Waldorf Emergency and Trauma Pedagogy Comes to the US How Trauma-Informed Care Works for Children Living in Poverty by Ida Oberman

The term “Emergency Pedagogy” is one that has emerged over the past fifteen years to coincide with the dramatic increase in natural disasters, such as the Philippines befallen by earthquakes in 2018 and the cyclone in Mozambique as recently as April 2019. What evolved through a Waldorf educational approach provided healing for many children.

How it all began Stuttgart 2006

As host for the Soccer World Championship, 2006 was a proud year for Stuttgart, Germany, the birthplace of Waldorf education. To leverage this proud moment, the Stuttgart mayor turned to its Waldorf schools, and asked if they would organize a UNESCO World Youth Festival. The Waldorf school leadership successfully launched this festival, so at the time of the games, Stuttgart was filled with youth from Waldorf schools around the world.

All was joyous till news of the Lebanon war of 2006 broke into the city’s festival joy. Faced with the erupting war zone, children from a Waldorf school in Lebanon could not return home. The city quickly did all it could to make them feel comfortable and at home, from offering them free lodging to movies, ice cream, and attention.  As time wore on, the children withered in homesickness for their families, and the families asked for the return of their children.

While the city hosts were reluctant to let the children return to a war zone, when the families insisted, the city agreed to return them with a Waldorf leadership team to accompany them. One of the co-organizers, Mr. Bernd Ruf, agreed to lead the expedition to return the children safely to their families.

The trip was full of suspense and travail through Syria, finally returning the children safely to their families in Lebanon. The story would have ended there were it not for Bernd Ruf, who for the first time, saw the trauma of war in children’s eyes. He recognized this same gaze from the children and youth who came to the Parzival School in Karlsruhe. At that time, Bernd Ruf was the founder of the Parsifal House, a Waldorf school for marigold children and youth; co-founder of the Karlsruhe Waldorf School; and a graduate of the Stuttgart Waldorf Teacher Training program.

Bernd knew quickly how much could be done in those first days. His team gathered to make a  child-friendly space where children could come together with his team, sing and clap to the rhythm and do simple changes.  Then, Bernd returned to Karlsruhe to assemble a diverse team that included a Waldorf teacher, a welder, social workers and doctors. The team returned to Lebanon to begin the first Emergency Pedagogy intervention in the refugee camp outside of Beirut to work with children. One intervention quickly followed with more:  China in ]2006, Gaza strip 2009-2013;,Indonesia 2009, Haiti 2010, Kyrgyzstan 2010, Japan 2011, and Kenya 2012-2014.

In a town in Kyrgyzstan, the police noticed a dip in the level of violence in the community. First they assumed the data was wrong. Then, they noticed that fewer inhabitants were in the community at that time, but the data remained relatively constant. The one significant change was that those were the months that the Friends of Waldorf Emergency Pedagogy team were among them.  Playing with the children was impacting the parents, the families and the whole village.  This was the beginning of what we know today as Emergency Pedagogy.  The outreach team became formally known as the Friends of Waldorf Education to address psychologically traumatized children in war-torn and disaster areas. Their goal was to ensure the psycho-social stabilization of the victims by helping them to process the traumatizing experiences they had to live through.

How Emergency Pedagogy came to Oakland, California in 2013

As Emergency Pedagogy spread its wings across the globe, in refugee camps and areas beset by natural and human disasters, another development was afoot in Oakland, California. Ida Oberman, a Dutch born graduate of the Tubingen Waldorf School (two hours from Karlsruhe), completed the Stuttgart teacher training and ventured off to New York City with the hope of extending Waldorf’s roots to the underserved in the United States. Her dream was to open Waldorf schools to serve marginalized children and youth in US inner cities.

After ten years in New York as a teacher and working with others to build up public urban Waldorf options, Ida went to the west coast. Her first stop was to earn her PhD at Stanford University on the birth and spread of Waldorf education. Next, she joined a community-based organization called, Faith in Action (formerly PICO), with the goal to lead in the opening of one of the country’s first public urban Waldorf schools.

After passing the great hurdles politically and practically to have an urban public Waldorf school approved as a K-8 charter school, Ida and her colleagues met a deeper level of challenge in applying a Waldorf approach to urban youth. Children did not just fall in line to follow the teacher’s song; nor did they silently roll their beeswax while their fellow classmates were rolling on the floor or sobbing.  Was Waldorf ready to meet these children? Were these children too traumatized for a Waldorf education?

Ida knew that in its deep fiber, Waldorf was uniquely resourced to meet trauma, but she knew she needed capacity builders and guides. Because Waldorf schools in the US were largely based in well-resourced neighborhoods, the question of how to meet children in poverty with acute trauma needs was not a common practice in the greater Waldorf community.  However, that is exactly what the children coming to Community School in Oakland, California were seeking and asking of the adults who taught them.

One night, Ida sat down with her computer and went to the source from which she had received so much wisdom over the years of her work, to the site of Friends of Waldorf Education. There she was surprised not only by the stories of schools around the world, and descriptions of Waldorf education that held meaning around the world, but also by a new page of Emergency and Trauma Pedagogy. Seeing the photos of the work the teams were doing in Lebanon, Gaza, and Kyrgyzstan, she knew she had to ask that the Friends of Waldorf Education come to Oakland, California.

Ida’s message to the team was simple: please come to Oakland to help a young school in a community of trauma. It was a brazen ask.  The school was in its second year, had just moved from the higher wealth community where they had been placed, to the Oakland flatlands where they intended to be.  The families who won the charter were from this area, one troubled with human trafficking, drug users, and homeless encampments.  Thus, the school had just lost many students from families who did not want to travel to this area. Ida knew how expensive it would be to have the team come to Oakland,but she had to ask and they came.

Bernd Ruf and his team came in 2013 and now come every other year to conduct seminars for teachers, talks for families, workshops for neighborhood faith leaders, and workshops for community organizers. Since then, a strong relationship has developed with several community-based organizations including Faith in Action East Bay leadership, Intertribal Friendship House, Oakland Head Start, Waldorf Alliance, and San Francisco Waldorf School.

Going Deep: Launch of Teacher Training Certificate Course in July, 2018

The moment came in 2018 when we realized we needed to move into a more formal framework for teacher development around this work of trauma-informed care. Through a partnership with Mills College, Community School was able to become the lab school for this new Mills Waldorf Professional Development Teaching Certificate.  With the founding of the Mills Waldorf Professional Development Certificate, Bernd Ruf and Reinaldo Nascimento came for a full week to teach at Mills College.  The first week of this two-week course is dedicated to Waldorf Emergency and Trauma pedagogy.  The second week is a course offered by the acclaimed Professor Jost Schieren of the Alanus University in Alfter, Germany, who leads the international network of universities offering master’s and PhD degrees in Waldorf Education.

  1. Going Far: Launch of California/US Team in December, 2018

It was Thanksgiving week 2018, and all were taking a well-needed rest, when Ida received an email from Karlsruhe that the Friends of Waldorf team had been watching the tragic fires which held Paradise, California in its grip. Bernd asked if there might be a team from Community School that would be ready to use their training and experience to travel the three hours to Chico, California to offer the country’s first emergency intervention.  Bernd Ruf offered to lead this initiative, and recruited experienced guides Reinaldo Nascimento from Sao Paulo Brazil and Christopher Huditz from the Parzival Center in Karlsruhe.  All we needed to do was secure the bus and the local partner.

Time was tight since all research indicated the criticality of the first eight weeks and the Paradise fires had leapt up on November 8, 2019.   Ensuring no one was disturbed in his or her Thanksgiving, Ida reached out to her colleague Principal Brinson, next to faculty and family, and finally to board and community to ask who, of those who had been part of Bernd’s trainings, would be available.

The level of excitement and commitment to this emergency launch was impressive. While Red Cross sites were overwhelmed and could not respond, thanks to Board of the Alliance for Public Waldorf Education and Alliance and AWSNA Waldorf Coach George Hoffecker, Ida was able to contact the Principal of Blue Oak Waldorf Charter School. Many of the school’s faculty members had been affected by the fire, and they were also taking in many emergency families from Paradise. The school’s director Susan Domenighini and the leadership offered us their school and their support to do outreach.

Next, Bernd and Christopher arrived from Karlsruhe with t-shirts bespeaking our new identify: California USA Emergency Pedagogy Team.  It was a founding moment and we all got on the bus together.  We were staff and community leaders, all experienced in Waldorf in trauma and emergencies, from all walks of life. There were three refugees; the leader of the San Francisco Early Childhood Program; Carol Cole, founder of the Sophia Project in West Oakland for families recovering from homelessness; Principal Monique Brinson and Executive Director Ida Oberman from Community School; Bernd Ruf and Christopher Huditz from Karlsruche; Reinaldo Nascimento from Brazil; and two other experienced Waldorf teachers and staff.

The journey was empowered deep community building. At Blue Oak Charter, the space was a gentle silence.  Two days were filled with seminars and workshops for movement, art, and circle games with singing and clapping.  In this way, all were armed with a conceptual framework and practice. Along came filmmakers and Waldorf parents, Paul Zehrer and his colleague Eric Ivey. One day, a small part of the team visited the community of Paradise itself, much of which was not yet accessible to the public ravished by the fires.

What is Emergency and Trauma Pedagogy?

A picture is worth a thousand words. When the Emergency Pedagogy team came for the first time to Oakland, the Community School team awaited them at customs. When they cleared customs, well after all others, they arrived with four huge suitcases. Shrugging, Bernd’s colleague said, they are always suspicious with such big suitcases. When they open them and find balls, jump ropes, silk scarves, and a colorful parachute; they do not know what to think. We smiled.  This was not a high-tech intervention.

Emergency pedagogy is founded on the understanding that:

  • Trauma is like a wound, like a rhythmic dysfunction or paralysis, like a relationship disorder, and like a near-death experience
  • Not every potentially traumatizing experience must become trauma
  • For each phase of psycho-trauma (i.e. the phases of the first eight weeks, the first year, and  the  long-term), pedagogical interventions can help hinder the lasting effects of trauma
  • For each psycho-traumatic phase there are methodologies from Waldorf education we can employ to avert a potentially traumatizing experience from becoming trauma

3 Lessons learned:

  1. The power of the Waldorf global network: if it did not exist, we could not have found each other to develop these relationships.
  2. This is not a moment, but a movement. We are on the journey together. Waldorf is a normative network: we understand we are on the journey together and that the work is lifelong, even generational.
  3. The simple power of Waldorf: it anchors in “School as Safe Place”
    1. Circle heals
    2. Movement heals
    3. Art heals

Traditional therapeutic approaches focus on speech and talking things out, but what do we do when the trauma has ‘taken our speech away’? What do we do before we can speak?

We’ve only begun. The path forward:

Now, thirteen years after the launch of Emergency Pedagogy in 2006 in Karlsruhe and six years after the launch of Emergency and Trauma Pedagogy in Oakland, the circles are growing even wider, nourished by Waldorf strategies and by each other, to better serve children in need.

Recently, the Manager of Alameda County Food Bank arranged that a special gift be made to Community School for its food bank where it serves 200 families each month. The gift comes from donors in Paradise, whose factory produces special food bags, who learned that the leadership of Community School food bank had gone up to Chico to help the Paradise families who were displaced, through an Emergency and Trauma Pedagogy team. A note accompanied the gift:

This donation is special because they have donated bags to be used at a school pantry; and they made this, despite the fact that they are busy helping rebuild the city of Paradise. We were grateful they continue to think of our Alameda County Food Bank member programs such as CSCE amidst their devastation. Adding to this, it’s amazing the trauma work CSCE has done with the families of Paradise. That’s awesome!  Considering the work you’re all doing in Paradise, California, this would really be a great ‘full circle connects.” I want to come to Chico with you next time.

Make the circle wide.



The holistic stabilization of a traumatized child involves four levels that together lend a critical foundation to any therapeutic interventions that might be required later.

The first of these levels involves physical stabilization. Its aim is to make the effected child feel safe. They need to connect with their physical body. It is therefore first priority that physical ailment and injuries receive attention. Then, they need a place where they feel physically safe.

The second involves somatic stabilizations so the functions of life can be supported and the child can experience their whole body again.

The third regards psycho-social stabilization, where the focus is on restoring reliable relationships of trust.

The fourth regards mental-biographical stabilization. Trauma can undermine victim's sense of power to shape their own biography. Mental biographical stabilization means that negative experiences are replaced by positive ones.

To tend to all these levels immediately, the aid organization sets up shelters in disaster zones called "Child Friendly Spaces." In these spaces the children's needs at all levels are tended to by trained adults.

  • For physical stabilization it is invaluable to offer physically structured spaces that provide boundaries, shelter, and safety for children who have lost their orientation after a traumatized experience. These spaces have a clear spacial structure, they offer activity and rest areas, eating space and a space for communal activity.
  • For the somatic stabilization it is invaluable to offer the temporal structure of rhythm. Structured days with clear rhythms and rituals convey safety and orientation. There needs to be a time for playing, a time for artistic activity, a time for projects and exercises, and a time for rest.
  • For the psycho-social stabilization, offering—aside from spacial and temporal structure—relational structure is key. This can happen through role models of adults who provide them with healing images and experiences.
  • For the mental-biographical stabilization, offering the child experiences where they can of their own ability set a goal and carry it out. Here arts and crafts and ecological projects can unblock the victim’s potential and allow them to become more actively involved again.


For more see Ruf, Educating Traumatized Children: Waldorf Education in Crisis Intervention (Steiner Books 2013) or go to https://www.freunde-waldorf.de/en/emergency-pedagogy/