Creative Solutions

A “Creative” Approach to Trauma-Informed Practices

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By Stephanie Drenka

For more than 20 years, Big Thought has partnered with the Dallas County Juvenile Department and Southern Methodist University to provide trauma-informed job training to adjudicated young people through the arts. Through this process, youth are able to express their voice in a safe space and gain skills associated with job and college readiness such as teamwork, decision-making, problem-solving, critical thinking and communication.

Many of the young participants in this program have a high number of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and cope with chronic, heightened stress in their daily lives.

“Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs)—which include emotional or physical neglect; verbal humiliation; growing up with an addicted or mentally ill family member; and parental abandonment, divorce, or loss — can harm developing brains, predisposing them to autoimmune disease, heart disease, cancer, depression, and a number of other chronic conditions, decades after the trauma took place.” (Psychology Today)

According to research about childhood trauma, risk factors can be offset by the presence of a stable, caring adult in a child’s life. Lisa Schmidt, the founder of Creative Solutions, has been one such adult for hundreds of young people over the years.

She describes some of the symptoms that surface with trauma-affected youth:

Early childhood trauma can actually impact brain development.

One of the things we’ve seen is that 16-17-year-olds who have experienced trauma are often responding emotionally, and sometimes intellectually, like someone an average of 2-3 years younger. So, you’d see a 16-year-old responding emotionally more like a 13-year-old, having difficulty with abstract thinking.

And we see students who have shut down all emotions, and one of the only ways they can feel is in extremes— extreme ecstatic happiness or extreme anger, but there is no middle ground.

Often when you ask kids, “are you angry?” They say “No, I’m never angry” or “No, I never cry.” They’ve shut themselves off from basic healthy emotions.

They also respond to facial expressions differently. Their brains have been conditioned to read adult facial expressions as ones of anger. You may be looking at a child with a quizzical look, but they misread it as distrust. 


As the number of adverse early childhood experiences mounts, so does the risk of developmental delays. Source: Barth et al (2008).

Credit: Center on the Developing Child.

Teenagers are not the only ones who are impacted by trauma, and the symptoms are numerous.

“The more adverse experiences in childhood, the greater the likelihood of developmental delays and other problems. Adults with more adverse experiences in early childhood are also more likely to have health problems, including alcoholism, depression, heart disease, and diabetes.” (Harvard)

In order to help children and teenagers who have been affected by these adverse experiences, trauma-informed practices and models are necessary. These are typically organized around the principles of safety, trustworthiness, collaboration, and empowerment.

At Big Thought, we weave these concepts of social emotional learning into every one of our programs. Lisa founded Creative Solutions with the mantra, “It’s not where you’ve been that determines who you can become, it’s where you will go and what you will do!”

That philosophy continues to empower Creative Solutions and all of Big Thought’s work.

Big ThoughtA “Creative” Approach to Trauma-Informed Practices

The Incredible Lisa Schmidt

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By Carson Bolding

Last night, Studio Movie Grill honored Big Thought’s own Lisa Schmidt with their third annual Opening Hearts and Minds Award, an award presented to leaders who go above and beyond to create positive change in their communities. The night included a red carpet and a special screening of Incredibles 2 to honor this incredible woman.

Lisa is the founder of Creative Solutions, a program that uses performing and visual arts to teach job and college readiness skills to youth on probation. For over 30 years, Lisa has been impacting young people across the Dallas-Fort Worth area and inspiring those who work alongside her. Her influence and energy is exemplified by the words shared by her family, friends, co-workers, and students.

“[This award] acknowledges the wonderful and passionate work Lisa does. And it’s all because her heart is so full of life and joy and so much creativity to share with so many children across the Dallas metroplex.” (Mary Hernandez)

“Passionate advocate. Nobody works harder, works longer, and is more passionate about serving kids than Lisa.” (Greg MacPherson)

“When I started in the program, I was very angry. I didn’t even want to smile. But she would come up to me and break me out of that shell, make me smile, make me laugh.” (Bone García)

“Inspiring. She’s full of energy. She’s done countless things to help youth across Dallas. She motivates us to no end.” (Kristi Flanders)

“Her passion goes beyond barriers, beyond culture, beyond skin color.” (James Adams)

Click here to view more photos from this “incredible” event.

Big ThoughtThe Incredible Lisa Schmidt

Youth Voice

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By, Christian Morales

What is one thing every person has, but might not know how to use? A voice. In some way or form, everyone can express themselves. As a matter of fact, some of the most impactful voices are the ones we either refuse to acknowledge or ones that can’t physically be heard.

Big ThoughtYouth Voice

The Trauma of Bullying

By Christian Morales, Youth Development Correspondent

Everyone in some shape or form has been involved in bullying. Whether you witnessed it, were a victim or even were a bully. Kids who are bullied can experience negative physical, school, and mental health issues. I’ve seen first hand what physical issues can come from bullying, most from the amount of stress a person has. Headaches, muscle pains and contractions, digestive upset, and altered immune functionality are real effects that a person can experience through being bullied.

Big ThoughtThe Trauma of Bullying

Meet Chris: Youth Development Correspondent

We are excited to introduce a new series on the Big Thought blog from the perspective of an alumnus from our youth development programs. Chris has been participating in Creative Solutions for several years, helped create a new online platform for youth voice called We the Person, served as an AmeriCorps intern during the summer, and was part of the inaugural Artivism performing arts show this past year. Stay tuned for more of his articles in the future, and get to know him better in this first post…

Big ThoughtMeet Chris: Youth Development Correspondent

Social Emotional Learning: Developing the Whole Individual

Social emotional learning, also known as “soft skills,” isn’t a new phenomenon. But it is rapidly gaining momentum nationally as educators, employers and even economists recognize the value of developing the whole individual, not just academic readiness. In this three-part series, we look at social emotional learning from a human interest standpoint, as a burgeoning local and national movement, and as an investment in the future through a grant from The Wallace Foundation awarded to Dallas ISD and Big Thought to create SEL implementation in the district.

Social Emotional Learning At Work

Here’s a story about emotional redemption: A teenager on probation enters the Creative Solutions 2016 summer program at Southern Methodist University. He’s withdrawn, non-verbal, can’t even make eye contact. He has closed off the world in his attempt to hide behind a broken soul.

Two weeks into his work with Creative Solutions, a partnership with the Dallas County Juvenile Department, SMU and Big Thought that teaches performing and visual arts to teen probates, proves cathartic. He suddenly felt comfortable enough to write down his emotions and recount past traumas through poetry.

“A couple more weeks later and he felt safe enough to share those with his mentors,” says Allison Caldwell, Youth Development Specialist at Big Thought. “During the very last week of the program, he decided that he wanted his words published in the poetry anthology and that his poem was worthy of sharing in front of an audience. His voice shook towards the beginning, but his confidence grew as he felt the support from his peers.”

Writing was the salve, the elixir that helped this teenager overcome depression. “His story is the perfect example of the beginning of a journey towards social emotional growth,” says Caldwell. “He reflected on his emotions and experiences, connected with others, and was beginning to learn how to manage his emotions.”

There you have social emotional learning at work, its transformative powers in full throttle. But what exactly is social emotional learning, and why has it become a national buzz phrase in education? According to CASEL, The Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning, “social and emotional learning (SEL) is the process through which children and adults acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.”

Caldwell has spent more than five years applying social emotional learning to her work with Creative Solutions and DaVerse Lounge, the spoken word program for middle and high school students in partnership with Journeyman Ink.

“Social emotional skills exist on a continuum – you can never truly master a skill, rather you continue to deepen your understanding of yourself and your relationships as you practice social and emotional competencies,” she says. “All of our programs at Big Thought are infused with opportunities for kids to develop SEL skills.”

Photo: Creative Solutions students triumph onstage after last summer’s “The Island of Lost Souls” performance at Southern Methodist University. Photo by Can Turkyilmaz @turk_studio.

Big ThoughtSocial Emotional Learning: Developing the Whole Individual