On Saturday, I had the opportunity to watch the documentary “Paper Tigers” at the Beacon library. The film follows the story of several young people who attend Lincoln Alternative High School which has adopted a trauma-informed approach in education.
Once the school had the perspective of the child’s story–that her mother had kicked her out choosing her new boyfriend over her daughter, that his mother had walked out on him and his father, that his mother and only caregiver suffered from mental illness–it changed how they approached education.
All of the staff and teachers were trained in understanding how trauma effects the brain. When discipline problems come up, the school no longer takes a punitive approach, but they investigate what is going on in the child’s life, and work to address the needs of the child. A “paper tiger” is “a person or thing that appears threatening but is ineffectual.” For children who have grown up in an environment that is regularly unsafe in some way, where they were always on edge. They had become unable to distinguish between what threats are real, and what is really not a threat. Their brains were not in a learning state.
Once these Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) were identified, the primary concern of the school was to “unconditionally love” the child and then work to provide a safe place for them to be able to learn.
The tears flowed freely hearing what the children had suffered through, and watching the transformation and hope that emerged for them, all the while recognizing that life will never be easy for them. Following the movie, a small crew of us, including a therapist with trauma experience, an assistant superintendent, and parents, gathered for conversation around what we could do as a community to become more trauma-aware and more compassionate. Gratitude and connection were tangible as we shared with one another what we hope for, as we imagined what could be possible if these needs were addressed early in a child’s life, and as we were ready to take steps to make it real in our community.
Thanks be to God.
Gretchen Larson-Wolbrink is a mother of three young children, and has recently dipped a toe back into ministry becoming a parish associate and preaching occasionally at First Presbyterian Church in Beacon.