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July 25, 2014

Head Start Trauma Smart teaches preschoolers to deal with “big feelings”

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Each year, thousands of American children are expelled from preschool, many because of behavioral issues related to trauma they have already experienced in their short lives.

A new program in Head Start schools is trying to change that. Head Start schools nationwide aim to provide a rich preschool experience for low-income children. Head Start Trauma Smart was born at Crittenton Children’s Center in Kansas City out of startling statistics. Of the 4,000 Kansas City children in the Head Start School, half have experienced more than three traumatic events. Nationally, one in four preschool-age children experience a traumatic event before they start kindergarten.

A traumatic event includes but isn’t limited to separation from parents, incarcerated parents, substance abuse or untreated mental illness in the home, witnessing violent interactions or being abused.

Children who have experienced trauma are more likely to start acting out. Neuroscientists say trauma has a measureable effect on a child’s brain. This means a trigger, which could be a smell, touch, or sound similar to what the child experienced during the traumatic event, can cause them to act out.

Preschooler Desiree Kazee was a people-person before she experienced trauma in her life, which included abuse, the incarceration of her mother and the death of a close family member.

After the trauma, “she didn’t really want to be around adults. She didn’t want to be around kids. She just wanted to be at home, her safe spot,” Desiree’s father Derek explained.

Teachers who are not trained to deal with traumatized children are likely to be confused as to why a child is acting out. Traditional methods such as scolding the child or putting her in a time-out do not work as effectively for these children.

Teachers in this program deal with the acting out and tantrums by making the children feel safe and nurtured, and by teaching calming techniques such as counting and deep breathing. These methods help traumatized children control the “tidal wave of emotions” that can cause disruptive behavior.

Before the program, Desiree would throw a tantrum, but now “she tends to just walk away and calm herself down…she’s more in control of her feelings and her emotions. As a parent, it makes me completely happy,” her father explains.

Although the program is fairly new, there are already results: 100 percent of the enrolled children have moved on to kindergarten.


Warm up questions
  1. What is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)? What kind of people do you think of when you hear the word “PTSD”?
  2. What kinds of events might be traumatic for a preschooler or kindergartener?
Discussion questions
  1. Who was the main character in this story?  Why did the reporter chose to focus on her?
  2. What were the techniques for dealing with trauma depicted in this story?
  3. Why might it be harder for a young child to deal with trauma than an adult?
  4. Why do you think children start acting out after they have been through a traumatic experience?
  5. Do you think that Head Start Trauma Smart is good use of education funding? How might this pay off down the road?
Writing prompt

Think about the way that you might handle a traumatizing situation. How might you have reacted differently if you were a child? How might you act differently when you are all grown up? Do you think age plays an important part in our behavior in response to traumatic events? What other factors do you think might be important in successfully handling a traumatic event?

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