What Happened to You?

When I was a kid in the late 1960s and early 70s, I attended St. Rita’s school in a little town called Sierra Madre. The culture was corporal punishment and shame. It wasn’t until 5th grade that I had a teacher who did not use physical violence or terror. None of this seemed unusual. My experience was common. We found ways to navigate and survive. Kids’ stories of themselves and one another were shaped by shame and fear – those stories shaped the course of our lives. My story was that adults could not be trusted. I did not respect authority. In third grade, I told off my terrifying teacher Mrs. Smith for a punishment she gave to our entire class. I am White. I got good grades. I was middle class. Had I been Black or Brown, my guess is that I would have been seen as defiant, labeled a threat, suspended, expelled, or worse.

Like all parents, my husband and I wanted to learn a better way to be. We started taking Positive Discipline workshops a couple years into our daughter’s life. I read every book I could get my hands on about attachment parenting. Over the years, though, I learned that my nervous system had a wisdom that I hadn’t grasped, and that trauma is deep, often inter-generational, and in some cases, collective — not something you can read or workshop yourself out of.

We know more about trauma today than at any other time in human history. Thanks to the work of researchers, clinicians, and others, we understand how trauma shapes the brain and that it’s possible to buffer against toxic stress and truly heal from its traumatic effects. Much to the frustration of philanthropists and education reform experts, however, knowing about trauma and understanding how to translate that into practice and systems are not the same.

Sound Discipline founders Dr. Jody McVittie and Terry Chadsey were focused on that puzzle; how could we begin to translate what we were coming to understand about ACEs and trauma into classroom and parent/caregiver practice? How could we facilitate that change at a systems level? At that time, the conversation about trauma was not yet mainstream. Just ten years prior, in the late 1990s, Kaiser Permanente and the National Institutes of Health’s groundbreaking ACE Study produced the first evidence that traumatic experiences in childhood, without the presence of buffering support from adult caregivers, could result in long-term negative health outcomes and even premature death in adults.

The study sparked new research, new fields of practice, and new clinical approaches. In 2007, Bayview/Hunters Point (San Francisco) pediatrician, now California Surgeon General, Dr. Nadine Burke-Harris began developing a clinical model focused on prevention and healing from past chemical, physiological, and neurodevelopmental results of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). Concurrently, the neuro-science research and clinical work of Dr. Bruce Perry mapped how childhood experiences, including neglect and traumatic stress, change the biology of the brain – and therefore a child’s ability to cope and function in typical ways. His approaches to clinical work, education, and caregiving are shaping the programs of many public and nonprofit organizations – including Sound Discipline.

This year in the middle of the pandemic, Dr. Perry and Oprah Winfrey debuted a book they co-authored on trauma and the brain called What Happened to You?: Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing. Every Sound Discipline board and staff member has read it or listened to the audio version. It’s such an important contribution to human health and well-being – especially in the arena of racial equity systems change —  that we decided to make it the centerpiece of our next We Belong & Matter: Community Conversations event on December 6th.

I hope you can join this interactive conversation on Zoom, try on some brain science, and learn how it applies to your work or life. For example:

  • Trauma is not pathology – it’s what happened to us plus the meaning we make from it. It’s the body’s data that we can learn to decode instead of being a victim of it. How can we decode our body’s data?
  • Trauma responses like anxiety and depression are contagious. So is calm. We help one another co-regulate. Whole communities can co-regulate each other. How do we practice emotional regulation?
  • Love – knowing we belong and matter – is a basic human need. How can I apply a trauma lens in my family, school, workplace, everywhere?

Walking the dog, driving to the store, every chance I’ve had, I listened to and replayed the audio book. It’s helped me make sense of the present, reframe my understanding of the past, and reboot my vision of what’s possible for our future – especially for all of us adults who are trying to be the best people we can be for kids.

This month our Tips & Tools articles for educators and parents/caregivers are chock full of practical ways to put the science behind What Happened to You? to work. Want more? Register for our December 6 community conversation.


Andrea John-Smith is the Executive Director of Sound Discipline



Sound Discipline is working for a world where children know they belong and can learn and thrive.

We partner with educators, organizations, and families to transform schools into equitable learning communities.

We bring together science-based, trauma-informed, restorative, and Positive Discipline practices to facilitate change in the ways adults see and respond to students.

Courageous Educators:
We facilitate school leaders and educators to build classroom communities and model an inclusive culture school-wide that promotes student agency and well-being.

Equitable School Systems:
We coach administrators and educators to use data to identify and implement solutions that address damaging systemic patterns of inequity that target Black and brown students.

Connected Families:
We train and coach families and caregivers in a child’s life to apply solution-oriented practices that instill critical social emotional life skills.