Ideas to Support Children and Families Impacted by Abuse, Trauma and Divorce

Brief Overview

  • The National Education Association (NEA) recognizes that childhood experiences related to domestic abuse, trauma or divorce affect education. This article includes recommendations for teachers, family members or other adults who might advocate for a student who needs more help due to challenging life circumstances.
  • Researchers agree that a trauma-sensitive approach to special education can be critical and urge schools to approach discipline with caution in order to avoid re-traumatizing students.
  • After a divorce, both parents participate in educational decisions unless the divorce decree or another court action specifically removes a parent’s rights. This article includes tips for navigating those circumstances. A parenting plan that designates a primary parent for school interactions is one idea.
  • Schools can accommodate survivors of domestic abuse to help them participate safely in the special education process for their children. Alternative meeting spaces are among ideas further described below.

Full Article:

Students who experience trauma often have a rough time staying emotionally stable and keeping their behavior on track for learning at school. Research about Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) lists many childhood conditions that impact a person’s lifelong health and access to opportunities. High on the list are trauma from domestic abuse and divorce. For many families, complex trauma includes both.

A child’s response to trauma may look like disobedience or lack of motivation. A family member or teacher might notice that a child is regressing. A student may have delays in social communication or emotional regulation–skills schools teach in an emerging area of education called Social Emotional Learning. Some children survive severe distress but don’t demonstrate obvious changes in behavior or disrupt the classroom. In all cases, figuring out what’s happened and how to help requires a thoughtful, individualized process.

A family member, school employee or any concerned adult can respond by seeking an evaluation to determine whether the student has a disability and qualifies for services delivered through an Individualized Education Program (IEP) or a Section 504 plan.

Note: Section 504 is part of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which protects individuals with a disabling condition that impact a “major life activity.” An article on PAVE’s website further describes Section 504 and the differences between a 504 Plan and an IEP. PAVE also provides comprehensive articles and on-demand webinars about special education process, the IDEA, evaluation, and other topics listed under Learning in School at wapave.org.

A behavioral or emotional disability that significantly impacts access to learning can qualify a student for an IEP under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) if the student demonstrates a need for Specially Designed Instruction (SDI). Among the IDEA’s 14 qualifying categories of disability are Emotional Disturbance, which captures a variety of behavioral health conditions, and Other Health Impairment, which sometimes captures conditions related to attention deficit, anxiety or depression. A child who isn’t found to have a qualifying disability might benefit from a behavior support plan or counseling services at school. 

Supporting and educating students with trauma histories has become a priority for the National Education Association (NEA), with a specific focus on students who have experienced or witnessed domestic violence, sexual abuse and related traumas.

The problems are widespread: More than half of women who experience domestic violence have children younger than 12, and data indicate that nearly half of those children witnessed the abuse.

Response to a child’s symptoms may be complicated by cultural considerations: Some cultures may be more accepting of abuse, less trusting of authorities or afraid of the fallout within the community. An agency in Washington that helps when multicultural issues create barriers is Open Doors for Multicultural Families.

Best Practice Strategies to Help

On its website, the NEA offers an article: Best practices for supporting and educating students who have experienced domestic violence or sexual victimization. The article provides strategies to support traumatized students. Here is a summary of some points:

  • Provide structure, a sense of security and a safety plan: “Children who experience abuse often yearn for structure and predictability.”
  • Help students understand available support and the teacher’s role as a mandated reporter: “The larger the number of people available to listen to a student, the more likely that student is to disclose abuse.”
  • Validate and reassure the student: “Provide non-judgmental, validating statements if a student discloses information. Sample statements include That must have been scary or It must be difficult to see that happening.”
  • Identify triggers of anxiety or challenging behavior: “…be prepared for negative emotions and behaviors from the student in response to triggers.”
  • Use a daily Check In to provide a solid foundation for relationship building: “It can be helpful to use pictures or a rating scale to help students identify and label their emotional states.”
  • Directly teach problem solving skills: “Be honest with students about how you’re feeling and talk through your actions in response to challenging situations.”

Domestic Abuse is Common

Understanding the nature and prevalence of domestic abuse can grow compassion, combat stigma and promote shared problem-solving. The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV), defines domestic violence as “willful intimidation, physical assault, battery, sexual assault, and/or other abusive behavior as part of a systematic pattern of power and control perpetrated by one intimate partner against another.”

Acts of domestic violence can be physical, sexual, threatening, emotional or psychological.  Statistically, 1 in 4 women and 1 in 9 men experience some form of domestic violence; its prevalence is noted among all people regardless of age, socio-economic status, sexual orientation, gender, race, religion, or nationality.

How to Notice Something is Wrong

When domestic abuse impacts a child’s access to education, figuring out how to help requires thoughtful consideration. The NEA describes specific characteristics of children who have experienced trauma and how their ability to function is compromised. Here is a summary from NEA’s article:

Regulation

  • Children may find it hard to explain their emotional reactions to situations and events.
  • They may appear inattentive or hyperactive—or fluctuate between both.
  • Loud or busy activities can trigger a confusing reaction: a child might lose control about something that is usually a favorite.

Social Skills

  • Children may have “disordered social skills,” playing inappropriately or lacking typical boundaries.
  • They may withdraw socially or try to control situations in ways that seem rude or look like bullying.
  • They might develop “friendships” based on negativity and be unable to develop high-quality, appropriate friends.

Cognitive Function

  • Children impacted by trauma may be mentally overwhelmed and struggle to follow directions or shift from one activity to another, even with prompting. (Adults may mislabel these cognitive inabilities as deliberate or defiant behaviors.)
  • Children may overly depend on others but struggle to ask for help.
  • An impaired working memory can make it difficult for the child to start or finish a task, pay attention and/or concentrate.

Evaluate with Trauma in Mind

The Federation for Children with Special Needs provides a downloadable article called Trauma Sensitivity During the IEP Process. The article provides suggestions for making the evaluation process trauma sensitive and includes this statement:

“By becoming aware that violence may be at the heart of many of the child’s learning and behavioral difficulties, school personnel may be able to mitigate much of the lasting impact of trauma.”

The federation urges schools to approach discipline with caution in order to avoid re-traumatizing students and encourages use of the Functional Behavioral Assessment tool and a framework of Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS):

“Self-regulation describes the ability of a child to ‘put the brakes on’ in times of emotional stress. Traumatized children are hyper-aroused; they view their world as dangerous and unpredictable and they are prepared to react in a moment’s notice, usually in inappropriate (and possibly unsafe) ways…IEP Team Meeting members can go a long way towards ameliorating this hyper-arousal by asking for Functional Behavioral Assessments to ascertain the reason for the inappropriate reactions as well as ways to replace the behaviors with better coping skills and strategies.”

A trauma-informed approach at school meetings can help the team figure out why unexpected behaviors happen or why academic progress seems so hard to achieve. Promoting healthy relationships by designing intentional time with trusted adults and developing a creative strategy for Social Emotional Learning (SEL) at school are strategies the team can discuss. A trauma-informed approach, the federation contends, “encourages educators to ask, What happened to you? instead of What’s wrong with you?

When Divorce Complicates Work with the School

Another domestic issue that sometimes complicates circumstances for families navigating special education is divorce. The US Department of Education stresses that parents or legal guardians are decision-makers for their children. Whether parents are married or separated, they both are equal decision-makers in special education process unless the divorce decree or another court action specifically removes that right.

A parenting plan can be written with specific instructions about which parent is the educational decision maker.

The school needs a copy of the parenting plan in order to follow it. Without a plan in place, either parent who shares joint legal custody can sign an educational document that requires parental consent, even if the student lives full time with only one parent. Parental rights include access to records and educational information about the student. A non-custodial parent has the right to be informed of meetings and attend meetings.

Parents with joint custody who share parenting decisions may want to draft an agreement with the school to specify how the child’s time is divided and which parent is responsible for specific days, activities or meetings.

Schools Can Offer Safe Space

If one partner has been abused and there is no restraining order to prevent the non-custodial parent from attending school meetings, schools can accommodate the domestic abuse survivor by offering a separate meeting in a different space, at a separate time.

If a parent is bound by a restraining order, the IEP team will need to determine whether the order limits access to the school building and whether the order specifies that the parent has lost rights under the IDEA. If the order limits building access, but does not limit IDEA rights, then that parent has the right to attend a meeting in another space or by phone. A restraining order might include “no contact” with the child, and the meeting must ensure that the child’s safe distance from the parent is protected.  

Visit the following websites for additional information:

Access Rights of Parents of Students Eligible for Special Education (Washington State)

Best practices for supporting and educating students who have experienced domestic violence or sexual victimization.

In the Best Interests of the Child: Individualized Education Program (IEP) Meetings When Parents Are In Conflict (PDF)

Divorce: It Can Complicate Children’s Special Education Issues

Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs)

Trauma Sensitivity During the IEP Process (PDF)

Trauma Informed Schools Resources (OSPI)

Introduction to Special Education

 

The process of special education can feel overwhelming for parents already working hard to manage home and medical challenges. This presentation is for parents of students ages 3-21, with known or suspected disabilities, who may have unique educational needs that require additional supports and services through an Individualized Education Program (IEP) or a Section 504 Plan. This information can help parents participate in decision-making with schools by understanding basic principles of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

For an additional video about communication strategies for collaborating with the school, watch PAVE’s video, Parents as Partners with the School.

Families and Youth Have a Voice on Mental Health Matters Through FYSPRT

A Brief Overview

  • FYSPRT (pronounced fiss-burt) is a hard acronym to learn, but it’s worth the effort for families and young people who want to talk about improving mental healthcare systems.
  • Here’s what FYSPRT means: Family members, Youth and System Partners (professionals) get together at a “Round Table” (meaning everyone has an equal voice) to talk about issues related to emotional distress, mental illness and/or substance-use disorder. All participants share ideas about what helps and what could make things better.
  • The Washington State Health Care Authority (HCA) provides a map of the 10 FYSPRT regions and includes contact information for local leaders and a schedule of where/when meetings are held.
  • FYSPRT began after a class-action lawsuit against the state, TR v Dreyfus. The litigation resulted in development of the state’s out-patient mental-health services program for youth—Wraparound with Intensive Services (WISe).
  • FYSPRT is a place where families provide feedback about WISe, but all community members are welcome—regardless of age or agency affiliation.
  • Some regional FYSPRTs sponsor separate meetings and social events for youth.

Full Article

Parents and young people who struggle with emotional distress, mental illness and/or substance-use disorder can feel powerless to affect change in a complicated medical system. The Family, Youth and System Partner Round Table (FYSPRT) provides a meeting space for family members and professionals to talk about what’s working and what isn’t working in mental healthcare. The groups also provide informal networking and can provide ways for families to meet up and support one another under challenging circumstances.

The state sponsors 10 FYSPRT groups to serve every county: A list of the groups and which counties they serve is included at the end of this article. Each group reports to a statewide FYSPRT, which provides information to state government to influence policy. The Washington State Health Care Authority (HCA) provides a map of the FYSPRT regions and includes contact information for local leaders and a schedule of where/when meetings are held.

FYSPRT began as part of a class-action lawsuit against the state, referred to as TR v Dreyfus. The litigation began in 2009, and settlements were mediated in 2012-13. The federal court found that Washington wasn’t providing adequate mental-health services to youth and required that the state start delivering intensive community-based mental-health treatment. The state responded by developing the Wraparound with Intensive Services (WISe) program for youth under 21 who are eligible for Medicaid. WISe teams provide a wide range of therapies and supports with a goal to keep the young person out of the hospital, which costs more and can be traumatizing.

Young people under 18 who need residential care are referred to the Children’s Long-Term Inpatient program: PAVE’s website provides an article about CLIP.

To provide accountability for the delivery of WISe services, the state created FYSPRT as a forum for families to provide feedback about how the program is working. The mission is to provide an equal platform for everyone within the community to strengthen resources and create new approaches to address behavioral needs of children and youth.

 

FYSPRT provides a space where youth impacted by behavioral health issues and their family members can share ideas about what works well and what would work better. The FYSPRT model is based on the belief that everyone’s unique perspective is equally important, and everyone is invited. For many parents and youth, FYSPRT becomes a place to bond and connect to support one another. Some regional FYSPRTs include separate meetings for youth, and those groups can become a key social outlet.

 

FYSPRT meetings are open to all interested community members. Each community has unique participants depending on what agencies work in the cities and towns within the region.

Staff who serve families through WISe are key participants. Other attendees are case managers from the state’s Medicaid-provider agencies, behavioral health counselors, foster-care workers, staff of homeless programs and staff and volunteers from affiliates of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). Other participants are leaders of support groups for youth in recovery or working with issues related to gender identity or sexuality. PAVE staff are regular attendees in many regions, and PAVE manages the Salish FYSPRT program.

Every area of the state of Washington has its own FYSPRT, overseen by the Health Care Authority.  Each of the ten FYSPRT regions is comprised of a single county or up to eight adjoining counties. In order to create greater participation from the general public, transportation and childcare stipends are available for families and youth in most areas. Some groups provide free meals for everyone and/or gift card incentives for the families and young people who attend.

Here are links to each regional FYSPRT’s website and a list of the counties each represents:

Great Rivers Regional FYSPRT – Cowlitz, Grays Harbor, Lewis, Pacific

HI-FYVE – Pierce

King County’s Family Youth Council – King

North Central Washington FYSPRT – Chelan, Douglas, Grant, Okanogan

North Sound Youth and Family Coalition – Island, San Juan, Snohomish, Skagit, Whatcom

Northeast FYSPRT – Adams, Ferry, Lincoln, Pend Oreille, Spokane, Stevens

Salish FYSPRT – Clallam, Jefferson, Kitsap

Southeast FYSPRT – Asotin, Benton, Columbia, Franklin, Garfield, Kittitas, Whitman, Yakima

Southwest FYSPRT – Clark, Klickitat, Skamania

System of Care Partnership – Mason, Thurston

Parents as Partners with the School

 

Parents partner with schools when they work together on a team to design and support an Individualized Education Program (IEP). The federal law that governs special education is the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The IDEA describes parent participation in the IEP process as a primary principle. However, not every meeting feels collaborative to every family. This presentation provides information about how to participate as part of a team and what parents can do when they disagree with school decisions.

For a foundational video about the IDEA, IEPs and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, watch PAVE’s video, Introduction to Special Education.

Families with Disability Concerns Take Extra Care when Planning for Emergencies

A Brief Overview

  • All families prepare for emergencies, but extra planning is critical when a loved one has a disability.
  • For people with disabilities, The Red Cross provides a page dedicated to disaster safety that takes a step-by-step approach. Included are guidelines for creating a personal assessment and registering with a local emergency assistance program.
  • Virginia Commonwealth University offers an Emergency Preparedness Tool Kit for People with Disabilities through its university center called Partnership for People with Disabilities. The downloadable, 29-page booklet includes checklists and resources.
  • The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), an agency of the United States Department of Homeland Security, also provides a downloadable brochure: Preparing Makes Sense for People with Disabilities.
  • Read on for additional resources and ideas about how to be informed and organized, with a disability-specific toolkit and emergency plans that are ready to roll if something unexpected does occur.

Full Article

Earthquake, volcanic eruption, fire, flood, terrorist attack, power failure, pandemic… Although rare, the possibility of a major catastrophe can stress a family that may already struggle with special circumstances on a day-to-day basis. Planning for a possible emergency by being informed and prepared can alleviate some of the stress and create a plan for everyone’s safety if something unexpected does occur.

To be fully prepared, a family may need an emergency plan and a survival kit to support to a loved one with additional needs that are specific to a disability. Following are guidelines for getting organized and ready, with each person’s individualized needs in mind.

Be informed

Consider which emergencies are most likely. The Red Cross provides information on a page titled Be Informed to help determine which types of emergencies are most likely in a designated community. Some areas are more prone to forest fires, floods or earthquakes, for example. Consider whether local public systems share information or alert the public if something is happening or about to happen. Will there be a telephone alert or a broadcasted siren? Will there be an emergency broadcast to tune in? The Emergency Alert System (EAS) includes a statewide list of radio stations that broadcast emergency alerts by area.

Consider whether there are shelters nearby, or an evacuation route. The Red Cross encourages people to download the agency’s mobile app to receive local alerts that can include emergency-specific instructions in real time.

Make a plan

Create escape routes that are accessible to everyone within the household. Choose a meet-up spot after everyone has evacuated the home, property, or neighborhood. Consider accessibility based on the entire family’s needs: For example, will someone need to arrive at the meet-up spot by wheelchair? If someone will need a helper to evacuate, designate a helper and a back-up person to provide that support.

Tell emergency contacts about the family’s plan. Consider telling neighbors or nearby friends about where medications or mobility assistance devices (crutches, wheelchairs, walkers) are stored in case help is needed to get those things. The plan includes what may happen before, during and after a disaster.

The Red Cross provides a template for a 3-step plan, to be shared and verified with everyone who might be involved or recruited to help:

  1. All household members discuss how to prepare and respond to the types of emergencies most likely to happen where they live, learn, work and play.
  2. Identify responsibilities for each member of the household and plan a way to work as a team.
  3. Practice as many elements of the plan as possible.

Build a kit

Supplies that are organized and carefully chosen can make a big difference for survival and comfort when emergencies happen. Here are a few basics that can be stored strategically (in a backpack ready-to-grab or at a meet-up location, for example).

  • Shelf-stable food and water
  • First-aid kit
  • Extra clothing
  • Flashlight and batteries
  • Medications
  • Sleeping bags
  • Copies of important documents

The Department of Homeland Security manages a page called Build a Kit with more ideas. FEMA provides suggestions for additional items that can cater to individualized needs. For families with specific dietary restrictions or allergies, Legacy Foods provides resources and ideas. Other options for emergency preparation supplies include: Emergency Kits.com, Stealth Angel, and The Red Cross.

For people with disabilities, The Red Cross  also has a page dedicated to disaster safety that takes a step-by-step approach. Included are guidelines for creating a personal assessment and registering with a local emergency assistance program.

Virginia Commonwealth University offers an Emergency Preparedness Tool Kit for People with Disabilities through a university center, Partnership for People with Disabilities. The downloadable booklet includes checklists and resources.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), an agency of the United States Department of Homeland Security, provides a downloadable brochure: Preparing Makes Sense for People with Disabilities.

Get Involved

Planning for emergencies is not a one-and-done process. Families need to review plans and update kits regularly. Practicing the plan can create confidence that all are on the same page about what to do and where to go. Family members can quiz one another about the plan and keep in touch with neighbors and community members who might be called to help.

Being prepared for an emergency takes time and organization, but a thoughtful plan can help everyone be safer and more confident if called to respond.