Panel says teachers aren’t prepared to deal with trauma in children

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

A student who seems inattentive in class may not be inattentive at all, one of the area’s leading experts on trauma-informed education said yesterday.

“Maybe they’re just not attending to what you want them to attend to because they don’t feel safe,” said Jeanne M. Felter, director of the Community and Trauma Counseling at the East Falls campus of Thomas Jefferson University.

“Higher education is not preparing teachers well enough for this work.”

Wednesday’s "Community Conversation: The Impact of Trauma in Education" was designed to provide a bit of that preparation.

The conference at F. S. Edmonds Elementary School, sponsored by the Mayor’s Office of Education, touched on topics such as the theory of trauma, classroom management, and parenting techniques.

Childhood trauma is rarely a single event, Felter told the audience of about 100 at the East Mount Airy school. “It’s never just [one] experience,” she said. "It’s layer on top of layer of experiences.”

And the experiences can start even before birth if the mother is traumatized, said Natalie Dallard, director of prevention, community outreach, and training at the Joseph J. Peters Institute, a behavioral health provider specializing in dealing with post-traumatic stress disorders (PTSD): “You’re having children born essentially traumatized.”

And it goes on from there, she said, asking the audience to envision a child “walking [to school] through a high-crime area and seeing bullet casings on the street.”

Michael O’Bryan, director of youth and adult programs at the Village of Arts and Humanities, warned of the difficulties of parents who are traumatized themselves, of “stress bleeding from the workplace into the house. …Parents do a poor job of regulating themselves.”

O’Bryan said that parents failing to really listen to adolescents is a major problem.

“We demonize adolescents into silence and [then] they make awful choices,” he said.

For younger children, Dallard suggested things like listening to the conversations they have when playing with dolls.

Felter said that in schools, “we don’t give teachers time to develop relationships. “

And she warned that “trauma [sometimes] occurs from relationships that are supposed to be supportive. … Traumatized kids are acutely aware of how you feel about them.”

Iesha Brown-Pygott, director of trauma-informed school practices at the School District of Philadelphia, stressed that although students may deal with any number of adults in a school, it is important for every student to have a particular contact person there whom they know well.

Panel participants and Susan Gobreski, director of the community schools program at the Mayor’s Office of Education, stressed that funding sources are proliferating for training educators, parents, and others in dealing with children’s trauma.

But “don’t wait for the money,” Felter said. “Don’t wait for the grants.”