A nurturing and trauma-informed school with neuroscience expertise
Cajal Academy is grounding the trauma-informed approach in an understanding of the neurophysiological factors influencing children’s behaviors and their social and emotional experiences
Conventional wisdom (and traditional school discipline codes) presume that children’s behaviors can be reliably be viewed as windows into the child’s intents, efforts to gain attention or even character. Under this approach, children are rewarded for complying with behavioral standards, and consequences are meted out when those expectations are not met, on the presumption that all children of a given age have a relatively stable and equal ability to comply with those standards in the moment.
Yet neuropsychological research reveals that in fact, any number of factors can alter the function of the brain in ways that drive behaviors. For instance, a child with ADHD might be overwhelmed by a chaotic environment, leading them to run about the room despite firm instructions to be still. Similarly, a child with sensory integration challenges might be utterly dysregulated by the hum of a fan that is so low as to be imperceptible to others. And a child who has experienced adverse childhood experiences (from the loss of a parent to the stress or even humiliation of struggling over “simple” tasks due to an undiagnosed learning difference) might suddenly be sent into a survival state by any number of idiosyncratic and seemingly unpredictable triggering events.
This is the starting point for our approach to social-emotional and behavioral curriculum at Cajal Academy. We begin with the simple premise that until we understand the true nature of the problem, we are very unlikely to hit upon the most effective solution. Rather than lean on the child to control aberrant impulses through a system of punishment and reward, we focus on understanding and therapeutically addressing the underlying emotional or physiological events that trigger those impulses in the first place.
This is not to say that we do not provide appropriate consequences for children’s behavior. Rather, we are building on proven techniques from the Trauma-Informed Schools model and extending it to incorporate neurological and other physiological events. We are implementing this process on a 360 degree basis, to ensure that our students feel consistently safe and supported, and to ensure that we capture valuable opportunities to learn more about a child’s underlying challenges and to coach them in how to take agency over them.
Wrapping our neuroscientific basis around the trauma-informed approach, caregivers respond to behavioral events first by focusing on re-affirming their relationship to the child to increase their sense of safety in the moment (“connection over correction”), and then working with the child to identify the triggering event, taking into account not only prior emotional traumas and repeated adverse experiences but current physiological and sensory events as well. We then help the child to distinguish their reactions from their responses to those reactions—for instance, they may have become anxious over a reading task and then thrown their book. It is only by validating the reaction of feeling anxious that we can help the child control that anxiety and her response of throwing the book.
Once the child and caregiver team have together identified (to the extent possible) the triggering event and distinguished between the child’s autonomic reaction to it and their response thereto, our educational goal is to interrupt this cycle and help the child understand that the moment of a reaction is a moment of choice. In other words, she may not yet have control over the reactions (or, for medically-triggered reactions like the emotionally-dysregulating effects of reactions in people with mast cell activation disorder she may never have control over those reactions), but she can learn to monitor those changes within herself and then make an intentioned choice of how she behaviorally responds to them. Thus, once the child has returned to feeling safe and has re-regulated themselves (with help from our expert therapeutic team as necessary), the adult will help the child to appreciate the social ramifications and other impacts of her response and identify alternative choices she might have made, to help her move towards better outcomes in the future. Once these choices have been explore, the adult assesses appropriate consequences and supports the child in taking responsibility for any impacts their behaviors may have had on their peers.
This is a critical process, especially for any child with atypical neurological development, as it validates the reality of their physiological reactions, taking care to avoid shaming the child for neurological events that they cannot control, at least not as of this stage of development.
There is a second, longer term value to this approach, which is that it models for the child the importance and the process for monitoring one’s own state. By engaging the child in a joint exploration of what had triggered the reaction without judgment, we build their trust in us as adult caretakers, while teaching them that it is important to become self-aware of one’s own reactions. Often, it will turn out that these triggers are not only idiosyncratic but invisible to the outside observer—but over time, they may become crystal clear to the child.
As this process is repeated, we demonstrate to the child that we genuinely care to understand and support their inner world. And, as they find the trust to reveal those triggers to us, they are like lights on a runway, showing our team where we can make the most positive impact on this child’s life-lived experience.
This is an essential feedback loop in developing the Personalized Strategies at the core of each of our student’s individualized program. These strategies, developed by our team of therapeutic and learning experts, are actionable tools each child can use to self-monitor, self-manage and self-advocate for each of their needs or differences as of that stage of development. And, like any skill, these personalized strategies are scaffolded, from significant adult prompting to independent execution. Every staff member working with a child is aware of both these triggers and the child’s personalized strategies, and coaching is integrated directly into the curricular process through co-taught classrooms with embedded therapeutic expertise.
Although this may seem a resource-intensive approach, we have seen that over time it can lead to real increases in a child’s ability to independently maintain their own regulation—as such, it is the core of our commitment to empower children to optimize their own learning, social and emotional experiences.
What Makes Cajal Academy Different:
Watch these brief videos to find out more about how social, emotional and learning activities are inter-related, and the trauma-informed principles underneath our neuroscience-driven social-emotional and behavioral approach.