When Dr. Jacob Ham was a junior in college, he worked at a summer camp for severely emotionally disturbed children. One of his charges was a five-year-old born with adorably chubby cheeks and an addiction to crack.
One day, that child was sick and laying down to take a nap. Before he drifted off, he grabbed Dr. Ham’s arm. “Don’t leave,” he begged.
Dr. Ham complied, staying with the child the whole time he slept. When the child woke up from his nap, he was stunned — and thrilled — to find Dr. Ham still there.
“No one ever stays,” he said.
Through his work as the director of the Center for Child Trauma and Resilience at Mount Sinai’s Icahn School of Medicine, Dr. Ham has ‘stayed’ for countless children and their families — and prepared others to do the same. His work focuses on making sure adults feel equipped to support kids in trauma, through acts big and small. The first step, he stressed, is for adults to deal with their own emotional demons.
“You have to cultivate an enormous place of compassion in your own heart,” Dr. Ham said. “I can now recognize trauma in others because I did the work to resolve my own. Once you clear out your own hurt, you can make space for other people’s, and learn the trauma-informed practices and techniques to help them.”
Dr. Ham, who keynoted the Robertson Center’s event Spotting and Supporting Kids in Crisis, explained that stress and trauma can literally rewire a brain, and that when kids in trauma act out, they’re doing it as a reaction to the emotional pain they’re feeling. “When I see a kid acting out, I don’t assume they’re being manipulative or disrespectful,” he said. “I know that they’re in pain, and that they don’t know how to express it. It’s up to us as adults to keep digging, ignore the yelling and the ‘I hate yous,’ and get to the root of what’s causing the pain.”
Stephen Powell, a panelist at the event and the chief programs and partnerships officer of the National CARES Mentoring Movement, helps train countless mentors to do just that. “The language we use when we talk about the kids we’re mentoring is so important,” he said. “We can’t tell kids they’re at risk. We have to tell them they’re at promise, at potential.”
For Powell, that shift in framing is personal. He grew up Black in a low-income New Jersey suburb, and could have been written off by the adults in his life because of race, zip code, or socioeconomic status. But he wasn’t. “I was lucky enough to have adults pouring themselves into me and showing me a bright light,” he said. “They saw wounds and not behaviors, and that made all the difference.”
Powell said that, when he goes into schools, he looks at what students’ first interaction in the building is. He described a typical scene: Kids walking into a building where the first person they see is a security guard, yelling at them to take off their jewelry, move quickly, directing kids into different lines to get through the door.
“Many kids are coming from violent communities, and when they walk into school, it still feels like chaos and stress,” he said. It’s crucial that schools work to ensure that when students enter the building, they are walking into a calm, supportive environment. Kids also need the tools to keep themselves calm and steady during stressful situations, through techniques like meditation and breathing exercises.
Bonnie Loughner, the Assistant Vice President of the School and Community Impact Program at the New York Foundling, added that there is no one-size-fits-all approach for schools and families, and that taking the time to truly understand what a particular school might need is well worth the investment. “When you really get to know an individual school’s strengths and opportunities, you can come up with a plan that is much more likely to work for that school,” she said.
Of course, so much of the trauma kids experience happen outside of school. Whether a child is homeless, or in foster care, or has an incarcerated parent, or is suffering from abuse, the things that cause kids pain is often beyond schools’ control. Schools can’t solve these problems alone — but they can make sure that every child feels loved, supported, and seen at every moment throughout the school day.
“Kids will do well when they can,” said Peter Brown, Associate Director of Crisis Support and Prevention at Success Academy. “If they’re not doing well, it’s up to us to recognize that, and help them work on the skills and set up the spaces to support them so that they know they’re never alone.”