dig into the details. When I have time, I read across news sources – traditional pieces, independent sources, and opinion bloggers – to provide more nuance to my understanding and sort out the general zeitgeist on the news of the day. Honestly, I think the knowing – what’s emerging as the news of the day – plays a role in my retaining a small sense of control in an era of widespread dis-ease. I may not be able to do anything about it—but at least I can know, and respond to the world as if I know, I think to myself.

Given my professional leanings, I am particularly drawn to news that directly affects children and youth – which seems like everything these days. Young people lead our most critical debates about gun violence and gun control; students – coming of age on an increasingly warming planet – walk out of schools to confront world leaders on the climate crisis; caged children are at the center of our most visceral responses to the situation at the border; and the children in Flint and elsewhere bring home the reality that lead in the water affects brain development, behavior, and academic outcomes. Even a recession brings into focus that kids endure the largest losses when wages stagnate and adult job prospects grow thin.

Increasingly, I’m conflicted about my intake of the news – so very much of it is traumatizing. And if traumatizing news is all around us, we know that the lived reality for kids is even more urgent – especially those whose circumstances do not make the news. Too many of these circumstances feel fragile and in need of handling with a great deal of care. Schools, afterschool programs, and community-based organizations report the growing numbers of youth in their programs that show signs of trauma. Afterschool professionals and youth workers witness the effects of trauma every day, serving as the first line of defense for many young people. Increasingly, these adults in need of more strategies to handle the youth who come through their doors with care.

Appropriately, our profession is doing more and more to respond. We may wish the “news tickers” that role across our student’s lives displayed different headlines, but increasingly, we have some tools to do something about it.

An emerging model, Handle with Care, provides a framework for strengthening the developmental underpinnings of our work, and in some communities, the model has been used to guide collaborations between youth workers and afterschool professionals, schools, and law enforcement officials towards developmentally positive ends for all kids.

Handle with Care starts with a law enforcement officer following up with a child that has witnessed a traumatic event. That officer gets the child’s name and school, and contacts designated school personnel before the next school day. Detailed information about the incident is not shared, but rather, the school is notified with the name of the student and the simple message “handle with care.”

This Handle with Care Notice initiates a response from the school to pay special attention to classroom climate and routines, heighten the awareness of adults, and ready additional supports if needed. These supports, coordinated with community-based providers and mental health professionals, take many forms – from counseling to the use of therapy dogs to enlisting adult mentors and issuing “chill passes.”

While the specific Handle with Care model shows great promise and is being championed by public officials in introduced legislation, the undergirding framework provides lessons for all adults who work with children and youth:

  1. Acknowledge trauma as common. A recent national survey of the incidence and prevalence of children’s exposure to violence and trauma revealed that 60% of American children have been exposed to violence, crime, or abuse. Forty percent were direct victims of two or more violent acts. We know the cognitive, behavioral and health effects of trauma. Importantly, we must remake our programs using trauma-responsive approaches that are flexible enough to adapt to the ever-changing needs of children and youth.
  2. Support the adults that support kids. Adults need tools not only to recognize trauma but to do something about what they know. Recognizing this need, three Wisconsin-based youth workers Quinn Wilder, Linda Eisele, and Jennifer Smith spent a summer synthesizing research and resources to develop the Trauma-Informed Care course, a training to help afterschool staff to learn how to understand, address, and mitigate trauma-linked behaviors.
  3. Understand that the practices that work for children experiencing trauma are good for all children. The environments and strategies used to support children and youth experiencing trauma – safety, routine, trust-building, choice, collaboration, and empowerment – are good for all children. These practices are the cornerstone of effective programs.
  4. Provide tools for adults to attend to social-emotional health. A significant portion of the Trauma-Informed Care course focuses on adult practice and reflection on their own social-emotional regulation with the idea that adults must model the behaviors they would like to see reflected by youth. CASEL provides guidance on adult SEL focused on ensuring that adult SEL is incorporated into standing trainings, implementing peer mentoring, and providing support for staff to model competencies, mindsets, and skills.
  5. Coordinated communication is critical. In the Handle with Care model, coordinated communication is essential. Less essential is that everyone know the details – a simple message, “handle with care,” is all that is needed to engage the system. All adults on board, all hands on deck to take note, be observant, and employ trauma-responsive strategies; ones that that end up being supportive for all youth.

There is much – in our work and in our own lives – to be handled with care. May we be equipped with the tools that allow us to take care.

For breakfast, I had cereal, milk and an apple.

Author: @aliciaw

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