When Trauma Walks In: Creating Welcoming Spaces by Recognizing Adverse Childhood Experiences

Trauma-informed approaches can help librarians better understand and respond to young patrons' behavioral issues.

At Georgia’s Athens-Clarke County Library (l. to r.): Akilah Blount, B.E.E. Club coordinator; Olivia Ricketts, intern; Valerie Bell, executive director, Athens Regional Library System; Simone Moonsammy and Lydia Hall, interns.
Photo by Rhiannon B. Eades /Athens-Clarke County Library


“At Denver Public Library [DPL], trauma walks through our doors every day,” says Elissa Hardy, licensed clinical social worker and DPL community resource manager.

As a result, throughout the library system, social workers and peer navigators train staff on how to view potentially difficult patron encounters through a trauma-informed lens. “What might appear to be a behavior ‘problem’ may actually be how an individual—including children—has learned to cope in their world,” Hardy says.

Instead of lamenting, “What is wrong with this person?” trauma-informed approaches consider, “What happened to this person?” The goal is to appreciate that early trauma—known as adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs—may contribute to disruptive or damaging behavior.

Measuring ACEs

ACEs include physical, sexual, and emotional abuse, neglect, violence, death of a family member, and other factors. Any of these can have significant, lifelong impacts on physical and mental health, personal and professional development, and education. These effects were first documented in an Adverse Childhood Experiences Study conducted by Kaiser Permanente and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Information from that study has since been translated into an ACE Quiz that can help assess an individual’s exposure to trauma. High ACE scores indicate a high number of traumatic experiences.

To help families better understand this, DPL’s early learning department also teaches parents about the effects of trauma on a child’s developing brain. Hardy thinks that all libraries should provide more programming aimed at helping youth. Social workers, community organizations, and local universities that offer training and information on trauma-informed techniques can help.

“Often we hear comments like, “Those children are bothering the customers,” Hardy says. “[These] children are our customers too, and we must see them as such.”

Lauren Dotson Davis, Ed.D., assistant professor of curriculum and instruction at Montana State University, agrees that trauma-informed approaches are important for youth in the library.

“As a former school administrator, I saw too many resource specialists unintentionally escalate situations with traumatized children because they did not have the proper tools to address their unspoken needs,” she says.

Those needs are significant. Data show that 45 percent of U.S. children have experienced at least one ACE, while 10 percent have experienced three or more ACEs. High ACE scores can hamper various aspects of daily life, including a child’s ability to transition from one situation to the next.

“Even a slight change in schedule for kids’ visit to the school library is enough to trigger some students,” Dotson Davis says.

Dotson Davis tells the story of a kindergartner who had experienced horrific situations at home, had no self-restraint in class, and told her he didn’t understand “why he was so bad.”

“I explained that he was a good boy and that sometimes, like a glitter jar, his emotions get all stirred up and the glitter goes everywhere,” she says.

To help “settle the student’s glitter,” Dotson Davis employed trauma-informed techniques including brain breaks (quick opportunities or activities to change mental or physical focus) and having him go to calm corners (quiet, safe areas for de-escalation of emotion).

In terms of implementing similar approaches in the school library, Dotson Davis encourages librarians to read extensively on varied trauma-informed approaches and to consider how school-wide frameworks already in place (e.g., Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports; PBIS) might be tweaked for their needs.

“School librarians may also want to develop a library section of stories for kids with high ACE scores with help from the school counselor and social worker,” Dotson Davis adds. “These stories can help students develop coping strategies that work for them.”

Helping young people develop effective coping strategies is part of the focus of a partnership between Athens-Clarke County Library—the first trauma-informed public library in Georgia—and the University of Georgia (UGA) School of Social Work.

In addition to the presence of UGA social work interns in the library and comprehensive trauma training for staff, Athens-Clarke will address female childhood trauma through a yearlong afterschool peer mentoring program.

Founded by UGA alum Akilah Blount, the B.E.E. (Becoming Empowered through Education) Club is designed to help at-risk girls navigate adolescence, high school, social media, and relationships. Participants hear from speakers, take field trips, and receive guidance on everything from getting into college to building self-confidence.

“The real gift of this program is that it utilizes peers to effect positive change and is self-sustaining through that mentorship,” says Valerie Bell, executive director of Athens Regional Library System. Studies show that positive mentoring can foster a sense of connectedness that can help counter trauma.

In B.E.E., girls who are juniors and seniors mentor freshmen and sophomore girls. Mentors focus on inclusive communication in a supportive environment with wraparound supports stemming from the library’s trauma-informed perspective.

Blount is involved in all aspects of the library’s trauma-informed approach and training and will also incorporate those lessons into the B.E.E. curriculum.

Athens-Clarke also pays close attention to staff well-being. “Sometimes a difficult patron encounter can lead staff to feel vulnerable, shaken, hurt, or even angry,” Bell says.

To help, the library will offer self-care training—techniques to help staff feel empowered, competent, and confident when dealing with high-trauma patrons.

This holistic approach will be supported by the UGA School of Social Work, which Bell says has the knowledge and established agency and organizational partnerships to provide training and assistance. “The goal is to minimize stress and have staff be able to move through, and after, the day without internalizing the encounters,” Bell says.

In Denver, Hardy also trains library staff on resiliency and self-care. “Being exposed to trauma has an effect on us even when we think it doesn’t,” she says.

In terms of the bottom line, Hardy thinks that the most important thing school and public libraries can do is embrace that trauma is real.

“We are exposed to it every day, and recognition and acceptance of that is vital,” she says.

Kelley R. Taylor has been a business and education writer for more than a decade.

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Kim Kroll

Outstanding idea. I have been trying to find someone to train my staff to deal with these type of issues for a while now. How did you get buy in from social agencies?

Posted : Apr 04, 2019 09:19



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