Statistics related to ACEs, or “adverse childhood experiences,” are startlingly high. According to the CDC, ACEs are “potentially traumatic events” that threaten a child’s sense of safety and stability, whether they relate to abuse or neglect, parental incarceration, homelessness, or other severe issues, and the agency’s data indicate that almost two-thirds of their study participants reported experiencing at least one form of ACE. Their data also reveal more than 20% of participants experienced three or more ACEs. The researchers correlate those traumatic experiences with larger public and social health matters, ranging from higher rates of depression, suicide, and substance abuse to inability to complete educations or hold jobs. Traumatic experiences can occur across any economic level or demographic, but higher ACE scores occur in communities with higher rates of poverty and crime, with limited educational and employment opportunities, and where families frequently experience food insecurity.
Children like those studied by the CDC grow up, and many of them attend college; they are likely in your classroom now. Thus, after the CDC’s foundational study of childhood experiences, Education Northwest conducted a similar one focused on the trauma college students experience. These researchers discovered adults are likely to suffer from military-service-related PTSD, LGTBQ+ discrimination or violence, sexual assault or other experiences. Education Northwest’s research indicates that “By the time they reach college, 66 to 85 percent of youth report lifetime traumatic event exposure, with many reporting multiple exposures” (5). Like the CDC study, this one notes that individual trauma has social implications; traumatized adults are frequently absent from work, have greater health problems and could, in fact, perpetuate trauma on others around them. And, as if all these figures weren’t challenging enough, collectively we’ve been dealing with the myriad issues created by the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s clear all of us, our communities, and our students, have undergone some trauma.
So, what to do about it?
For the last several years, I’ve focused on trauma and learning trauma-informed teaching practices. As I researched, I discovered the Anna, Age Eight Institute at NMSU. Founders Dr. Katherine Ortega Courtney and Dominic Cappello began the Institute to draw attention to the plight of abused and neglected children and those in the foster care system. But after reporting the stark realities surrounding these cases, Ortega Courtney and Cappello decided to be proactive, not reactive, in addressing childhood trauma; their current work focuses on building communities that thrive, identifying the “ten vital services” such as food security, access to healthcare, and housing each community needs to ensure its citizens can be happy and safe.
Their current book is entitled Culture of Caring: Healing and Helping in Traumatizing Times. This book focuses on our nation, not just New Mexico, and in it the authors address the question “[H]ow does a society of 350 million traumatized people find the strength to heal and help one another?” (back cover). For the authors, being trauma-informed is an important first step, but it’s critical for society to move from mere awareness-generating to what they call “radical altruism,” or that “significant change and measurable and meaningful action relating to the fundamental nature of the selfless caring of others” (27). This can be tough, especially when we’re exhausted ourselves. Ortega Courtney and Capello recognize this, encouraging readers to prioritize their health and self-care “in order to have the inner resources to engage in significant acts of large-scale altruism” (253). And when we’re ready to take up the work, we can begin the work of positive social transformation based on some of the actions they describe.
Creating a “culture of caring” means building safe and healing spaces, notably in our classrooms. Trauma-informed teaching theory tells us this does not mean diluting rigor or ignoring standards. It doesn’t mean, for example, allowing students to skip assignments because they’re going through a hardship; instead, it means being more flexible with a due date or a mode of final presentation. For example, when the pandemic first occurred, I didn’t insist that students complete all assignments through the LMS; I would copy and paste the questions or the prompts into emails students could access with their cell phones. They copied down the questions or wrote a response, then they took a photo of the paper to upload back to me. One student had to climb a mesa to access a signal strong enough to download and upload assignments; I didn’t hold this learner to hard and fast deadlines; in fact, I commended the student’s resilience and dedication under extraordinary circumstances. Measures like this foster the sense of a classroom of caring, and it’s just one space we can do so. In Culture of Caring, Ortega Courtney and Cappello identify several others.
I’m reading Culture of Caring as part of a Two Profs from Ohio Deep Dive, or focused series of posts, on trauma and trauma-informed teaching practices. (In the interest of full disclosure, I am mentioned in the book’s acknowledgments, a fact I only discovered as I prepared this post!) We look forward exploring this topic further with you in upcoming entries.
“About.” Greater Good Science Center. University of California-Berkeley, 2022. https://ggsc.berkeley.edu/who_we_are/about.
Burke, Monica Galloway, Karl Laves, Jill Duba Sauerheber, and Aaron W. Hughey, Eds. Helping College Students in Distress: A Faculty Guide, Routledge, 2021.
Davidson, Shannon. Trauma-Informed Practices for Post-Secondary Education: A Guide. Education Northwest, 2017.
Ortega Courtney, Katherine and Dominic Capello. Culture of Caring: Healing and Helping in Traumatizing Times, self-published, 2021.
2022 copyright pending; image taken by Tracy Lassiter.