New Washington Law Aims To Help Children Who Experience Trauma

Mar 22, 2018

The playground at Wellspring Family Services in Seattle looks like a pretty happy place, with two and three-year-olds climbing on a jungle gym and zooming around on scooters. But it’s not always so peaceful here.

Bevette Irvis, the director of the Early Learning Center, tells the story of a boy who came to school the day after he had watched his Dad hold a knife to his Mom’s throat.

"The child actually took a small plastic knife and was holding it up to the neck of one of the little girls in the classroom,” Irvis said.

“He was crashing things in the classroom, a lot of yelling and repeating the words that he had heard his dad using towards his Mom.”

The kids here come from tough backgrounds. Most of their families are homeless. More than half of them have witnessed domestic violence.

And often, those experiences of childhood trauma result in behaviors that are extremely disruptive in the classroom.

“Some children will express trauma by acting out in big ways-- swearing, hitting their friends, hitting their teachers, throwing chairs, big behaviors that are really obvious,” said Megan Beers, the senior director of Early Childhood Services at Wellspring. At other times, kids may respond to trauma by withdrawing inwards, she said.

Wellspring teachers are trained to recognize the signs of trauma. Oftentimes, they respond to big behaviors by asking a simple question: Where is this behavior coming from? The goal is to understand how to address the causes, rather than just stop them from acting out. 

Trauma-informed childcare

Wellspring was one of the backers of a new law that would help early childhood providers in state learn how to deal with childhood trauma.

Supporters of the law believe that it could reduce the high rate of expulsions in preschools and day cares. There aren’t good numbers for Washington state, but a national study found that preschool kids are three times as likely to be expelled as school-age kids.

"Oftentimes, the childcare providers are put in a terrible position, in order to maintain the safety of the other kids, they are compelled to expel the one,” said Melanie Smith, a lobbyist who testified in favor of the new law.

The new law requires the state come up with a five-year plan to train caregivers in what’s called trauma-informed childcare. The plan would also seek to raise the state reimbursement rates for childcare providers that specialize in that level of care.  

An advisory group must report back to the legislature with its draft plan by November 1, 2018.

This story has been updated.