Mercy Home for Boys & Girls recently presented an online seminar, “Engaging Students Who Have Been Impacted by Trauma and Adversity.” Liz Tomka, Director of Academy Resources, and Andrea Simari, School Resource Coordinator, hosted the webinar for Chicago Public School teachers and others who work with students impacted by trauma.

The webinar educated viewers about the impact of trauma on the brain and learning, along with strategies on how to engage students in the classroom and school environment. Such initiatives were all rooted in the Trauma Center at the Justice Resource Institute’s Attachment, Regulation, and Competency (ARC) framework, the basis of Mercy Home’s model of care. The presentation also outlined effective responses to adverse student behavior and provided an opportunity for additional resources to become a trauma-informed school.

What is trauma?

Trauma can be divided into four categories:

  • Acute trauma: Single episodes of traumatic events, like accidents, the death of a loved one, or assault.
  • Chronic trauma: Exposure to multiple traumatic events over a period of time.
  • System-induced trauma: Social service interventions, such as removal from the home, foster-care placement, or court-ordered DCFS interactions that, although positive in intention, are often drastic in nature.
  • Complex developmental trauma: Exposure to multiple traumatic events that begin early in life and often occur in the context of the caregiver relationship.

Consequentially, those who work directly with individuals who’ve endured trauma are vulnerable to experiencing what’s known as vicarious trauma. This describes the emotional residue of exposure that counselors and teachers have from working with people who share their traumatic stories, thus making them witnesses to the pain, fear, and terror that trauma survivors endured.

How vicarious trauma can impact caregivers

Prior to Mercy Home, Tomka worked at a high school in Chicago with high-needs students.

“My students were experiencing community violence, as well as they each had their own individual histories of trauma – often abuse or neglect,” she said. “As a result I was also taking on that trauma. It took me a while to realize that, but we can all be impacted by our students’ trauma. Whether you’re a counselor, a teacher, school staff, school clerk, you can be impacted by the trauma your students are experiencing.”

“To be effective caregivers, we need to know how this vicarious trauma is impacting us.”

Tomka stressed the importance of teachers and workers practicing self-care, but also viewing themselves as caregivers in the lives of students.

“To be effective caregivers, we need to know how this vicarious trauma is impacting us,” she said.

Doing so means understanding some core principles: Trauma shifts the course of healthy development. Trauma does not occur in a vacuum, nor should service be provided in one. Good intervention goes beyond individual therapy.

How our model of care can help

First and foremost, caregivers must remember that trauma-effected youth are simply not a composite of their deficits, but are whole beings, with strengths, vulnerabilities, challenges, and resources.

“That’s where we come in as some of those resources,” Tomka said. “The framework seeks to recognize factors that derail normative development, and work with youth, families, and systems to rebuild healthy developmental pathways. Systems is really where we come in, and the school system is really a critical part of that.”

ARC FrameworkCaregivers can then begin implementing the three pillars of the ARC Framework.

      • Attachment: Creation of a safe caregiving system able to support youth in meeting developmental, emotional, and relational needs.
      • Regulation: The ability to safely regulate, identify, tolerate, and share experience on emotional, physiological, cognitive, and behavioral levels.
      • Competency: Support in the mastery of an array of tasks crucial to resilient outcomes, including the ability to set goals and make active choices to develop an appropriate sense of self.

Trauma-effected youth “need relationships with adults to become resilient, and this is one of the things they struggle with,” Simari added. “The takeaway for caregivers and teachers is that you can be that person that can make the child resilient.”

Watch the webinar to learn more about engaging students who have been impacted by trauma and adversity.

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