Many of today’s students struggle to succeed in school. At least a partial answer to the “why” question is that almost half of all children have experienced trauma, and we know that trauma and its accompanying symptomology affect learning.
With this knowledge, the critical question is: what do we do about it?
There is no simple answer as detailed in my forthcoming book, Trauma Does Not Stop at the School Door (Columbia Teachers College Press June 2020). That is because trauma symptomology varies from student to student and the type of trauma and its context are powerful drivers.
And, sadly, we have not done enough yet to create trauma responsive educational institutions although we know how to do that. And if you have been fortunate and not suffered trauma, no worries about the value of trauma responsive schools; they benefit all students. They are exemplars of the statement: a rising tide lifts all boats.
A recent seemingly trivial incident in my personal life shed some light on the above issues. At first blush, the story may not seem apt but stay with me here.
We were skiing and in the evening, we decided to play the game Stratego, which I had packed. For those not familiar with the game, it features 40 pieces with differing capacities and the goal is to capture ones opponent’s flag. There are red pieces and blue pieces and the two players each set up their board strategically, using all their pieces. Neither side knows the piece placements of the other.
Then, whoops! Somewhere along the travel route, there were only 34 blue pieces. Among the missing pieces (lost forever somehow) was the flag (critical) and the tippy top piece, the #1 Marshall. We were sad and disappointed. We had been eager to play.
My partner said: go online; I am sure someone sells replacement pieces; we can’t be the only ones to ever lose Stratego pieces. Good point and I found the needed pieces (wooden ones since our game was old) and they were expensive. Goodness. But, they would not arrive while we were skiing. Yes, I ordered them, thinking we’d defer playing til our next trip. Delayed gratification. And by the by, we also found a version of Stratego online. Sort of fun but not the same as having a game board and actual pieces.
Then, with the passage of a day, I was struck by an idea: why didn’t we play with a reduced number of pieces (34 each) and create the key missing pieces that were needed — the Flag and the Marshall? We’d each have 34 pieces and we could play by the same rules. It would be like a shortened version of the real full length game. We could still play, missing pieces notwithstanding.
Then, another idea: maybe there are strategies online for shortened games and there were! There was even a 10 piece speed game — we had enough pieces for that for sure. Then we started saying: wait, we could use the recommended 10 pieces or we could invent a new game where we each pick whichever 10 pieces we wanted as long as each of us had a flag.
We started inventing new games and the missing pieces became the catalyst for these new, creative, innovative approaches.
Now, to return to trauma and schools and education, we can learn from this Stratego mess up. Children who have experienced trauma do have “missing” pieces. They have often been stripped of what I call the three S’s: stability, structure and safety. And, these “S” losses lead to other deprivations and struggles including trouble with attachment and engagement; disassociation; the silencing of voice, the incapacity to experience joy; the presence of health issues. Missing pieces hurt.
Ponder applying the lessons learned from the Stratego story and our missing game pieces:
For me, the lessons from the Stratego game problem are critical: we can’t get back what was taken away by trauma. Once traumatized, forever traumatized. But, there are new ways to help fill the holes trauma creates. Yes, the new approaches don’t fill the holes exactly. But, they do enable forward progress. The holes become part of our glorious human fabric.
Consider this example. Suppose a young child lives in a home with an abusive mother who is addicted to drugs and needs to be taken care of and as such is incapable at that moment of caring for her child. Yes, the child is deprived of a mother who is healthy and caring and nurturing and supportive. There is a huge hole created: the absence of a quality and present functional mother.
A child will not get those years back. The child’s mother is missing. But there are things that can help: another caring adult, a connection to other individuals who can provide warmth and support. Teachers and schools can help too.
And, as the child ages, perhaps that child now adult can have her own child and maybe her mirror neurons will enable her to experience with her own child what she missed: mothering. By giving her own child what she didn’t have, a mother can get a sense not only of what she missed but satisfaction through seeing her child thrive. I know this to be true; I experienced it in addition to studying it. And it isn’t a perfect hole filler but it is far far better than nothing.
Here’s the point. There’s little value in spending time finding the original missing pieces in a child’s traumatized life. The pieces are missing. They are gone. One can’t buy them on the Internet. One can’t make up for lost years or a lost parent.
But, one can think differently about one’s life and create a life that recognizes the missing pieces and still enables one to move forward. Stated simply, while one can’t play the original game of Stratego, one can play another type of Stratego game and with work and effort and help, one can even find joy and creativity in the new game.
Think about it this way: there are lots of ways to play Stratego if one is willing to let go of the idea that one needs 40 pieces to play.
Karen is an educator and an author. Prior to becoming a college president, she was a tenured law professor for two plus decades. Her academic areas of expertise include trauma, toxic stress, consumer finance, overindebtedness and asset building in low income communities. She currently serves as Senior Counsel at Finn Partners Company. From 2011 to 2013, She served (part and full time) as Senior Policy Advisor to the US Department of Education in Washington, DC. She was the Department's representative on the interagency task force charged with redesigning the transition assistance program for returning service members and their families. From 2006 to 2014, she was President of Southern Vermont College, a small, private, affordable, four-year college located in Bennington, VT. In Spring 2016, she was a visiting faculty member at Bennington College in VT. She also teaches part-time st Molly Stark Elementary School, also in Vt. She is also an Affiliate of the Penn Center for MSIs. She is the author of adult and children’s books, the most recent of which are titled Breakaway Learners (adult) and Lucy’s Dragon Quest. Karen holds a bachelor degree in English and Spanish from Smith College and Juris Doctor degree (JD) in Law from Temple University - James E. Beasley School of Law.