Students, churches and trauma

November 2nd, 2017

My wife and I hosted a recent conference session focused on public school realities and trends that are transferrable to churches. My role leading an organization that partners churches with schools provides a unique, panoramic view into both worlds.

Let’s zoom in on a topic sweeping across our land and through the education system, and yet receives little mention throughout the faith community. That topic is “trauma,” along with its partner “adverse childhood experiences” (ACEs). Maybe you’ve heard of trauma-informed schools or communities. If not, you will. Or should. Same with ACEs.

Adverse childhood experiences need no definition; too many kids become victims every day. Trauma, though, refers not to the actual event itself but, rather, to the response and its effect on a person’s ability to cope. That effect travels throughout all corners of a traumatized life; school, church, everywhere.

Do people recognize trauma’s impact?

Children’s ministries and youth ministries see students that seem distant and non-participative. Possibly disruptive. Leaders then find themselves in an uncomfortable situation: what do I do because this isn’t my kid? Not an easy question. Some boldly take action because they’ve seen it before and know exactly what to do. Or think they do.

Time for a confession.

When I served as children’s ministry director for a local church, my weekend responsibilities included standing at the bottom of a large staircase to greet families. One Sunday morning, I noticed a mother struggling with her son. When they reached a small landing at the halfway point, he went down on his belly and refused to get up. The more mom tried to pull him to his feet, the harder he yelled. Quite a scene; not exactly warm and welcoming to other families.

Chris, a high school-aged volunteer stood next to me. I looked at him and said, “Come with me, I know how to handle this. Mom needs some coaching.”

Equipped with a walkie-talkie, an official staff name badge, and smug confidence from my role as director and as an author of books on parenting, I climbed the stairs. When we reached the “scene,” Chris sat down and tried to talk in soft tones with the little guy.

I, on the other hand, knew exactly what to say to this mom. Separation anxiety, after all, requires a parent to muster courage — and most just need to hear what to do and that the child will survive just fine. Fortunately, just a moment before I could start my pep talk, Mom spoke first.

“I’m so sorry,” she said. “He just doesn’t want us to be apart. This all started two weeks ago — right after his dad passed away.”

Every children’s and youth ministry has students whose behavior falls short of normal, in whatever way defines “normal.” Sometimes by a little, sometimes by a lot. This happens every day in schools, too. Significant research over many years now points to the real culprit; it’s not necessarily a student’s wanton decision to misbehave, act uninterested, or simply disengage — or throw himself onto the ground, refusing to go another step toward having to let go of mom’s hand. Instead, maybe (or probably?) an ACE took place, and the trauma caused changes in that little boy. Changes he doesn’t understand and, on his own, can do little or nothing to abate. Put the young lad in school, and what do you think happens to his ability to learn?     

The likely answer appears in Helping Traumatized Children Learn, published by Trauma and Learning Policy Initiative, a partnership of Massachusetts Advocates for Children and Harvard Law School:

“Indeed, trauma related responses can become embedded in, and therefore encumber, all aspects of the learning process. Moreover, children may respond fearfully to people and situations at school even if the traumatic events happened months or years earlier. And they may have difficulty with peer and/or adult relationships because they cannot trust that other students or teachers have their best interests at heart.”

This publication also spoke directly to the situation on the staircase:

“The trauma response can also undermine a student’s ability to self-regulate emotions, behavior, and attention, resulting in responses such as withdrawal, aggression, or inattentiveness.”

So what should children’s and youth ministry teams do?

Learn. This topic deserves deliberate and significant amounts of education to ensure we serve students well. The wrong response, which I came so close to sharing, can very likely worsen the problem and re-traumatize the child.

Contact your local school district and inquire about any training or resources they might offer. Another next step is to go online and look for other options available. To help you start learning, visit I don’t specifically endorse any web site or organization over any others, but I do encourage churches to learn.

In the embarrassing-to-admit scenario shared earlier, I assured the mom that it was okay for her son to miss our children’s ministry program for as long as needed — his greatest need was to feel her love and security. I was lucky that she spoke first.

Students deserve more than luck. 

comments powered by Disqus