Trauma-Informed Perspective: Rethinking Behaviors in Out-of-School Time Programs
By: Debralyn Woodberry-Shaw
I have volunteered, interned, and worked in out-of-school time (OST) programs since 2001. OST is the broad name given to programs and activities for preschoolers through twelfth graders that occur when they are not in school including before school, after school, during summer, and on weekends. As an out-of-school worker, I noticed many of my White colleagues and those without a social work background did not view youth of Color’s behaviors as symptoms but as features of their character. Young people of Color tend be labeled defiant, disrespectful, and disengaged more than their White peers due to racism, discrimination, and bias. Their behaviors are also punished more punitively and contributes to the school-to-prison pipeline. This is a barrier to adults providing safety in their programs. Safety is important because it helps young people thrive not just survive. This also becomes a barrier to building positive relationships with young people which is a prerequisite to restorative discipline.
After witnessing what was happening in these OST programs, I began researching trauma-informed care. Trauma-informed care is a framework or approach for interacting with others to responds to unnoticed and undiagnosed trauma in our world. Using this perspective, I started looking at behaviors as symptoms NOT characteristics. The behaviors could be a response to:
o Being triggered by complex trauma or race-based trauma. Dr. Bessel A. van der Kolk (2005) defines complex trauma as “the experience of multiple, chronic, and prolonged, developmentally adverse traumatic events, most often of an interpersonal nature…and early life onset.” Dr. Robert T. Carter states race-based traumatic stress injury is experiencing stress and trauma because of racism. At times race-based trauma is in conjunction with complex trauma. For example, a person has complex trauma and exhibits behaviors based on those triggers. Then those behaviors are judged more harshly because of their race. This is a race-based trauma trigger.
o Emotions they cannot verbalize (i.e., shame, anger, sadness, grief, etc.).
o A threat to their safety — physical or emotional.
o An unmet need — hungry, tired, belonging.
o Low use of their prefrontal cortex when reacting to another’s action as brain development is impacted by trauma.
I met a girl when she was in early elementary school. She was the oldest of her sibling group and tended to take responsibility for them even when she was with us at the OST program. She seemed to be angry a lot and would take her anger out on others. Instead of kicking her out the program or punitively punishing her behavior I used three steps when she was under my care: intentionally built a relationship with her, identified and addressed the root cause, and used restorative discipline techniques.
Restorative discipline focuses on repairing harm and restoring relationships. Discipline is to teach or train for the purpose of socialization into a culture that allows for impulse control, self-discipline, and social skill development. Punishment temporarily restrains behavior but doesn’t teach self-discipline and promotes shame. I used Paul McCold and Ted Wachtel’s Social Discipline Window as a framework to evaluate consequences.
Restorative discipline has high control (e.g., there are limits and discipline) and high support (e.g., adults provide encouragement and nurture). This ‘with’ cell is a key component of trauma-informed care discipline.
As I built a relationship with her and learned more about her, I recognized her behaviors were the result of her not being able to verbalize her emotions and the stress of caring for her siblings. Whenever she was with me and she exhibited a behavior as a result of her anger, we would sit down and talk through it. It was always important for me to remind her it’s okay to feel angry however it’s not okay to harm property, others, or ourselves. Then together we’d decide how she would repair the harm. Early on she hated talking to me. I remember once she hid from me and yelled she hated me. However, it never stopped me from viewing her behaviors through a trauma-informed lens because I knew she was not used to processing her emotions. It’s also hard for anyone but especially young people to confront negative emotions because they don’t always know what is going on and why.
Several years later I was interacting with that same girl at an event, now in middle school, and she would not leave my side. She said, “I’m going wherever you go.” It took me by surprise based on our past interactions however I was continuously connecting with her and using restorative discipline. She was regulating her emotions better. She started recognizing when she was angry and used healthy coping skills instead of behaviors that harm others and the community. I can’t say her coping was only the result of the three-step process I mentioned earlier however I am confident it contributed to it. She is only one example; I’ve noticed differences in how other young people of Color respond when they feel they have control over their discipline. I observe when I consistently use a trauma-informed care perspective, young people’s ability to manage their emotions increases.
Trauma-informed care is more common in schools however it is just emerging in OST programs. Currently, there are no characteristics a program must have before serving children nor a standard evaluation process. There is a need for policies in OST programs to incorporate trauma-informed care especially those serving young people of Color because they can help them strengthen their empathy and improve their emotion regulation. OST programs have the power to be places of sanctuary for young people of Color and mitigate the impacts of trauma. However, we must rethink their behaviors so we do not unintentionally cause more harm.
There needs to be more research on trauma-informed care in OST programs to fully establish and evaluate the framework for OST programs.