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The Impact of Trauma on the Lives of Young Children (Part 2)

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On this podcast we are joined by Dr. Deserai Miller. She joins us to discuss strategies for supporting young children who have experienced trauma.

More About Our Guest

Dr. Deserai Miller is a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Special Education and adjunct lecturer in the School of Social Work at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.  Her research focuses on provisions of trauma-informed care through special education service delivery and the preparation of professionals across multiple disciplines related to trauma-informed care. 



Dr. Swartz: Thanks for joining us for a podcast from the Illinois Early Learning Project. Our project is part of the Department of Special Education at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and funded by the Illinois State Board of Education. On this podcast, we share information about how young children grow and learn as well as strategies adults can use to help them thrive. My name is Rebecca Swartz, and I am one of the project staff members.

Dr. Swartz: Today we welcome Dr. Deserai Miller. Dr. Miller is currently a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Special Education and teaches in the School of Social Work at the University of Illinois. Her research focuses on provision of trauma-informed care through special education service delivery and the preparation of professionals across multiple disciplines related to trauma-informed care.

Dr. Swartz: Hello Dr. Miller. We’re so excited to have you on the Illinois Early Learning Project podcast. The effect of trauma on young children is a really hot topic in early care and education today. And we just had your colleague Dr. Catherine Corr on the podcast. She shared information about how trauma might affect the learning, development, and behavior of young children. We’re so happy to have you join us to follow up on that learning. I understand that you’re also trained as a social worker and that you worked in early childhood programs at that capacity. Could you tell me a little bit about yourself and how you became interested in understanding trauma in the lives of young children?

Dr. Miller: Sure, great. Well thanks for having me. So yeah, my undergrad and master’s degree were both in school social work, so I practiced as a school social worker for 10 years. Part of that time was at a therapeutic day school for children who were having emotional disabilities, and then the majority of my time was at a public school. And so during that time I really noticed that a lot of kids were going unsupported, some of this due to trauma and not really due to a lack of desire by professionals—more related to their preparation related to supporting kids who’ve experienced trauma. And so that was really the point that led me into a Ph.D. program. And so, as a school social worker, a lot of my experience was working with special education teams and students who were receiving special education services.

What I also knew was that a lot of kids who are receiving special education services have also experienced trauma at some point, and so it made a lot of sense for me to in some ways merge these two disciplines—special education and what I knew as a school social worker. And so I went into a Ph.D. program in special education, and my focus in that program was really around the preparation of professionals in supporting kids who have experienced trauma. And so this started as special education teams, which included teachers or school social workers, speech and language therapists, but it’s really broadened because what we know is that there are a lot of disciplines that are looking for more preparation and a lot of disciplines that are working with kids who’ve experienced trauma.

And so at this point I’m doing a lot of preparation opportunities for the original intended folks—the teachers and special education teachers and school social workers—but this has also branched off into speech and language therapists, like I mentioned, or people in academia, early interventionists. I’ve done some training with physicians and nurses. And so, what we know is that trauma is really something that is crossing a lot of disciplines and a lot of people are feeling as though they need more preparation. That’s really what my research focuses on.

Dr. Swartz: Sure so it sounds like the whole team that surrounds a young child, the whole community of adults really could benefit from this idea of taking a trauma-informed view of learning and behavior. So when your colleague Dr. Corr was on, she talked about these being called trauma-informed practices. Could you tell us a little more about how these trauma-informed practices might fit into early childhood professionals’ work with young children and their families?

Dr. Miller: Sure, so the thing to remember about trauma-informed practices isn’t a complete change in what we’re already doing. So what we like to do is think about the things that are already going really well for kids who’ve experienced trauma, in terms of our practices, and then what can we, what can we slightly do differently or add into those practices in order to better support kids who’ve experienced trauma. So a lot of, a lot of professionals are doing a lot of great trauma-informed practices—they don’t always realize that—but they are doing a lot of really great things for kids who’ve experienced trauma.

The shift that we like to think about is this idea of intentionality. So thinking about, okay, I’m doing this practice because I know it really supports kids who’ve experienced trauma, and here are all the reasons why I wanna do it. So it’s not just one more thing to add on. Like we know professionals are busy, and we know there are a lot things that are expected of them. And so trauma-informed practices really are intended to merge into what they’re already doing and hopefully create a better system for the services they’re providing. So, in some ways, it’s more of a lens versus actual additional practices. So they’re providing their services, and if they have this trauma-informed lens, then they’re thinking about how the services they’re providing really align well with providing services for kids who’ve experienced trauma.

The ultimate hope of all of that is, if you’re trauma-informed, and you’re coming from this trauma-informed lens, that you’re delivering services—as you typically would—however you’re also meeting the needs of the kids who’ve experienced trauma, which means you’re seeing greater gains. So what we know is that kids who’ve experienced trauma, if they’re not receiving care in a way that’s well-aligned with trauma-informed care, then the services, you keep just kind of spinning your wheels. In this way we’re going to still be meeting the needs of kids in the way that we always have, we’re just considering trauma when we’re doing that.

Dr. Swartz: Sure, so when we talked with Dr. Corr, she mentioned that there are certain signs that we can look at to let us know whether a child may have experienced trauma in the past. So maybe you can give us an example of possible situations when a child might be showing the signs of trauma and that trauma-informed lens can really help us.

Dr. Miller: Yeah. That’s a great question, and so the first thing that I want to note is when we think about trauma, we’re really thinking more about the response to a situation rather than the actual event, and so I think that helps us when we’re thinking about how we wanna provide services. If we’re thinking about how a child is responding to a potentially traumatic situation, then we, we’re really more intervening at the point of the response. Because unfortunately, a lot of kids are experiencing a lot of different kinds of traumatic situations, and we can’t always intervene there, but we can intervene at the response.

The other thing that allows us to do is not make judgments about what is trauma and what’s not trauma. So kids come with a variety of different resiliency factors, and they will find different things more traumatic than another situation. And so if we’re really focusing on the response, then we’re really meeting kids where they’re at. And so we really like to think about it as their response rather than thinking about the event they’ve experienced.

Dr. Swartz: So for example, it can be very traumatic for a child if their family experiences something like homelessness or experiences food insecurity where they don’t have access to meals. So a child’s response might be to show lots of anxiety around meals and snacks in their early childhood classroom. They’re worried when’s the snack coming, when’s the snack coming. Whereas some other children may just not have that behavior in response to the trauma of having food insecurity. So you’re thinking that we have to think, is it possible there’s something that the child experienced before that underlies the behavior that we see in the classroom, is that correct?

Dr. Miller: That’s exactly correct. So in the scenario that you provided there, the providers may have had the information, so they had information related to the food insecurity. However, what really happens in practice a lot of times, is that we don’t always have that information. However, if there’s a child that has anxiety around food time, and you don’t realize that the child maybe had instances in their life where they weren’t receiving enough food, you can still ask the question, “Is it possible that this is related to trauma?”

And so, if the answer’s yes, then, now you’re providing services in a way that aligns well with that. So if we know a child has anxiety around food because of food insecurity issues, then you may allow food to be more available to that child or maybe the child can keep a granola bar in their pocket at all times, even if the idea is that they don’t really need to ever use that, they always have that with them. And so in that situation, you don’t need to know that the child was homeless, for example, or had a lack of food at a previous time in order to provide a way to meet their anxiety needs.

Dr. Swartz: That lens helps us think that there’s a possibility that there’s something traumatic or stressful that happened to that child that may be sparking that behavior, and that it’s not just a behavior that’s in isolation, it has a reason. And so that’s what you mean, maybe, by the trauma-informed lens. Thinking that it’s possible that the child had something that happened in the past that is affecting them still, and we should respond as sensitively as we can by thinking it’s possible that X happened to child, so how can we meet the need that we’re seeing. So wow.

Dr. Miller: Mhm. Right. That’s exactly right.

Dr. Swartz: I like that, so it’s really a lens and not necessarily just a list of practices that we have to do, it’s a way of thinking. So it sounds like a team really needs to work together to respond in a trauma-informed way. So the social worker may know information that the teacher doesn’t know or the teacher may know information that the social worker doesn’t know or the speech pathologist, there’s a whole bunch of people that a child interacts with in an early childhood program. So how can these teams work together in a really respectful and supportive manner to help families that may have experienced trauma.

Dr. Miller: A team approach is definitely always beneficial, especially for one of the points you brought up is that, if you can kind of put all of the puzzle pieces together, then you’re able to create more of a holistic picture of what’s happening. So for example, there are a variety of behaviors that kids may display at school, and some of those may be related to trauma they’ve experienced. So exactly like what you talked about before with this lens, so you’re carrying out your practices as you always have, you’re just considering trauma when you’re doing that, and then incorporating some of these trauma-informed practices within that.

So, for example, if a child, I give this example quite a bit because I think it’s something that happens a lot in preschool settings. If a child is in a classroom and they feel distracted, they’re constantly looking around their surroundings, and if you’re in circle time and the expectation is that you’re sitting on the carpet, you’re listening to the story, and you have a child who is clearly not engaged in that. They’re looking everywhere, everywhere else in that moment or some noise happens in the hallway, they’re interested in what’s happening there and they’re having a hard time staying engaged with the story. And so, a lot of times in preschool settings, we may say, well that child’s distracted, they’re not engaged, and so that’s what where we intervene. That’s kind of where we stop the inquiry in terms of what’s happening.

Whereas, if you’re coming from a trauma-informed lens, then the conversation’s slightly different. It’s why is that child, why is that child distracted? And so you might incorporate a team and say, here is what I’m seeing, what are you seeing? And what we know a lot of times is kids who’ve experienced trauma are focused on their safety and the safety of their belongings. And so you imagine now if you’ve dug a little deeper, you’ve worked with your team to try to get a more holistic picture.

Now this child is sitting in circle time, and now you’re seeing, oh, well they keep looking back at their belongings, they keep looking at the door because there are noises and they’re worried about who may come in. And so now there are easy ways to help that child feel more safe, and for their belongings to feel more safe. So, for example, maybe the child has a location where they get to keep their belongings and no one else can go there, and they can go check on them whenever they need to. And maybe there’s a spot where the child always sits for circle time that just creates more safety where he or she can see the door and knows exactly who is coming in and who is coming out.

And so if we, if we just take one step back and work together as a team to figure out why a child might be displaying kind of these symptoms related to distraction, then we’re able to do more trauma-informed care versus just working simply on a child just being distracted.

Dr. Swartz: I love that because you said something about a puzzle, putting that puzzle together. Because I think those are the kinds of behaviors that can really puzzle teachers and social workers and parents when we see a child who’s just always distracted. Why aren’t they interested in that story? But you’re right, if we think little more deeply and we look at what else has that child experienced and we put the pieces together as a team, then we can make choices that meet the needs of the behavior we’re seeing and potentially help that child focus on the story and get more out of the experience of being in preschool.

So I love that idea of being kind of, doing a little detective work and puzzling together in order to understand behavior rather than just trying to change behavior without understanding it. I love that. So I think that will be really beneficial for our listeners to think about in a new way.

It sounds like, however, that it can be really stressful for professionals who work with children who’ve experienced trauma. I would bet that the day-to-day stress of working through some of these behavior and emotional challenges along with hearing the traumas children may have experienced could take a toll on professionals. Do you have any recommendations of what professionals could do to care for themselves so they don’t find themselves feeling burned out and overwhelmed?

Dr. Miller: Sure, so this is a great topic and something that we really like to talk about when we’re talking about this topic, because I think there are times where professionals feel almost like they have a badge of honor. They’re able to just support kids who’ve experienced trauma, and just say well that’s my job and I just kind of leave it at my job. And what we know is, that might work for a little bit, but it won’t work long term, because it really is tough working with kids who’ve experienced trauma and families who are going through really tough stuff.

And so when we think about self-care, we think about it, kind of two things that need to happen. The first is really preventing any secondary trauma or burn out that you can, and then the second is intervening when you are feeling overwhelmed or like, like you said, this mentioning of burn out. And so, you have to do both of those things. So you can’t just kind of wait until you’re at a point of extreme stress and then try to intervene. But you also have the tools in order to be able to do that when it happens. But then the second part is, or the first part I guess in terms of prevention, is really putting things in place knowing that you’re working with kids and families in their lives, and so doing things really help prevent you from getting to a place of feeling overwhelmed.

And so some of the practical ideas for prevention are allowing time for supervision or debriefing. So a lot of times we save that for when a crisis happens. So a crisis happened and now you have to, you need to debrief with someone. However, what we know for prevention is really this idea of having regularly scheduled times. So just talk through things, and you may not feel overwhelmed or stressed in that moment, but it’s important to talk through those things and process and make sure that you really worked through those things in an appropriate way.

The other is this idea of skill development, and so, this is exactly what we’re talking about today is, is that the more competent that you feel in terms of supporting kids who’ve experienced trauma, the less likely you’re going to feel overwhelmed. So we really think of that as a prevention strategy for avoiding kind of secondary trauma.

Dr. Swartz: I can think of, you know, how a teacher might feel frustrated or not as competent as they’d like to if a child is not able to attend during that story time because they’re so preoccupied about their belongings, or no matter how pleasant the snack-time routine, if the child is always anxious about food, like we talked about in our previous examples, a teacher might take that and say, well I’m doing something wrong myself. But being able to talk about that, in a supervision or in a team meeting, and remember that it’s not just their practice but also what the child brings to the table could help them care for themselves and not feel, you know, frustrated or burned out or that they’re doing something wrong, even when they’re really trying to do everything right in the classroom.

Dr. Miller: Right, yes, that’s exactly right, and that’s talked about a little bit previously here, this idea of spinning your wheels. So you can feel like you’re delivering services in the exact right way, and then having a child still not find success can feel really defeating, and so yes, I think that’s exactly right.

Dr. Swartz: Yeah, so we have to find a way to work together and support each other so that we don’t, so we don’t have unrealistic expectations of ourselves and so that we can shift course if we’re, if we’re not making progress like you said. So we don’t spin our wheels.

Dr. Miller: Mhm, right, exactly. So those were some ideas for prevention. So having just systems in place in order to prevent this feeling of being overwhelmed. And then, the other side is knowing when you need to intervene. And so some of that is having accountability groups where you’re talking with colleagues and helping them kind of help you understand when it’s time to intervene because you’ve hit a point of feeling more overwhelmed. And so that might be having someone on standby so when you do feel those feelings of stress or secondary trauma that you know exactly who to go to and they’re available to debrief with you.

So it’s having someone kind of regularly scheduled where you’re always meeting with them and just talking through the day-to-day things that are happening, but then also that person that you know you can call at any point when you really need to debrief because you’ve hit a point of feeling overwhelmed. The other piece is just considering aspects of your environment. So whatever environment that you’re working in, there are always modifications that can be made to a situation that will contribute to feelings of less stress. And so really thinking about your environment and the children you’re working with and seeing just what minor changes can be made when you get to that point where you’re feeling overwhelmed or having symptoms of burnout.

Dr. Swartz: Thanks, that is really helpful to think about, so we gotta prevent and then we gotta have something planned for responding in that difficult moment. So you know, there’s so many topics we could talk about and so many scenarios we could talk about related to children who have experienced trauma and how to help professionals work more effectively with them and their families. But I’m wondering if you can help point us to a learning opportunity that could help our listeners learn more about trauma and its effect on young children and these trauma-informed practices.

Dr. Miller: Mhm. Yes, so Dr. Corr spoke some about kind of the initial pieces of being trauma-informed and then today we spoke more about some actual practices and then also this piece about self-care. And so we through the Military Family Learning Network have developed a module that covers all of those pieces but way more in-depth than what we were able to do today or when you spoke to Dr. Corr. And so it’s a module series, it’s a four-part series, and it’s free, and it’s online, and it’s self-paced. So, anyone can take it, and they can take it whenever, and they can take it however and for however long they need to take it. And so four parts and generally people say it takes around 5 to 7 hours, which shows you that it’s a more in-depth training.

Dr. Swartz: Sure.

Dr. Miller: And the link for that is [here].

Dr. Swartz: Wow, great, that is so helpful, and we will post that link for our listeners so that they can find it very easily. Thank you so much for joining us today and for giving us just a little taste of what the module has in store for them and for teaching us a little bit about how we can respond to trauma in young children and their families and also help ourselves work through the challenges of trauma. We hope we’ll have you again on the podcast sometime in the future to talk more in detail about another topic. Thanks again.

Dr. Miller: All right, thank you.

Dr. Swartz: The Illinois Early Learning Project website, at www.illinoisearlylearning.org, is a source of evidence-based, reliable information on early care and education for parents, caregivers, and teachers of young children. Thanks for listening and for helping the children in your home, classroom, and community have a strong start in their early learning.

About this resource

Setting(s) for which the article is intended:
  • Child Care Center
  • Preschool Program
  • Kindergarten
  • Home
  • Family Child Care

Intended audience(s):
  • Faculty / Trainer
  • Parents / Family
  • Teachers / Service providers

Age Levels (the age of the children to whom the article applies):
Reviewed: 2019