Transforming Trauma: Promoting Resilience

April 30, 2014

“Anyone could be someone who changes the world in a big or small way,” says Dr. Joyce Dorado as she presents the first slide of her presentation at Summit 2014. The slide is filled with black and white school portraits of smiling children. Each of these children, Dr. Dorado tells us, was traumatized (often by domestic violence) and each of these children overcame trauma to change the world.

Who are these people? Staring back at the audience are the smiling faces of Oprah, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, John Lennon and others as baby-faced kids. Unfortunately, many other traumatized children — especially black and Latino children — do not reach their potential because of trauma experiences.

Dr. Dorado directs the HEARTS program, short for Healthy Environments and Response to Trauma in Schools. She changes the conversation about trauma and its impact on classroom environments from “What is wrong with this student?” and “What is wrong with this teacher?” to a conversation about “What happened to this student?” and “What happened to this teacher?” Dr. Dorado explains: Students who act out in class are emotionally under-prepared for the classroom environment because of a difficult home life; Teachers who are too quick to discipline students are stressed by their unsupportive school environment.

To address trauma in the classroom, Dr. Dorado applies techniques drawn from neurobiology research. She trains teachers to activate students’ parasympathetic nervous systems with belly breathing, to use lotions with soothing natural scents that reduce stress levels, and to play the guitar or recorded music during classroom transitions to keep students calm. Dr. Dorado’s tells her teachers that one of the best predictors of student outcomes is how students answer the question: “Does my teacher like me?”

Dr. Dorado shares some of the good news drawn from research on traumatized students: Every positive interaction helps to build healthier, more resilient kids. Using the strategies discussed in her presentation, Dr. Dorado has helped schools drastically reduce suspensions and expulsions in schools.