Social Emotional Learning

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

Muffins with Mom at Cowart Elementary

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Our mothers are our first teachers, and we teach others the same lessons we learn from them.” – Caroline Kennedy

Families at Cowart Elementary School celebrated Mother’s Day with a special “Muffins with Mom” event. Big Thought teaching artist Jennifer Kindert led an art activity for moms and their students. Together, they painted a beautiful bouquet of tulips and enjoyed a delicious breakfast before school started.

Click here to view more pictures from the Cowart Elementary “Muffins with Mom” event.

Big ThoughtMuffins with Mom at Cowart Elementary