Last week, the world watched as thousands of children were separated from their parents as they sought to cross the border into the United States. With only scant footage of cages and audio of children screaming, there was a collective outrage that the Department of Homeland Security would resort to this escalation of migrant detention and family separation.

Since Wednesday, President Trump ended the policy of family separation and replaced it with a policy of family detention. Though the President said it would keep families together going forward, it is not clear when or how soon currently separated families will be reunited.

With this complex issue at hand and the myriad of effects on all involved and watching, we decided to get input from two Teachers College Press authors, Leigh Patel and Karen Gross.

Leigh Patel, author of Youth Held at the Border: Immigration, Education, and the Politics of Inclusion, is the Associate Dean of Equity and Justice at the University of Pittsburgh School of Education.

Karen Gross, author of Breakaway Learners: Strategies for Post-Secondary Success with At-Risk Students, is a trauma expert and a Washington, DC–based advisor and consultant to non-profit schools, organizations, and governments. She was president of Southern Vermont College and senior policy advisor to the United States Department of Education.

We first turned to Leigh Patel and asked, “In your opinion, what type of position are immigrant children and families in and has that position changed since your book, Youth Held at the Border, came out in 2013?”

Leigh Patel: When I wrote about the varied challenges, victories, and roadblocks experienced by migrant youth in Youth Held at the Border, one of my main points was that these young people had mostly learned and been deeply affected by the United States before they migrated. Some migrated with their families. Others were sent by their families, for concern of safety and well-being. I wrote that book when President Obama was in office and critiqued that administration for shattering deportation records, and that included separation of some families. What we have been witnessing is, in that sense, not unprecedented, but it is next level, with children and families being used as pawns for international economic interests and domestic political grandstanding. It is in distinct in its shape and purpose but it is also connected to the unseemly this nation has with separating Indigenous children from their parents and placing them in government boarding schools and selling enslaved children, ripping family bonds.

The tendency, and I think the soul, of the outrage at watching children being separated from their families and held in privately-run cages, is that these children are innocent. There is no doubt, from extant research evidence and common sense, that prying children from already vulnerable families will only create shockwaves of trauma for these children. Schools and educators will need better, perhaps initial, education about why thousands of families are fleeing their homes and why loving parents would risk sending their children on dangerous journeys.

In the press briefing on June 18, 2018, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Nielsen was asked if she believed that the holding conditions would be considered child abuse, and she responded that a large portion of the children had arrived without their families, verily removing the culpability of the federal government from any charge of family separation. What is missing from this statement, though, is that intertwined economic and political practices have created dangerous conditions for many in Central American countries. No parent would willingly send their child on a dangerous and unsure journey and endure the heart-wrench of separation unless there were dire conditions in their homeplace. Our nation’s educators need to understand these histories and current conditions that create vulnerable migrants seeking safety.

Teachers will also need preparation for supporting the socioemotional needs of children who have suffered deplorable conditions of privatized detention. Teachers who may not yet have considered how incarceration of parents in any kind of prison impacts their children should be moved to consider how this kind of separation and treatment of families has myriad negative effects.

This crisis presents an opportunity to understand the consequences of a nation that has many versions of incarceration, including prisons, detention centers, and makeshift holding facilities like the ones that have been most recently created.

I also encourage educators, and the public at large, to be careful of winnowing their reaction and demands of justice based on the ‘innocence’ of these children. As the Dreamers movement and migration scholars have documented for years, to cast some migrants as innocent means that others must be guilty. This is an ambiguous line to walk, one that dovetails with respectability politics, delineating who deserves human basic rights. When we engage in deciding who is innocent, who is worthy of a country that proclaims meritocracy but does not deal with its history, we distance ourselves from redressing past and present harm. What we are witnessing is not, to paraphrase Mariame Kaba, a crisis about innocent children; it is about the shattering of human dignity.

Building on the topic of teacher preparation for supporting the social-emotional needs of children we contacted Karen Gross and asked, “What advice or tips do you have for educators at this moment in time, especially for those who interact with immigrant children on a daily basis?”

Karen Gross: Folks near and far know the deep psychological and physiological price of separation between children and their regular caregivers. The consequences are real, palpable and frightening. Children become traumatized; it affects their hard and soft brain wiring; they lose precious attachments that leave them anxious, panicked and traumatized. If you look at the Adverse Childhood Experience scores (ACEs) you will see that separation and divorce are among the predictors of toxic stress and trauma in children.

The separation and trauma experienced by the children actually being detained is felt not only by these immigrant children. It is felt by many others; this is vicarious and secondary trauma. For example, it may be felt by children and families who are immigrants in this country who sense danger and are fearful, whether or not warranted.  It may be felt by many adults who had unpleasant separations from their own parents decades ago. It can be felt by children who have lost their own parents – whether through illness or accidents or addiction or imprisonment or death or divorce.

So, not only do we have to deal with the trauma of the kids detained but also we need parents and educators to be keenly aware of the behaviors of all children this summer. As we enter the coming school year, which begins in July and August in some locations (and yes, there is summer school too), vicarious and secondary traumas need to be recognized and addressed. It is not simply a matter of keeping kids away from seeing and hearing television. It is focusing on their changed behavior, changed feelings, insomnia, nightmares and increasing physical illness. There can also be an absence of capacity to concentrate, to read, to engage fully with others – most especially strangers.

It is for all these reasons that I think it is critically important for teachers, parents, social workers, baby sitters and others engaged with children to keep a keen eye and ear out for trauma’s tentacles. If ever there were a time for trauma sensitive schools, a topic addressed at length by Susan E. Craig, the time is now.

Trauma diffusion strategies for all children in need include, but are not limited to, re-centering (stabilization), breathing with deliberateness, using all senses, re-directing thinking and focus — even for several minutes — through music, dance and drawing. Watching ice melt in one’s hands or drawing with one’s non-dominant hand can all be used to help kids move from their traumatized state into a less panicked state. Some of these strategies are described here in greater detail.

The most important approach, though, is engaging children with a reliable trustworthy adult who is present and will remain present. Reciprocity, although perhaps initially one-sided, is the most important tool for helping children (and adults too) experiencing the effects of trauma. 

So, while the detained children will have lasting effects that need interventions by trained psychologists and psychiatrists and pediatricians (assuming those are available and affordable which seems questionable at best), the rest of us – especially those trained in trauma and trauma response – can seek to help ALL children affected by the fear of separation, the memories it evokes and the behaviors it engenders.

While not a panacea, I’ll end here with three strategies that can be deployed to help vicariously traumatized children: (1) curb repeated viewing of and hearing about the separations of children from their adult caregivers; (2) engage children with a myriad of thoughtfully constructed activities (both mental and physical using all their senses) to help them re-center and calm their panic; and (3) enable reciprocity to be developed between the vicariously traumatized children and consistent, trustworthy and engaging and sensitive adults.

The challenges facing all traumatized children are real – whether the traumas are primary or vicarious.  Looking ahead to the next generation of children and their children, we must ask ourselves: will our nation’s teachers be trauma trained and trauma sensitive? The absence of parents or the fear of absence, the lack of consistent education or full engagement in educational offerings and the absolute need for trained professionals in trauma recovery should move us to act now.


Teachers College Press would like to thank Leigh Patel and Karen Gross for their generous contributions on these important issues.