RTSC: Cultural Competency of Trauma in the Classroom

By Mary-Beth Landy, Training and Support Specialist, Recruitment, Training, and Support Center (RTSC)

Mary Beth LandyI can still remember, as clear as day, when my oldest daughter was in the 4th grade. Her class was given a project to create and label a family tree. What we didn’t know until the next report card was that she never did the project. This was not completely a shock to us, as school was a major struggle for her. What was more surprising was the reason why she didn’t do the project. You see, she and her younger sister are adopted. And when asked to create a family tree, she didn’t know which family to use: her birth family, or her adoptive family. She felt that if she used her birth family, she would hurt our feelings, and if she used her adoptive family she would be betraying her birth family. So rather than struggle with all of the pain and discomfort that this caused, she just didn’t do the assignment.

For a child in custody of the Department of Children and Families (DCF), who has been removed from their parent(s), the loss is three-dimensional. They have lost their family, they have lost their childhood to trauma and/or neglect, and they have lost their trust in the world around them. Because each child experiences this situation differently, the effect of and their response to the loss will be different. One can’t understand, what a child knows or has experienced, and these experiences color how the child will approach a classroom and the educational experience. This is where the need for cultural competency comes in.

The best way to approach cultural competency in the classroom, with all students, is through effective and sensitive communication. Say perhaps, “today we are going to learn about slavery, and I think that this conversation is going to be heard differently by each of you. Let’s talk about this.” Ask all of the students to share their experience around this topic. Then, with trauma, we go one step further. We must consider any histories of traumatic loss. How would a child who has been separated from their families relate to Africans who were captured and taken away from their homes relate to this issue? How would a child who has had no control over what is happening in their lives relate to a person who was enslaved, who also had no control over their lives? A teacher can survey their students by getting to know them, considering their lived experiences, and shaping the work around that.

Kids respond well when you share that you don’t know their experience, but want to understand and help them. Of course you can’t understand where all students are coming from, but if the classroom practices cultural competence around trauma and loss, you won’t have to. The students will begin to come to you, because they feel safe and connected. And that’s all that you can ask for!

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