Newsline Volume 34, Number 1

Trauma-Sensitive IEPs

Janie Crecco, Training and Support Specialist,
Recruitment, Training and Support Center at FCSN

3This is the fourth in a series of articles on the four opportunities to advocate for trauma-sensitive individual supports for a child: sharing information; trauma-sensitive evaluations; trauma-sensitive team meetings; and the IEP. Helping Traumatized Children Learn, written in 2005 by the Massachusetts Advocates for Children in collaboration with Harvard Law School and the Task Force on Children Affected by Domestic Violence, is the current definitive work on inculcating trauma-sensitivity into the educational system.

In the last three articles, we have stressed the importance of the Four Domains for Success for children who have experienced complex childhood trauma. These include Relationships, Self-Regulation, Academic Success, and Physical Health. Individualized Educational Plans (IEPs) offer the opportunity to provide supports and opportunities to bolster these areas of strength.

Relationships for traumatized children can be a tricky business - many have a deficit of skills in the area of relationship building with peers and those in authority. They may see friendships or nurturance as a trap, something that won't last, and best to be avoided lest they be emotionally dangerous. In order to overcome these fears and anxieties, the child must learn new ways to approach relationships. On page 3 of the Massachusetts IEP form, there is a section known as "PLEP B" or "Present Levels of Educational Performance: Other Educational Needs". This section allows an IEP Team to take a look at the impact of a disability on student performance from the non-academic standpoint. This includes extra-curricular activities, communication, behavior, and nonacademic activities. These are all areas where children interact with other children (recess, lunchroom, hallways, after school activities) as well as adults. They are also the areas that are most confusing and least successful for traumatized children. But they could also be used as platforms to learn new skills and new ways of looking at the world as less than terrifying. Social/Emotional goal writing should be an opportunity for an IEP Team to get creative. How about making sure a student has a safe person to ask for help? Is it the school nurse, a favorite teacher or administrator, a trusted friend, or maybe an older sibling? Can she have access to this person in times of uncertainty? Can this person give her guidance and assurance that things are safe here, and that recess and lunchtime can be fun?

A lack of behavioral self-regulation is most typically the response of a traumatized child to a confusing or potentially unsafe situation as seen through their trauma lens. It follows that if a child is feeling safe, s/he will be able to muster the neurological control to stay regulated and do the right thing. If an adult senses that a child is becoming dysregulated, then the adult has the responsibility to make sure that the child can find safe haven; a place where s/he truly wants to be (not a "time out" or seclusion room). Most times this is a place that is sensorially soothing with some minimum activity, like taking a walk outside with a trusted mentor. The "PLEP B" goal of the child learning to identify their physiological response to stress and anxiety AND the response to calming activities such as a walk, would allow the student to focus neurologically on academics rather than taking up brain time on stress and anxiety.

Being physically healthy is the result of being mentally, emotionally, and socially healthy (see the ACE Study)1. Being emotionally healthy leads to academic success. And for those kids with the invisible disability of having suffered complex childhood trauma, the IEP process can give them a chance to begin to heal.