Hearing Trauma's Voice: A Conversation with Lesley Koplow (Part 1)

Lesley Koplow is the Director of the Center for Emotionally Responsive Practice (ERP) at Bank Street College of Education in New York City. I recently spoke with her about efforts to help children who are living with the effects of trauma and toxic stress. Here are excerpts from our conversation, edited for brevity and clarity.    

How has Bank Street been working with local schools to help children living in high-risk environments?

After Hurricane Sandy devastated New York City in October 2012, we offered prevention and intervention services for hurricane-affected early childcare programs through a grant from the state. We worked in Far Rockaway, Lower Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn, and Coney Island. Several of the populations in areas with high poverty rates and few resources had preexisting trauma. We did in-class therapeutic groups and also offered support groups for teachers and parents, which enabled us to provide multiple levels of intervention.

How do you work with teachers whose students are living with trauma and toxic stress?

We start by giving a teddy bear to teachers who want to participate. We ask them to pretend that the teddy bear is a child in their classroom. The teacher then tells the story of that child. For example, “This is Miguel. When he came to school, he seemed OK. Here’s what I know about his experiences during the hurricane, and here’s what happened afterward.” Or, “I know from a parent-teacher conference that Miguel is in foster care. He was in four homes before the current one. He is withdrawn in the classroom.”

We have great compassion for the teachers of traumatized children, some of whom have been traumatized in their own lives. Teachers work very hard and are not always recognized or given support.

During our hurricane interventions, one teacher had a real struggle showing empathy for children in her class who were sad or angry. Our consultant stayed with her, lending an empathic ear over an 18-month period. A few months later, the teacher attended a conference here and chose a seminar on trauma. She talked about a little girl in her class who had been fine before the hurricane. The child was happy and played. After the hurricane, the girl had a sad face and no interest in her environment. The teacher said, “She regressed,” and began to get tearful.

Our work showed that if you are present for a long enough time, and you’re empathic not only to the experiences that the children have, but to the experiences that the adults have, you can help generate empathic care.

What advice do you have for teachers who work with children growing up in difficult circumstances? 

You have to learn how to hear trauma’s voice. Young children don’t necessarily present the way someone’s going to think that they will. You may have a “deer in headlights” image of a traumatized child. Sometimes, that’s what you see, and those children are easier to empathize with because they look hurt and lost. They look like they need an adult. However, other children cope by keeping a distance from the adult, by always moving so that they can’t be overwhelmed by traumatic memories. They can’t rest. They jump around. If they're not allowed to be active, they punch someone. Sometimes, they can't tolerate what it feels like to be them, and they give other people the negative feelings that they're trying to avoid.

It’s hard to be empathic to a child in that situation when you’ve got a whole bunch of kids, and you have to keep everyone safe, and you have to keep everyone engaged, and the co-teacher is out with the flu. It’s stressful, and one of the things we know about stress is that it is debilitating to both teachers and children. When children come into the classroom with high stress levels already, if they inherit a stressed environment in the classroom, they have no way of organizing or re-regulating their own physiology or relationships. When stress hormones remain high, kids’ reactivity is enhanced, and their ability to think deeply is diminished.

When kids have had lots of trauma and stress, you want the classroom to be low-stress and highly interactive, with lots of opportunity for children to play symbolically so that they don’t feel alone with their troubles. When children feel alone, bad things happen because they act as though they are alone.

A lot of what we teach has to do with helping grown-ups understand what they’re seeing. Kids bring their whole lives into the classroom, and teachers live with that. Sometimes, teachers don’t know the story, but they’re living with it. We encourage teachers to know what they can about what students’ lives outside of the classroom so that the kids aren’t alone with confusing and overwhelming experiences.

How many hours a day might a teacher be with a particular child in a preschool setting?

Children are often in a preschool setting 10 hours a day. That’s a long time. If you have an empathic partner 10 hours a day, that can’t change history, but it can change your future. If you have a partner who’s afraid of you and can’t hold you, and whose own trauma is unacknowledged, then there won’t be a good outcome.

Teachers are really important people. Besides the parent-child attachment, the teacher-child attachment is probably the second most powerful relationship for a child. Everyday relationships become part of who children are. Kids internalize the way that a teacher looks at them and feels about them. Children who have a history of trauma may blame themselves for the things that have happened. It's so important that teachers see these children in a positive light so that they can come to see themselves that way.

Read Part Two of my conversation with Lesley Koplow here.