Rethinking the Iceberg of Trauma

Many (myself included) have described trauma as an iceberg, meaning the signs we see in individuals that result from traumatic experiences are the tip of that iceberg. It’s what we see on the outside. Underneath, the foundation of those symptoms, including the neurobiological and developmental effects of trauma, are complex and may not be well understood. Becoming more trauma-informed within schools, then, has focused on helping educators understand the deeper underpinnings of the challenges students may experience both in their environments but also within their own physiology even when those factors are not concretely known to us. This is necessary work in our movement to build trauma-sensitive schools.

This layer of understanding, however, is not enough by itself. Collectively, we (meaning a lot of us) have not adequately been confronting the historical trauma and ongoing marginalization of groups that directly cause trauma and also perpetuate power differentials and systems of oppression, which then make individuals and families even more vulnerable to future traumas. We cannot be trauma-informed without fighting these injustices.

As an educator, for example, I may observe a high school student, Dune, who struggles with emotional regulation, perhaps is quick to anger and pull away in relationships or seek revenge, resulting in escalating conflicts, behavioral challenges, and “difficulty with authority.” Interactions may be described as hostile and could correspond with outbursts. As we move away from the paradigm of, “What’s wrong with you” to “What happened to you?” Or, as I suggest, “What might have happened (or be happening) to you?” trauma-sensitive educators start to wonder if adversity could be playing a role in what is occurring. Questions follow. “Are Dune’s needs being met?” And, “If they’re not, what might we do to be of help?” Or, “Could there be past or current stressors we don’t know about that are contributing to the dysregulation we see?” And, “How can we help create both real and felt safety in order to be supportive rather than punitive in our approach?”

Regardless of whether the answers to all of those questions ever become known (because we, as educators, don’t necessarily need to know Dune’s story in order to be able to be responsive and helpful), stopping there is not enough. In fact, doing so can lead to a stance of blame.

For instance, imagine that in establishing an empathic, responsive relationship with Dune, it’s eventually disclosed that he’s upset because his father is incarcerated, and he’s angry at the system and everybody he perceives to represent it. Notice where your personal reflections might go next. Would you, for instance, start thinking about how to help Dune with the loss he is experiencing and the emotions that go with it? Maybe you would begin focusing on any barriers that might exist and work to help remove them. Perhaps you might consider how to better support Dune’s skill development in order to foster resilience. But, might you also start blaming Dune’s father for causing his distress? Or, even land in an assumption that Dune’s anger puts him at risk of going down the same path as his father if you don’t somehow rescue him from this disastrous course by, let’s say, addressing his character or grit? Would you, could you, go beyond these harmful judgments?

We must go deeper into the iceberg, and thus, wider (with our understanding). Ask not just “What might have happened (or be happening) to you?” But also, “What has contributed to what might have happened (or be happening) to you?” And, “How might my biases and assumptions be problematic?” As we start to think about how to help Dune, acknowledging his experiences and emotions is critical as are giving support, removing barriers, and teaching skills, but we cannot do this justly without also acknowledging, and if necessary, learning (or unlearning) more about the historical traumas, including racism or any other types of oppression, that have occurred and are still happening. Examples related to Dune, as a Black male, may include but are certainly not limited to racism, housing inequalities, healthcare access disparities, school differences, a system that repeatedly focuses on a group’s achievement gaps after creating those gaps, the school to prison pipeline, the unjust over-incarceration of Black and Brown individuals for minor offenses or no offenses at all (which could include his father), police brutality, the U. S. epidemic of gun violence, and white supremacy as well as one of its supporters, white fragility. These injustices (along with others) are the wider foundation underlying generational poverty (which may or may not be influencing Dune) and thus, set up conditions for more specific individual adversities (although, of course, each student’s experiences, protective factors, and strengths are unique.) These injustices are something to be angry about it – something we should all be angry about. Too often, especially for white educators, we are missing this because for some of us, marginalization is not our experience. That doesn’t mean we escape all trauma; we don’t. It just means that we don’t necessarily “have” to not miss wider social injustices in order to survive (and with our biases intact). This is part of the problem. In fact, it arguably is the problem.

I wish I would have gone deeper into these truths in the first edition of Building Trauma-Sensitive Schools. As @BreneBrown recently explained, though, in direct response to Christina Torres on Twitter as well as work with Kelly Wickham Hurst (and others I may have missed), we don’t have to be the ones who are right each time, but we must keep working to get it right.

I look forward to reading Brene’ Brown’s letter that was sparked by criticism of her new lessons for educators, and I promise to keep reflecting, listening, learning, and changing so that I can be part of our collective “getting it right.” Especially as a white woman from Iowa, I ask that you call me out, call me in, or as Christie Nold said on Twitter last month, “send an army of bees” when needed (even in response to this post if appropriate). Point me in the direction of continued learning because I will not always be right. I am committed to doing my part of our collective “getting it right” though. I must do that if I am for students, all of them, and you must too.

As with everything important, there are paradoxes, and that is true when it comes to rethinking this idea of trauma as the iceberg. We must look deep and wide at the social injustices that are impacting groups (and help students do that as well). Yet, we are called at the same time to focus on each unique person we are meeting in the here and now and without making assumptions. For all of us, as Bettina Love (2019) described in We Want to Do More than Survive: Abolitionist Teaching and the Pursuit of Educational Freedom, our identities are complex. Our skin hues, culture(s), language(s), race(s), gender(s), sexuality(ies), ability(ies), religion(s), and spirituality(ies) matter. They matter in terms of who we each are as unique, multi-faceted human beings, and they matter in terms of how our personal stories are rooted in past as well as present experiences around safety (or not), equity (or not), justice (or not), and freedom (or not). Trauma-sensitive educators must care about what is underneath the tip of the iceberg at all layers. We must go deep, deep down to examine our own role in these problems. And, join others in fighting injustice in all its forms (as well as teach youth how to do that). Change worth enacting will be messy and demand taking a long, hard look at ourselves so that we can build schools that meet the needs of all students. Every. Single. One.

It is a fight for justice, for repair of the harm, for meaning, for hope, and for freedom – a fight that is well worth it. There are BIPOC who are have been and continue to be fighting this fight. Let us listen and listen more to one another. Then, do our part to get it right. Together.