Trauma Training for Day Care Teachers: Can help for Superstorm Sandy change day care for thousands of the city’s most vulnerable kids? 


There is a problem in Room 302 at the Henry Street Settlement Day Care Center. It’s naptime. Eleven kids are snuggled on cots, quietly fiddling with their blankets or drifting off to sleep. But 3 1/2 year-old Bella* doesn’t want to lie down.

She sits next to her cot, tucking in her stuffed kitten and explaining why naptime—at least for today—isn’t for her: She’s not tired. She’s hungry. She maybe has to go to the bathroom? Kitty isn’t comfortable.

Qing Lei, Room 302’s 25-year-old assistant teacher, is used to this routine. Bella is not a kid who complies easily with instructions. She doesn’t eat school snacks, or line up nicely with her partner when it’s time to walk to the playground. She has trouble socializing with other kids and paying attention during story or counting time.

Kids like Bella are far from uncommon, but they make life complicated for day care and preschool teachers who need to wrangle classrooms-full of squirmy young children through their daily routines—and who may have little training in strategies to manage disruptive behavior. Worse: when the behaviors are caused by undiagnosed developmental problems, they can intensify as kids get older, derailing years of early education that are hard to make up.

Kids who face traumatic experiences—or who live chaotic, unstable lives at home—are far more likely than other children to act out in classrooms.

At Henry Street, however, Lei and other early childhood teachers are getting an innovative kind of help. Through a creative use of federal funds intended for Superstorm Sandy recovery, a child psychologist visits their classrooms weekly, spending time with the kids and encouraging teachers to think about behavior problems in a new way: as possible manifestations of trauma and chronic stress experienced by the children in their care.

In the past two decades, child psychologists have developed a large body of evidence suggesting that kids who face traumatic experiences—or who live chaotic, unstable lives at home—are far more likely than other children to act out in classrooms, even as early as preschool or day care. “Teachers often see tantrums, or kids having a lot of trouble listening to teachers, or running around and not being able to sit still,” says Katie Lingras, an early childhood specialist at the New York Center for Child Development.

At Henry Street, many of the children’s challenges stem from the stress caused by grinding poverty, Lingras says. “We frequently see kids who are living in shelters or moving around a lot. There’s a lot of domestic violence, or just the cumulative effects of parental stress: family conflicts, arguments, separations.”

When teachers have strategies to address these issues early, Lingras says, they can help kids get back on track, preparing them for success in kindergarten and beyond.

But traditional training programs don’t necessarily prepare teachers to deal with the developmental fallout of chronically stressed or traumatized kids. “It’s very hit-or-miss,” says Shelby Miller, a consultant whose firm, High Impact Partnering, will conduct an evaluation of the pilot program at Henry Street.

Under the program, teachers get special training in “The Incredible Years,” an evidence-based curriculum that's been implemented, with convincing results, in jurisdictions across the United States and 20 other countries. In the form being used here, the curriculum is designed to give teachers concrete strategies to promote healthy development in the classroom.

If the project is successful in New York City, organizers will push the city's administration to incorporate trauma training into its requirements for all city-funded early education programs—a move that could change preschool and day care for thousands of vulnerable kids, Miller says.

For now, the project is being coordinated by United Neighborhood Houses (UNH), an umbrella organization representing dozens of city nonprofits. Using funds from a block grant for social services in areas hit by Sandy, UNH hired early childhood specialists to work with teachers from four city day cares. In addition to Henry Street (on the Lower East Side), the project serves teachers at Grand St. Settlement and Hudson Guild (both in Lower Manhattan) and the Shorefront Y in the Brighton Beach neighborhood of Brooklyn.

Teachers from each agency received six full days of training in The Incredible Years curriculum. Twelve classrooms also get weekly visits from consultants, who discuss challenges posed by individual kids. The initial conversations started with the potential traumas caused by Superstorm Sandy—which affected many of the teachers, as well as the families of the kids they serve—but The Incredible Years curriculum is designed to help teachers counter the impact of any kind of stress in kids’ lives.

The basic tenet of the curriculum is that stressed-out kids need a high level of consistency and routine. Teachers can ward off many bad behaviors by building positive relationships with students: getting down on their level, playing with them and inquiring about their ideas. The curriculum also offers kids techniques to manage their feelings. For example, they can pull into cardboard-box “shells,” like turtles, to calm down when they feel angry.

When undesirable behaviors crop up, the curriculum suggests an escalating series of strategies, such as praising the kids who are following instructions (“I like the way Alicia is sitting on the rug”) or giving defiant kids a limiting pair of choices (“Do you want to hold my left hand or my right hand while we cross the street?”) Negative consequences are a last resort, and should only be delivered in a gentle and consistent way.

On a Monday afternoon this spring, Center for Child Development consultant Elaine Liebman joined recess-in-progress at a playground near the Henry Street day care. She was greeted by a stampede of excited 3- and 4-year-olds, armed with creative strategies to hold her attention. They showed their big muscles and roared like dinosaurs. Two pigtailed girls argued—largely via a contest of volumes—about who had remembered Elaine’s name first.

Liebman responds with a level of energy that’s hard to imagine being sustained by the kids’ full-time teachers, who spend much of recess repeating a directive to go down the slide, rather than up it. She squats down to make eye contact, admires the loudest roars and asks kids about the flowers, trees and buildings around them.

When naptime comes, Liebman spends time with teachers in each classroom. Back in Room 302, Lei, Bella’s teacher, says it helps to have time to reflect and strategize about difficult kids. The training has given her new ideas for working with Bella—as well as more confidence in sticking to limits once she’s put them in place. “You can’t expect all kids to behave the same,” Lei says. “If we make progress with her, that’s good.”

Funding for this round of training is scheduled to run out in September 2015. The project’s evaluation will be completed by the end of the summer. So far, the results look promising, Miller says. “The best prospect is that we can show it’s possible to implement this. You can deliver the services, and it’s not that expensive.”

Beyond that, Miller says, “It needs to be integrated into the system.” 

For more information about this pilot project, contact United Neighborhood Houses

*Children's names have been changed to protect their privacy.