This past December, I assisted our Director of Training Cindy Carraway-Wilson in guiding TOP® in CT facilitators about how the theory of Multiple Intelligences (MI) could inform their work with kids in care. Since most of the young people participating in TOP® in CT are not traditional learners, we wanted to talk to facilitators about specific ways they could expand lessons using MI techniques while still maintaining fidelity to the TOP® model. For example, they might ask young people to write a script and act out their group report as news anchors or they could use a series of images to spark discussion about successful celebrities. We believe these strategies are valuable because we want youth to genuinely engage with the material, to learn from it as best they can, and ultimately, to be safer because they’ve gained knowledge and skills related to sexual health.
Those are good enough reasons, in and of themselves, right?
That’s what I thought until I attended a webinar last month that showed me the cherry on top: using MI approaches is trauma-informed care! The webinar, “Unlocking the Development of Children Exposed to Violence,” was hosted by OJJDP’s Safe Start Center and led attendees through a developmental understanding of the effects of trauma, ways that schools can support children exposed to violence and important child welfare system reforms. The segment focused on schools and learning was the one that set off the most sparks in my brain, illuminating for me a deeper understanding of trauma’s impact on youth’s educational experiences – including those ‘teachable moments’ we strive for in our life skills groups and case management meetings.
First, a bit about trauma. Trauma experiences interfere with attention and memory by setting the brain on a ‘hyper-aroused’ default position – a constant state of vigilance that’s effective for survival but not-so-effective for classroom learning. Anxiety has its most powerful effects on verbal centers of the brain, so young people who have experienced trauma often have depressed language development. According to trainers, they’re also so attuned to reading nonverbal cues—wondering, is this person safe or does he look mad?—that they tend to miss the literal messages given by educators. Given all this, it’s critical that we understand what might trigger trauma victims and how to work around the roadblocks set up in kids’ brains.
It’s perhaps obvious that direct confrontation by an adult could trigger a youth with a trauma history. But because trauma memories are stored unconsciously (and nonverbally), triggers can also be much more subtle. Unexpected changes in routine and periods of silence are unpredictable and can be terrifying for youth who have been victimized. Even positive deviations, like a field trip, can be too much to bear; that’s why some kids will opt out and choose to sit in study hall all day rather than climb on the bus to places unknown. Children exposed to violence can also be triggered when they’re faced with difficult or personally challenging tasks; feelings of frustration evoke that same anxiety that shuts down the ability to problem solve.
Now, back to Multiple Intelligences. There were four key recommendations for providing trauma-sensitive instruction. The beautiful thing is, they’re perfectly aligned with MI theory. According to trainers, we need to make learning:
- Interest-based – Allowing young people to follow their natural interests builds neural plasticity and helps rewire the traumatized brain.
- Activity-based – Giving kids hands-on projects and allowing them to move around increases their ability to pay attention and store the information as memories.
- Collaborative – Whether it’s with a teacher or a peer, working with someone on a project teaches traumatized youth important social skills and how to read cues appropriately.
- Reflective – Being guided to reflect on what they’ve learned and make meaning out of it reinforces memory and, again, builds neural plasticity.
Given that one-quarter of all children in the U.S. experience some violent trauma before age 4—and that those in social service programs experience trauma at higher rates—it’s critical we find creative ways to re-work old material and to break out of the standard verbal-linguistic style of instruction. What are some ways you’re breaking the mold? Please share in the comments below!
~ Jen Smith, Research Associate
For those of you who could use a refresher, Howard Gardner of Harvard University identified nine distinct kinds of intelligence that people possess. He defined intelligence as “the ability to find and solve problems and create products of value in one’s own culture.” According to Multiple Intelligence Theory, these are ‘smarts’ that we all have, just in varying degrees of strength and weakness. For a primer on how this impacts education, check out these MI resources from PBS.