Main Points

  • First Book
  • Sources of Childhood Trauma
  • Trauma’s Effect on Learning
  • Strategies to Help Students
  • Compassion Fatigue in Educators

Dr. Sheldon Eakins: (00:00)

Welcome, Advocates, to another episode of the Leading Equity Podcast, a podcast that focuses on supporting educators with the tools and resources necessary to ensure equity at their school. Today, I've got a special guest with me. Her name is Julye Williams, and I'm really excited to talk about her Trauma Toolkit. So without further ado, Julye, thank you so much for joining us.

Julye Williams: (00:22)

Thanks so much for having me.

Eakins: (00:24)

The pleasure is always mine, and I definitely appreciate your time, and you and I have already connected prior to this interview. So I feel like we're warmed up and ready to talk about being trauma-informed. So Julie, before we get into today's topic, I'd love for you to share with our advocates a little bit about you and your professional role.

Williams: (00:45)

Sure. So I've been in education for about 15 years -- started working within New York City, then moved to work in Newark, New Jersey of Bellis and Camden, usually at the elementary level. And in the midst of that, I also created international education programs that supported students in the US getting connected with their peers abroad. And so it's just been an incredible experience to understand more of what's happening in education here in the US as well as what's happening beyond our borders and in other continents to see how there are some striking similarities, as well as some slight differences amongst all of our work to educate students.

Eakins: (01:25)

So thank you for sharing, and you definitely sound like you have a[n] extended professional career in education. So you work for a[n] organization called First Book, and I'd love for you to share a little bit about your role there and a little bit about the organization.

Williams: (01:41)

Sure. So First Book is a nonprofit organization. We are based in DC; however, we support educators across the United States and Canada. Our members, we call them our educators who exclusively serve students and under-resourced schools and programs across the two countries. And so we support educators in a number of ways. The first is by providing free or low-cost brand new books. We distribute about 19 million books a year to educators across the US and Canada. We offer games and activities -- so non-book items. It could be from Witcher coats to hygiene kits, to science kits or robotics kits that we offer educators because we know that with a limited budget, they just aren't in a position to get these items that they need for their students at an affordable price. Another thing that we offer are free resources, and that's where I come in.

Williams: (02:35)

I lead the creation of free resources at First Book, and we call it the Accelerator, the name of the division. And it's really designed to take a lot of the high-level academic research insights from practitioners and experts who have identified practices or approaches that support student learning, and really that information often does not trickle down, so to speak to educators, serving students and the lowest most under-resourced communities. And so that's where I come in as a type of convener as well as a translator to take a lot of this high-level content in terms of its design. And impacted it in ways that are meaningful, that's actionable and tangible for educators to use, to support their students in the communities they serve.

Eakins: (03:23)

Oh, that sounds awesome. Why don't you share with us the website? How did we get to First Book?

Williams: (03:29)

Sure. So the organizational website is First Book -- firstbook.org -- and the website for educators, if you are looking for those materials, you're looking for books or non-book items or free resources, you want to go to fbmarketplace.org.

Eakins: (03:49)

And that's F as in Frank, right?

Williams: (03:51)

Yes.

Eakins (03:52)

Cool. Well, let's get into it because I came across one of the free resources available through First Book entitled The Trauma Toolkit. And I wanted to have you on to talk about it. So let's start with sharing what are some of the most common sources of childhood trauma?

Williams: (04:10)

Sure. So this toolkit came about, and before I tell you that, I just want to mention how we got to the toolkit because we took a lot of data from educators across the country to understand what challenges they were having in terms of supporting students, who've experienced trauma. And so that's where the content for this came from. And it's a combination of research, as well as talking with practitioners and experts in the area. And what we learned is that some of the most common sources of trauma are actually pretty broad. Trauma can, unfortunately, appear in a lot of areas. Students can come to school being traumatized by community violence by having a refugee experience. There's physical abuse, there's domestic abuse, there's medical trauma. There's, unfortunately, a lot of ways that our students can come to us having an experience that has resulted in trauma. So to give a little bit more detail about how trauma affects learning, there are really four major symptoms that we see, and the first is going to be cognitive delays.

Williams: (05:12)

And so that's, I mentioned a delay in the normal brain development process. The second is we see that there's an inability for students who've experienced trauma to process relationships and their emotions. And so they have difficulty forming or maintaining relationships. They may have difficulty reading social cues. And so that's something else that we see as a result of learning or the impact on learning I should say. The third is the inability to predict and make inferences. And so a lot of times what we'll see is when students who've experienced trauma cause and effect doesn't always make sense to them. And so a lot of times we'll see educators who want to put certain cause and effect situations in place, but it doesn't always work because those frameworks don't always make sense for a child who may have experienced trauma. And then the last thing that we see is that there is awareness of the future. And so where many kids, you may see the excitement about what's to come or optimism about what's next or what they hope to experience. We don't always see that with kids who've experienced trauma. They're very wary of the future because it feels unpredictable and out of control. And so these are some more details about how learning is impacted. And you can imagine when you're teaching a student or trying to teach a student, and this is their outlook, or this is what they're dealing with teaching becomes really, really challenging.

Eakins: (06:36)

So there's multiple forms of childhood trauma. What are you seeing maybe the most of like, what would be like first or second, something like that in regards to the trauma research that you did?

Williams: (06:50)

Yeah, I would say the most common thing we hear from educators has been the impact of just community of poverty, quite honestly, the trauma of not always having what you need, of needing things that are not there on a regular basis. That is a[n] unfortunate, common trauma that we experienced. There's also trauma from within the home, whether it's an abuse of some type. But those, I would say, are the most common ones that we hear about.

Eakins: (07:18)

Okay. Yeah. Obviously, that impacts a student's ability to learn, their focus. If you're worried about your next meal, if you're worried about maybe something [going] to happen at home, those obviously impact. And I'd love for you to share, you know, let's unpack that a little bit because, you know, how does trauma affect learning and how does it manifest in our students?

Williams: (07:43)

So there is a science to how trauma affects the brain. And I think this is where for educators who like myself when I was in the building -- school buildings were never trained on it. It is both fascinating to understand the science behind it, as well as reassuring in that because there's the science that explains that there's also science that can help explain how to support students who are experiencing trauma. And so when we think about how trauma affects learning, really what a traumatic experience does is that oftentimes it will, I will say short circuit, the brain's normal function. And so if you consider a student who is just moving along, they are getting what they need in terms of emotional support. They are being taught how to what we call "self-regulate." And so that's basically saying, if there's a storm outside, their caregiver is able to help them calm down.

Williams: (08:38)

If they are scared, they may rub them on the back, or they may hold them close. If they're a young child, but students who are able to have what's called -- or procedures -- as a general normal development often are able to develop strong social and emotional skills that can help them weather some challenges in life. What we find is that when students sometimes don't have that same level of social and emotional development, when things happen, they affect them differently. And what we see is that within the brain, trauma has the ability to, as I mentioned, short circuit the normal function of the brain. And so the learning that would typically take place is interrupted.

Eakins: (09:21)

I'm really glad that you started with talking about the science behind it because it does affect some of the brain functionality. And you did mention a couple of things that we could do as educators to help our students who are experiencing trauma. And maybe some students that might be triggered at school. What are some other strategies for helping students manage their social and emotional behaviors?

Williams: (09:47)

So I think there are quite a few honestly, and one I was love to share with your audience is helping students understand the connection between their feelings and their emotions and their behavior. And what we find a lot of times is that most times, students don't recognize how their feelings affect their behavior. They just act because they are dealing with us. They've been triggered, they're dealing with something that just is so powerful, they just respond. And one of the things that we talk about in the Trauma Toolkit is helping students understand the connection between their feelings and their emotions and their behavior. And so by doing that, the goal is to help students understand when perhaps something is rising up within them when they're being triggered so that they are able to catch themselves a little bit before they are in a full-blown response [and] begin to self-regulate themselves.

Williams: (10:43)

And so a good example of that is -- I can think of two examples, I'll share one. And it's something I learned recently at a conference that I thought was just such a genius way to help students explain and helps you understand how their brains work. And if you were to hold your hand up and you were to make a fist, but you fold your thumb in first, and you fold your four fingers on top of your thumb, then you have, what's a very rudimentary replica of your brain. And so if you consider your wrist being your autonomic nervous system, so that controls your automatic bodily functions, your breathing, blinking of your eyes, things that are just automatic. And if you consider that your thumb is your limbic system. So that's where you hold your feelings. That's what controls your feelings and your emotions. And then on top of that, your four fingers is your frontal lobe, your prefrontal cortex, where all of your cognition, your processing, your mental processing takes place. Then students are able to see that this is a replica of their brain. When students' feelings get so big, and they become overwhelming that thumb can flip out, essentially. So your thumb flips out. Then your four fingers are going to pop up. And what I thought was such a genius idea was this is a way of demonstrating that someone has proverbially flipped their lid, right? So when your feelings get too big, you flip your lid, your whole hand pops open, no learning is taking place. The structure of the brain has altered.

Eakins: (12:17)

Well, I was just imagining while you're talking, by the way, I had my fist together. And at first, I started and when you said, hold your fist up, I thought you were talking about black power. And I was like, "Oh wait, wait, wait." But I liked the way that you described it in a way that I think is helpful for us. And I hope those who are driving and listening to this, were practicing safe driving skills and kept both hands on the wheel. But I think it's important that having that illustration and -- I'm imagining that a lot of our Advocates that were listening were able to kind of see that function. Now, do you suggest that is something that a strategy that we teach our students, like put your fist up and kind of go through that process as one of your strategies?

Williams: (12:59)

I do because I think it's important for students to understand what's happening within them biologically so that they don't blame themselves. It's important for parents to understand what may be happening with their children so that they also don't blame themselves so that people and educators as well [get] to understand this is what's happening in their brain. It's not because the child doesn't want to listen, or they just want to scream or whatever their coping mechanism is. It's really the scientific response. And so when a student does "flip their lid," then the next thing we look at is, "Okay, well, how can we help them regain that balance that they had that they have lost? And what are some of those strategies that we can use to help them?" Some of them can include breathing exercises and helping students to calm down and focus. Sometimes we talk about students being able to go to a quiet space or a particular part of the classroom or program space where they can calm down.

Williams: (13:55)

I've heard those called "calm-down corners," but could even be helping them to shift their mind-body connection. So even having a type of brain break, a 60-second dance party, something to help students just shuffle up there and focus so that they aren't focused on what just happened, but they're able to reassess and kind of regain that equilibrium. But there are a number of ways that we discussed in the Trauma Toolkit that can help educators really help students get back on track with their learning. I do want to say that this is not to substitute for a social worker or a psychologist or a guidance counselor, someone that has more professional training, the ask is not for educators to take on that role as well. But what we do want to make sure is that educators know how they can support their students in the ways that they can. And there are a number of things that they already are doing that supports students, but there's some other instance or situation that we offer that can help them as well.

Eakins: (14:56)

I love that you brought up the calm down corner. I've also heard it referred to as a "peace corner." I wanted to add that we need to be careful as educators, that we're not using those corners as timeouts or punishments. So if a student is acting out in whatever way that looks, we're not saying, "Go to the peace corner" or "Go to the calm down corner." And so now that association to that area is not a positive experience, but it is seen as a negative experience as a punishment. And so we don't want to create that sort of classroom culture, but we want to create it in a way that students can go there voluntarily or in a way that is as positive as possible, I guess. If we're not careful, that will be used as a discipline sort of manner.

Williams: (15:47)

You're absolutely right. And I do want to say there are four things that we found in the research that students who've experienced trauma need. They need to feel safe. They need caring adults and positive relationships. They need to have a feeling of accomplishment or success. And the last thing is that they need choices and options in their daily routines that help them develop that sense of agency and that they do have control over something in their lives. And so, as you mentioned, the harm in changing the function of what should be a restorative place to making it a punitive place, that's not what students who've experienced trauma needs. They need to be supported. And then the ability to create that space for them to do that, it's going to be key to their ability to heal and to work through what they've experienced.

Eakins: (16:38)

Thank you. Now, you kind of mentioned a little bit earlier on in our conversation on our role as educators, and yes, we want to make sure that our students' basic needs are being met and we're supporting them. However, we're not asking our teachers who often end up being mental health ad hoc, mental health providers. In some sense, we do want to leave that to our professionals -- those who are trained, who have licenses and who are specialized in supporting our students in that way. But there are times when we take on the stress, the experiences, and we develop this compassion fatigue, and maybe we come home or on our drive home where we're thinking about it. Maybe we were having difficulty sleeping because we're thinking about some experiences that our families are experiencing at school. What are some of your strategies with how we can manage some of our compassion fatigues?

Williams: (17:38)

That's so important that we acknowledge that this is a reality and that we think and look to create self-care -- what I call self-care plan -- and talking with and giving workshops on this toolkit. It depends on -- it's really personal. Some people will say, "I take a bubble bath," or "I practice yoga," or "I meditate," or "I pray." It really depends on what's going to restore the individual. And compassion fatigue is, as you mentioned, it is a real thing. It affects educators deeply when you're caring so much for students, but it's important to know that similar to the airplane analogy, we've all heard that you know, you have to put your mask on first. And so in doing that, you're able to give, as I heard someone say, you give from your saucer, not from the cup. And so you want to make sure that you are full and capable and ready to support the students.

Williams: (18:36)

And it's really important for educators to think about what are some of the things that fulfill them that fill you up so that you are able to give from your saucer and not burn yourself out. It's just going to, it takes time to think about, and it takes more time to implement consistently, but it is incredibly important for educators to be able to give their best to students, to make sure they're giving their best to themselves. And I know it's hard. I know it's so much easier said than done. I have definitely had my own experience and not doing that and feeling the effects of it, but it is important to prioritize giving yourself that time. It could look like creating rituals for yourself, whether it is having a cup of tea before you go to bed. And that's your time to calm down, to look back, setting boundaries. You know, you're not going to work past fill-in-the-blank time, or you're going to take the first five or 10 minutes of your day and read or do something that's going to fill you up so that you feel like you've given something to yourself for that day. But it's going to be a personal question that everyone should have an answer for.

Eakins: (19:40)

Yeah. And just a second, basically, it's whatever works for you, but there should be something structured or something that you have in place, especially if we, you know, depending on the schools that you work in, the communities that you work in, that compassion fatigue might look differently. And if you couple that with, if you come from a neighborhood that is not the same as the neighborhood that you work with, again, we'll experience compassion fatigue in different ways. And I think it's important. And I love that you said it could be so many different things, a bubble bath, you know, if that's your thing, but whatever it is, make sure that you're doing that and putting that as part of your daily regimen because if we don't, then we can burn ourselves out and that's obviously not healthy, and that's not bringing our best selves to our students. So, Julye, I definitely consider you as providing a voice in leading equity. What is one final word of advice that you can provide to our listeners?

Williams: (20:39)

I think one thing I would encourage everyone to do is to create atmospheres within your classrooms or programs wherever you are that are welcoming, that are affirming, that are supportive and that are loving. We don't know what students are experiencing trauma. We don't know what type of trauma they may be experiencing, but we do have the power to control the atmospheres that we create that they come into. And so I would say there are a lot of unknowns, but one thing we can consciously do is to create great atmospheres and to create encouraging and supportive atmospheres for all the kids that we've worked with.

Eakins: (21:19)

All right. And I totally agree if we have some folks that want to reach out to you, Julye, what's the best way for them to connect with you online. 

Williams: (21:27)

So if you'd like to reach me or learn more about First Book, you can visit us online. Again, the website is firstbook.org, or you can email me directly. I'm more than happy to answer any questions that you have. My email address is [email protected] And you can also find me on Instagram @juliemwilliams, and it's spelled J-U-L-Y-E-M-Williams.

Eakins: (21:51)

Okay. And share that marketplace one more time, please.

Williams: (21:55)

Absolutely. It's going to be fbmarketplace.org. And so if you're looking for books or other resources, free resources, other non-book items, that's where you want to go to see what's available.

Eakins: (22:08)

All right. Well, once again, I am speaking with Ms. Julie Williams, Julie. It has been a pleasure. Thank you so much for joining us.

Williams: (22:16)

Thank you.

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