HOW I CAME TO THIS WORK
My journey to this work did not take a typical path – my background is a doctorate in juvenile justice – not education or mental health. But it is precisely the context of years of thinking about how to prevent young people — particularly black and brown children — from becoming involved with the justice system that allows me to see this work with a unique lens.
In 2007 after the birth of my first child, a dear friend gave me a book called, Why Love Matters – how affection shapes a baby’s brain (2004) written by Sue Gerhardt, a psychoanalytic psychotherapist. I thought it was a parenting book and, as a new mom, was eager to pick up any tips and tricks.
However, as I read I realized it was not so much a parenting book but more of an academic exploration of how love and the absence of love, influences the way brains develop. I learned about the powerful effects of neglect and abuse on brain architecture, and how over time, the stress hormone cortisol exerts ‘wear and tear’ that interrupts normal brain development. And, what ultimately turned out to be a career-shifting discovery, I learned what behavior looks like of children exposed to trauma: high threat perception, low impulse control, difficulty following instructions – which are nearly the nearly identical characteristics of justice-involved kids. It seemed like such an obvious connection — and I immediately wondered: Why are we not discussing this research in juvenile justice?
The book revealed a common thread – the throughline – among young people who have had traumatic experiences and those who have contact with the justice system. If exposure to abuse and neglect effectively rewires the brain to function in survival mode, kids with these experiences are predisposed toward behaviors that set them at odds with most mainstream settings. It occurred to me that the experience of trauma, of early life adversity – and its impact on behavior – may lie at the heart of delinquency – and conversely, also reside at the core of how to prevent it.
My new understanding drove me to think about how this emerging research could be applied to prevention and intervention efforts. As I continued in my role as a research/evaluator I pursued any opportunity to talk about the effects of trauma, to draw connections, and to explore whether anyone in juvenile justice had adapted these findings into practice. When I worked at UC Berkeley’s Chief Justice Earl Warren Center for Law and Social Policy, I explored developing a training module for juvenile probation officers so the behavior of incarcerated young people could be seen within the context of trauma. I cultivated a partnership with a local psychology graduate school to further connections and my understanding of the relationship between trauma and behavior. I reached out to faculty in the neuroscience department, and wrote a paper, The Neuroscience Behind Misbehavior, that proposed integrating new evidence around brain science into school discipline policies. I discovered how trauma is literally held in the body through the emerging field of epigenetics — the science of how your environment interacts with your genes to effectively switch genetic expression on or off, and how adaptive coping strategies are transmitted across generations. I read anything that was related to the impact of trauma on behavior, learning, and health.
Then, in 2015 I had the chance to set my evaluator’s hat aside to coordinate the launch of two pilot programs under a state grant for a Northern California county. One pilot was to implement trauma informed approaches within an urban middle school. I was exhilarated for my first chance to be on the implementation side rather than the evaluation side – to share ideas from what was now nearly a decade’s worth of inquiry for how to foster trauma informed environments.
Over the course of a single school year, we trained all staff in both trauma informed practices as well as dynamic mindfulness. We created a Wellness Room where students can elect to go for up to 10 minutes to help them self-regulate before returning to class. We shifted the orientation and culture from one that was based in punitive reactions to one that provides support with accountability. By the end of the year, behavioral referrals had dropped by nearly 70%. While the outcomes achieved were transformative – for me, the experience was life-changing. I had discovered my hearts work — helping schools understand and respond to trauma. Subsequently, I made the pivot away from research toward school-based work that takes place at the intersection of trauma, justice, and equity, recognizing that the most powerful way to disrupt the school to prison pipeline is to re-contextualize how educators perceive the behavior of trauma-impacted students, and how the trauma adults carry affects how they teach.