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Sustaining A Trauma-Sensitive Environment

We began this new edition of the Manual by discussing how to create school-wide safe environments and abuse prevention frameworks for children that are trauma-sensitive, promote safety, and reduce the risk of child maltreatment. We have identified the signs and symptoms and outlined the reporting process and the DCF response.

In addition to creating healthy, trauma sensitive school environments for all children, and developing familiarity with the reporting process, school personnel should consider other ways in which they can contribute to prevention and intervention that are specific to child abuse and neglect and can be adopted in every classroom.

Although the purpose of this Manual is to guide educators in preventing, recognizing and reporting child maltreatment it is important that this be seen in the context of creating a safe and trauma-sensitive environment for all children. Trauma-sensitive environments are those that recognize that trauma can contribute to school failure both academically and socially. Statistics tell us that a significant number of children in the United States today have been victims of some type of trauma including child maltreatment.

Trauma-sensitive environments as well as success in educational environments have been found to be protective factors associated with recovery from traumatic experiences in childhood. Building a school environment that is trauma-sensitive begins with a shared understanding among all educators and staff that children come from varied backgrounds and many have been exposed to different types of trauma. The goal within the school setting is that all children should feel safe (including traveling to and from school), comfortable, and able to learn. Further, through the use of a well-integrated team of educators and staff, the school helps not only to remove students’ barriers to learning but facilitates the development of individual students according to their unique needs. For more information on trauma-sensitive schools, see the section entitled Helping Traumatized Children Learn 164 on the website of Harvard University’s Trauma and Learning Policy Initiative.

Part of protecting children from trauma, or from the effects of trauma involves not only the above-described reporting process, but other ways in which school personnel can contribute to prevention and intervention in situations involving child abuse and neglect.

There are many excellent abuse-specific prevention materials available today, and it is possible to integrate them into the curriculum pieces which will help both the maltreated and the non-maltreated child. One example was suggested by pediatrician Ray Helfer, an early expert in the field of child maltreatment. Helfer’s “five concepts which parents from dysfunctional families have never learned” may still have some credibility today. By helping their children to learn these simple skills, one can interrupt the cycle of abuse.

These skills are:

  • how to get one’s needs met appropriately
  • how to separate feelings from actions
  • how to delay gratification
  • how to take responsibility for one’s own actions and not the actions of others
  • how to make decisions (Crosson-Tower, 2021)

Incorporating these skills into lessons in the classroom is not difficult and can benefit all children. There are also many different types of programs and curricula designed to teach educators, parents, and other adults about child abuse and neglect, the types of disclosures, the ways that offenders operate in communities, the signs and symptoms children exhibit when they are being or have been abused, and the local and state statutes regarding the reporting of suspected abuse or neglect to civil authorities. These programs also include instruction on how to communicate with children about these issues, how to create and maintain safe environments, and how to intervene when children are at risk.

The more comprehensive programs employ taped interviews with offenders, parents of victims, and the victims themselves to train educators about the grooming process, and the warning signs of abuse and its aftermath. Many also offer other preventive suggestions about the employment application process, criminal background checks, standard interviews, and reference checks for all employees and volunteers, monitoring programs, school security, communicating with children, and communicating concerns about behaviors or circumstances that lead one to suspect abuse is taking place.

The Children’s Trust and the state’s Children’s Advocacy Centers are good sources of information about a variety of prevention programs for faculty and staff. The Child Welfare Information Gateway also has a web page dedicated to multiple prevention topics. 165

There are also a variety of specific tools which teachers can use to provide special help to a maltreated child. For example, there are books (designed for children) about the court process which might give the child a better understanding of (and diminish anxiety about) what may happen if they go to court. Introducing these and other such aids into the curriculum would help not only the abused/neglected child but also provide new insights for their classmates. There are also school-based child personal safety programs such as “Talking About Touching” (TAT), that is now part of an expanded Second Step curriculum and an online Child Protection Unit (CPU) created by the Committee for Children (cfchildren.org) based in Seattle, Washington.

In addition to Second Step and the Child Protection Unit, there are many other personal safety programs that teach children basic skills that will help them keep safe from dangerous or abusive situations, particularly sexual abuse. But care must be taken in their selection. Well-designed, evidence-based, and developmentally sequenced personal safety programs enable teachers, parents, caregivers, and child-care providers to provide the rules, information, encouragement, and skills practice children need to help protect themselves against abuse. The best programs are based on the most current research in prevention education and are rigorously evaluated for effectiveness.

National research (sponsored by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and others (NCMEC)) has defined the elements that go into an effective abuse prevention training program for children, and has suggested a range of evaluative criteria to test outcomes. This research indicates that the best quality, most effective programs are those that are:
a) research based; b) begin early; c) use developmentally appropriate materials; d) utilize active, systematic and specific skills training; e) have multiple program components such as classroom training combined with parental involvement; f) use interactive instructional techniques that provide children multiple opportunities to observe the desired behavior, model the behavior and get feedback; and g) are instituted as a comprehensive part of the child’s education – being repeated many times during the school year, and instituted over several years of instruction.

NCMEC has developed guidelines to assist educators and others in their review of prospective programs. A report entitled Guidelines for Programs to Reduce Child Victimization, A Resource for Communities When Choosing a Program to Teach Personal Safety to Children 166 continues to be an excellent resource that outlines a set of criteria, resources, and tools for consideration.

The National Sexual Violence Resource Center has evaluated multiple programs and presents its findings in a report titled Child Sexual Abuse Prevention: Programs for Children. 167 Prevent Child Abuse Georgia (PCA Georgia) and Georgia State University have recently published a Technical Assistance Resource Guide (TARG 2024) that evaluates multiple school-based abuse prevention programs. 168 The Safe Kids Thrive website also has a section on Training that includes Guidelines to Help You Build an Effective Training Program 169 and includes a Training Program Design Checklist 170 , resources, and a Child Sexual Abuse Evaluation Tool for Organizations 171 (See Standard 6).

Creating an environment where traumatized children can flourish and learn can present more of a challenge than finding prevention materials. Children who have been traumatized by maltreatment may seem less academically engaged and less socially competent, having more difficulty connecting with other children. This may also present a challenge in terms of ways to interest them in learning activities. Current research 172 suggests that prolonged exposure to trauma alters brain chemistry which in turn impacts learning. Some children suffer from post-traumatic stress (PTSD) as a result of their abuse. This means that they become constantly attuned to threats they perceive from the environment and may also re-experience the feelings they had when being abused. They may also be diagnosed with attachment disorder meaning that they have difficulty bonding with adult caretakers and may therefore not be eager to comply with requests that might be another child’s way of pleasing adults. For more information on these factors in a school environment see Garofoli (2018).

Educators seeking to provide trauma-sensitive environments in their classrooms must first educate themselves as to the effects of trauma not only on cognition and learning but on behavior. Staff-wide training by those familiar with trauma-sensitive care is highly recommended as such sensitivity is attitudinal in nature (Rossen, 2020). Some traumatized children may be eligible for special education services and this is also important. Trauma-sensitive schools must also be aware of the needs of the staff whose own possible trauma histories might be triggered by working with traumatized children. To learn more about these issues, see the website of the Center on Child Wellbeing and Trauma 173 (CCWT) – a new resource for child-serving organizations in Massachusetts, delivering trauma-informed and responsive (TIR) information, tools, and training.

The educator must also consider how to help the child after they become involved with DCF. Today trauma-sensitive and trauma-informed care 174 is the guiding principle among social service agencies and DCF strives to not re-traumatize children in the act of helping. For this reason, the child’s supports – especially educators – can be instrumental in insuring that they are helped effectively. While confidentiality concerns limit the amount of case-specific information that can be shared, DCF and the schools are not precluded from collaborating to meet the child’s needs. A child’s best interests are of paramount concern to both, and the extent to which professionals understand their respective roles and limitations and work together can help to ensure that children’s needs are best met. Remember that being involved in the DCF system is not easy for children. It might be the concerned teacher who provides security and consistency as the child goes through this process.

164 https://traumasensitiveschools.org/trauma-and-learning/the-solution-trauma-sensitive-schools/

165 https://www.childwelfare.gov/topics/prevention/

166 https://resourcecentre.savethechildren.net/pdf/5411.pdf/

167 https://www.nsvrc.org/publications/child-sexual-abuse-prevention-programs-children

168 https://abuse.publichealth.gsu.edu/targ/

169 https://safekidsthrive.org/prevention-topics/training/

170 https://safekidsthrive.org/prevention-topics/training/training-program-design-checklist/

171 https://safekidsthrive.org/the-report/appendices/resources/child-sexual-abuse-csaprevention-evaluation-tool-for-organizations/

172 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3968319/

173 https://childwellbeingandtrauma.org/ and https://www.mass.gov/news/office-of-the-child-advocate-and-umass-chan-medical-school-launch-state-center-on-child-wellbeing-and-trauma

174 https://www.nctsn.org/trauma-informed-care


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