I’m hearing it all…
Trauma-Aware. Trauma-Sensitive. Trauma-Responsive. Trauma-Informed. Trauma-Empowered. Trauma-Invested.
…and the latest I’ve recently heard, Trauma-Attuned Environments.
Then there is the biggest conversation of all of them that has but one word, Resilience. I’ve recently learned that this single word has multiple viewpoints, definitions, hopes, and even triggers for a large number of people.
I am just one person and I occupy a relatively small parcel of the world, but this conversation is the entire world to me. And it connects to many others in an equally profound way.
But why are there so many spins on the word trauma? Why are there so many connotations for the word resilience?
And why does this stuff seem to now pop up everywhere? In schools, in medical communities, in social work, in churches, and in families? And if you’ve heard about the impact of trauma on people, does that mean you’re trauma-informed?
This work is causing a seismic shift in mankind. I liken it to the mental space people must have occupied when suddenly some realized that the world wasn’t flat. That we were indeed living on a sphere and not a table. That we would never find the edge and fall off, but instead were ultimately all interconnected and accessible to one another, always.
And once eyes are opened to this conversation, why does it often leave people feeling like their mind is a snow globe that is constantly being shaken up? And most important of all, now that we know what are we going to do? And once we decide what to do, how will we get there, together?
So many questions.
In 2011, I got sober.
In that same year, I found myself in a non-profit that got people out of poverty. I was one of the people who needed out.
Needless to say, 2012 was a year in my life of rapid transformation. For the first time in 37 years, I had a community of safe people, who were more interested in what I currently was and what I could become than what I used to be and what I had done. They were invested in me. They were invested in my contribution. They were offering me power. They were seeking my own personal wisdom, that I had gained from my adversity. I would tell my story, and people’s hair would blow back. Their eyes would become wide. But they didn’t run away. They stayed and asked me to tell them more.
I was with people who, when my kids were literally climbing the walls in public, gently said to me, “Your kids are great and you are a good mom.” What? Are you kidding me? I’ve done horrible things. My kids are broken and it is my fault!
One morning, I read something in a book about how years of addiction and alcoholism warped families. Panicked, I called a friend.
“Have you ever seen warped Tupperware? That shit ain’t coming back!”
I was riddled with guilt and shame, tears streaming. My friend laughed.
And with joy and discernment in her voice, she said, “Rebecca, I work for an eye doctor and we often get eyeglasses that have melted from the sun, usually left on dashboards of a car on a hot summer day. Completely and utterly warped!’ She paused and then gently asked, “And you know what?”
I stammered a feeble, “What?”
She went on, “It takes a lot of hours and it is painstaking, but with patience and care, we restore those frames to as good as new.”
Hope. She and so many others gave me so much hope. No judgment. No trying to fix me. Just a space to co-regulate with caring people as I tried to pull a life together to resemble something I wanted but had never had.
I was wanted. I was included. I was loved.
In July of 2012, the poverty project that I encountered who gave me so much hope and so many relationships that healed me, hired me. Suddenly, I was working with multiple families also wanting out of poverty. And I was organizing numerous middle-class people who had signed on to be their friends. Their support system. Their tribe. Co-learners about what it was going to take to solve poverty in our community.
Suddenly my personal mission became so much bigger than myself.
So, I began to pour through books about poverty and social classes and leadership and spirituality and healing. In this process, I had a director who took me under her wing and created a safe space for me to begin to encounter the middle class from a professional dynamic.
For the first 6 months, we went to meetings and I barely said a word. I was watching and listening. After we would leave these meetings, I would burn her ears with dozens of questions as I tried to figure out how the middle-class expectations worked. I had learned about hidden rules and certainly knew that I had slimmer chances of redemption in a working environment if I accidentally broke one of those rules.
And I didn’t want to make her — or our organization — look bad. So, I quietly soaked it all up. I might’ve thought that all of my expertly-honed survival skills suddenly didn’t apply anymore, but I was wrong. In fact, it’s those exact survival skills that made me flexible enough, enough of a problem-solver, enough of a critical and creative thinker, to allow me to figure out how to fit in. And those survival skills walked a new path; one whose bricks were laid by a new mode of living and loving inside the trusting relationships I had developed. And I became a sponge.
At some point, I swear, I began to feel something functionally changing in my brain. I became curious about this.
Like many, I was stuck under the universal learning that basically all our brains were fixed by age 5. I was under the common knowledge, that when you had done as many drugs and drank as many bottles of vodka as I had, your brain was certainly damaged and would never repair itself. I knew there were these things called brain cells and we only had so many…
But still, I felt something happening to my brain. I was developing the ability to think forward, months at a time. I was developing the language of negotiation and successfully using it in middle-class settings. I was becoming excited about meeting new people and tackling tough problems and working in groups. I was learning how to coach families in our project and their middle-class allies out of distress.
I was seeing more solutions than problems. I was changing. But how could this be? How could this be after all that had happened to me and all that I had done and done to myself?
And while I was experiencing this foundational shift, I was working with and watching other adults who had similar stories; and they were transforming too. They were problem-solving and planning. I was witnessing miracle after miracle. And as the adults got better, our kids transformed right before our eyes. They were becoming those kids we hoped, we knew they were, deep inside.
I was not sure of what was happening or how to name it yet. But I knew one thing for sure; the relationships with a safe supportive community, with the middle-class, had something to do with it.
So, I became fascinated with the brain on poverty. I read and I watched YouTube videos from experts and I scoured the Internet. I tried to read white papers, but quickly realized, I wasn’t quite that smart! However, I did discover, it was a concept others were researching and exploring.
Ultimately I found that poverty DOES wire the brain differently. We had brain scans to prove it. I quickly decided that even though a brain on poverty over-wires its survival functions, (mammalian and reptilian) and under-wires our prefrontal cortex, that didn’t mean we were ignorant, or maladaptive or “less than.” It meant we were brilliant! In fact, our brains had done a remarkable thing to adapt to the environments where the stakes were highest for survival.
At some point, I stumbled on to a video by The Center for Developing Child on toxic stress.
I was stunned. There. It. Was.
Now, while all of this was happening, I began to consult within school systems, doing professional development for teachers and school staff on poverty and what kids in the classroom need to be successful. What families in poverty need from schools to feel safe and connected. As I’m encountering this toxic stress work, I’m immediately giving it to audiences.
I stood on a stage in 2015 and did my first keynote. I shared my theory about toxic stress and poverty and the brain and that somehow relationships of support can heal this.
Not long after that, I found the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) research.
I found the documentary Paper Tigers.
Again, I was stunned. My ACE score is an 8. I shared the work with my families in our non-profit. All but one had significantly high ACE scores.
Completely by accident, the Internet next led me to the science of resilience.
AND BAMM! My lightning bolt.
The basis of the Core Story is that unbuffered adversity affects developing brains and causes them to over-wire for survival. Our fight/flight/freeze becomes prominent and our default mode of operation. Our stress response systems become over-activated and that causes a host of social and behavioral challenges and lifelong health consequences. This process manifests in many different ways throughout a lifespan.
BUT most importantly, the brain is not “fixed” by age five, but rather it is malleable, or plastic throughout our entire lives. Best of all, the brain WANTS to heal and CAN heal at any age. And that safe supportive relationships and environments are how we activate healing in a brain that has been wired to protect itself and this healing science is called the science of resilience.
So, basically what I was experiencing and what I was witnessing in others, I found verified in a culmination of over 25 years of community research. This suddenly answered the “why” of what Ruby Payne figured out years ago. Kids and adults in poverty respond to relationships. If they have enough safe, supportive, accessible relationships they begin to thrive.
The brain wants to heal and is seeking the relationships needed to do just that. And it turns out that behavior is not a character issue. It’s a freakin’ brain issue!
And to both heal trauma and solve poverty, we use the same resilience-building frameworks. There are solutions.
Of course, by this time, I am falling in love with schools and teachers as I am out in the field doing professional development. I am watching this sense of overwhelm and powerlessness wash across their faces and come through in their voices as they shared how unprepared they felt to help address the many challenges so many of their kids are bringing to school.
So, I soaked up everything I could find about the trauma/resilience-informed movement and began to give it to schools. To communities. To churches. To other people’s families. And to my own.
All of a sudden, I could teach people about this new research and about adversity and the brain on adversity and I could share my ACE score, and people got it. I no longer had to share the details. Just the score. It was profoundly freeing.
Moreover, I also witnessed mom after mom, sit in my office and as we went through the ACE indicator, light bulbs came on. As she realized it wasn’t what was wrong with her but what had happened to her. And every single mother and father that I shared the work with instantly began to wonder what their own children’s ACE scores were. Because all parents and caregivers fundamentally want good lives for their children. Transformatively, this was not a gotcha game. These were “there is hope and we can heal” conversations.
As I began to share and connect people to this work, I watched it start to spread like wildfire. Here in Kansas, I have been able to be a small part of growing the movement.
So back to the beginning of this post. Why so many terms around trauma?
Truth be told, I don’t have a good answer for that, except that as people encounter this work, they are creating a response to it and sharing it with others.
When I contacted Jane Stevens at ACES Connection and asked her to help me wrap my head around all these different trauma words, she said, “Rebecca, truth be told no one really has it figured out yet. We are still inventing wise action. Lead your base how you feel comfortable and ultimately in time, we will find our way together.”
So, I researched and began talking about the continuum like this:
- Trauma-Aware: You just heard about the science of adversity, ACEs, trauma, resilience, etc. and you are trying to take it in.
- Trauma-Sensitive: You are actively seeking more info, training, people and you are becoming sensitive to trauma around you, in your classroom, community, and in your own life.
- Trauma-Responsive: You and your school, organization or community are ”all in” and actively seeking ways to implement and create a culture that is responsive to trauma and relationship rich to buffer adversity and build resilience.
- You understand the widespread pervasiveness of trauma and that it is not about an at-risk population but instead seeing the entire population-at-risk.
- You are recognizing that we can heal brains and that happens by creating supportive environments that buffer the adults who are important in kids lives, including you.
- You understand healing is possible and for that, we are all responsible.
- You know the only way we are going to get there is to shake loose of our behaviorism paradigms and omit punishment from our innermost places, our homes, our schools and classrooms and our communities.
- You know that true and sustainable accountability is taught and modeled not threatened, shamed or forced.
- You embrace that there’s hope and it comes through connection. And connection is the only thing that is going to save us.
Trauma-informed is the last stop on the continuum and it takes years to get there.
So the newsflash here is we are never done, really done. This is culture work and it is always ongoing. A school or organization should not claim trauma-informed until it has been living under a trauma-responsive framework that is fundamentally changing who staff are as people and as a collective.
A trauma-informed system has thrown out punitive policies and adapted remaining policy to reflect trauma-informed practices.
We see every person and child as someone who faces adversity and needs buffers to mitigate potential toxic stress from that adversity.
Lastly, and paramount is that our school or organization has experienced a leadership change and the practices and culture of trauma/resilience-responsive have remained.
How often have we seen strong leadership start and grow an amazing shift in culture…and then once that person leaves, everything the staff did under that leadership follows the leader out the door? Once we are truly a trauma-informed school or organization the culture and practices are deeply embedded in everything we do and all that we are.
This continuum takes several years to truly move through. It is bumpy and there are bruises and people get triggered and the “pound of flesh” mentality rears its ugly head…and we backslide.
But at the end of the day, the week, and the school year, deep down we know differently now, and we continue to press forward. Because in the knowing, there is simply no going back.
So, I train schools on this. I typically spend three full days over a year laying out the science. Opening myself up to create the heart shift through personal stories and obtaining the buy-in to become a trauma responsive school or district. I have lost count as to how many schools I have done this with.
I began to recognize that in order to create true trauma-informed schools there were going to have to be many refueling stations for staff along the way. Otherwise, schools would get stuck.
So, we designed two conferences. One is Bridging to Resilience that happens every spring in Kansas City with Jim Sporleder. The other is Moving the Needle which happens in the fall in Wichita, both in Kansas.
We have also designed Equipping Resilience Coaches, a summer training, where a pair of educators come from a building and go through an intensive 4-day institute designed to equip them to go back and lead their peers to the next stop on the continuum of trauma/resilience-informed. A year-long coaching package is provided for the Resilience Coaches because we all know, leading and sustaining this change is a huge endeavor.
“Anyone telling you that you will be trauma-informed after a 3-hour workshop is selling you snake oil.”
– Jane Stevens Founder of ACEs Connection
This is long-view work. It takes time, energy, investment and more time.
In the beginning of this conversation, I also spoke of the fluid definition of resilience. For us, resilience is less of an outcome and more of a verb. It is the creation of safe supportive adult relationships for kids. For parents. For ourselves.
Resilience means: I see you. I hear you. I’m with you. You are not alone and you will not experience the adversity in your life alone. We are connected.
I beg of people who are encountering this work, to not make resilience the next connotation of grit. A label. A way to describe a robust person or a weak one. This work isn’t about putting kids or people in a bubble either. If you do that, you are hurting us. You are hurting the potential for people to understand they can heal and heal others.
I am thoroughly convinced that we do not have more trauma as a human race than we have ever had. But the reason this feels like a pandemic in our schools and communities is that resilience is evaporating right before our eyes.
Resilience is a social fabric of connection. It is “creatable.” So there is a great amount of possibility attached to this process. The less connection and support a person has the weaker their social fabric. This makes them more prone to experience toxic stress when life’s adversity comes. Picture our communities 20 years ago. Lions and Kiwanis clubs. Packed churches. Block Mother signs hanging in windows. Safe Space signs on doorways. Kids welcome on empty lots in the community to play ball and be kids. The village effect.
Resilience is the availability of safe, supportive, adult relationships in your life. The more you have of those, the more likely you are to experience adversity that does not swing into toxic stress.
And lastly, we now know that the people who live in disadvantaged circumstances…people who have suffered profound trauma and are personifying the side effects of toxic stress…are not lost causes!
With this living science, we can move from managing social problems to managing social solutions.
I will close with a story.
Someone who I am extremely close to and admire deeply, recently spoke at a conference. She has 10 ACEs. She shared about her healing journey and the forgiving of her mother who was also her abuser. My friend rose up through our poverty project and wrestled her way out in a community of safe, supportive loving relationships. She shared that after speaking at an event, someone came up to her and asked her if she was angry at the child welfare system for not removing her permanently from her mother when she was little.
She, replied, “No. I’m angry that no one saw my mother and helped her. Because I now know that it’s possible. If they had seen her and helped her, they could have saved us both.”
No one gets left behind.
An excerpt from ACESTOOHIGH.COM.
Under: Who is Using the ACEs Science?
- Many schools – including schools in San Francisco, CA, Spokane, WA, San Diego, CA, and Walla Walla, WA — have integrated trauma-informed practices into classrooms, playgrounds and school policies. These schools have seen 90 percent drops in suspensions after one year; after three years, the schools no longer expel students and some no longer even have the need for in-school suspensions. The grades, test scores and graduation rates increased, and the students most benefited were those with the highest ACE scores. By the end of 2017, several hundred schools across the U.S. were integrating trauma-informed and resilience-building practices based on ACEs science.