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Monday, August 5, 2013

Trauma-Sensitive Team Meetings

From the Federation for Children with Special Needs - "Newsline" Volume 33, Number 4

By Janie Crecco
July, 2013

This is the third in a series of articles on the four opportunities to advocate for trauma-sensitive individual supports for a child: sharing information; trauma-sensitive evaluations; trauma-sensitive team meetings; and the IEP.

Helping Traumatized Children Learn, written in 2005 by the Massachusetts Advocates for Children in collaboration with Harvard Law School and the Task Force on Children Affected by Domestic Violence, is the current definitive work on inculcating trauma-sensitivity into the public school system.

Recent studies on resiliency in children, especially those that have faced overwhelming life experiences in early childhood, focus on Four Domains for Success: Relationships, Self-Regulation, Academic Success, and Physical Health and Safety. IEP Team Meetings can look towards providing supports for children in these four domains in order to ensure success in both academic and non-academic achievement.

Children with extended and involved family, invested neighbors, and caring teachers and community have far fewer problems following severe trauma. The ability to "use" this support system, however, depends on the child's ability to connect with and relate to other people. This strength develops in the early years of life in the caregiver-child interaction.

On the other hand, isolated children with few social and emotional connections are very vulnerable to distress and traumatic stress. These children regress, develop dysfunctional styles of coping, and have symptoms such as impulsivity, aggression, inattention, and depression (1).

With this understanding, IEP Team Meeting members can provide ways to repair this relational dysfunction by providing opportunities to develop peer supports and meaningful teacher-student relationships through specific social/emotional goals.

Self-regulation describes the ability of a child to "put the brakes on" in times of emotional stress. Traumatized children are hyper-aroused; they view their world as dangerous and unpredictable and they are prepared to react in a moment's notice, usually in inappropriate (and possibly unsafe) ways.

Again, IEP Team Meeting members can go a long way towards improving this hyper-arousal by asking for Functional Behavioral Assessments to ascertain the reason for the inappropriate reactions as well as ways to replace the behaviors with better coping skills and strategies.

Academic success can be an island of competency - one place where children can feel good about themselves. There is no better way to build self-esteem then to hear the words "Great job" from a teacher every day. Wouldn't that be a great IEP Goal: "Janie will receive positive praise at least twice a day from each of her teachers"?

Finally, a safe and supportive school environment ensures the physical and mental well-being of a child. There is much discussion in the media about changing school ecology or culture to be more nurturing and engaging for all children at all stages of education. This is especially true of children who have had difficult early childhood experiences.

Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports should always be included in the accommodations necessary for any student with a history of trauma.

So, what about changing the "culture" of the IEP Team Meeting?

Putting a trauma lens on discussions about children, especially children with social/emotional disabilities and challenging behaviors, can quickly change the temperament of a Team Meeting.

Engendering a feeling of empathy for the child and his family, many of whom are feeling overwhelmed with community interventions and provider services can go a long way towards understanding their needs. A trauma-sensitive approach can put a different spin on why behaviors are occurring or why academic success (or effective progress) seems so hard to achieve (2).

Imagine a Team brainstorming ways to make a student competent in the four domains above (Relationships, Self-Regulation, Academic Success and Physical Health and Safety). The sky's the limit! Not just in the classroom, but throughout the school, even before and after school. Trauma for these kids is pervasive; the symptoms don't go away after the school bell rings. They need Team support all day, every day.

See what you can do to change the climate - for these kids, it could be a matter of life or death.


(1) Perry, Bruce D., Resilience: Where Does It Come From? Scholastic: Teachers. April 2006.

(2) Cole, Susan, Helping Traumatized Children Learn: Supportive School Environments for Children Traumatized by Family Violence. Boston, MA: Massachusetts Advocates for Children, April 2005. PowerPoint Notes for the Federation for Children with Special Needs, September 19, 2012.


NESCA (Neuropsychology and Education Services for Children and Adolescents) is a pediatric neuropsychology group practice in Newton, MA whose senior clinicians and allied staff evaluate and treat a wide range of complex learning, developmental and emotional disorders. Seeking to identify and empower the best in each child, they also address special education issues and school placements, often observing children in their classrooms and participating in TEAM meetings. NESCA has served clients from throughout the U.S. and more than twenty other countries.

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