Researching childhood trauma through cultural immersion—and art

Children that Costa works with listen to an Elder from the Ojibwa tribe play the Dewe’igan (drum in the Ojibwa language) and drum along.

Starting a drawing club became a way for doctoral candidate Mila Costa to collect data for her dissertation on childhood trauma—and connect with the local community where she’s studying.

Costa is a doctoral candidate in Curriculum and Instruction with a degree specialization in Early Childhood Education and a minor in Human Development. For her dissertation, she’s examining how young children who have experienced trauma and challenging life circumstances are coping with and making sense of their lived experiences. As part of the data collection for her dissertation, she’s currently in the midst of conducting a nine-month long ethnographic case study in the Northern Michigan Ojibwa tribal community, volunteering as an assistant teacher in the Little Eagles Pre-K program.

Through children’s drawings and the stories they tell about these drawings, Costa is documenting the ways in which the children describe their life events and what expectations they have for relationships with people in their lives.

Hopefully, the findings of this study will help me advocate for emotionally responsive and therapeutic classrooms for all preschool children, particularly those enduring traumatic and challenging life circumstances.

Mila Costa

“I’ve created a Drawing Club where children are invited to draw and tell stories about their drawings,” Costa said. “Hopefully, the findings of this study will help me advocate for emotionally responsive and therapeutic classrooms for all preschool children, particularly those enduring traumatic and challenging life circumstances.” 

Because of her full-time involvement in the Pre-K program, Costa developed a strong relationship with the children, which allows her to have a better understanding of their schooling experience and life circumstances. 

“Additionally, this has been a remarkable cultural experience,” she added. “One of the missions of the Pre-K program is to revitalize the Ojibwa culture. To this end, there is an Elder from the community who visits the school twice a week to teach the children the language, cultural values and traditions of the Ojibwa community. Thus, I’m learning these aspects of the Ojibwa culture alongside the children.” 

Before coming to the IU School of Education, Costa worked at the Child Development Lab (CDL) at Arizona State University, where she was the lead teacher of a multi-age preschool classroom for eight years. When she discussed my idea of getting a Ph.D. with the former director of CDL, he told her about Professor Cary Buzzelli at the IU School of Education. 

“After a phone interview with Professor Emeritus Cary Buzzelli and Professor Mary McMullen, I became very interested in the graduate program in early childhood education, and I wanted to be part of this vibrant school. I’ve applied for the Ph.D. program, and I was accepted. This is how my journey at IU began,” Costa said.

Her interest in addressing childhood trauma stems from the fact that it is a public health issue in the U.S. Studies have reported that in the U.S., 62% of all children who come to school are experiencing some type of trauma - particularly now when children's lives have been greatly disrupted by the shared traumatic experience of the COVID-19 global pandemic. Costa added there have been numerous challenges to young children’s health and well-being that must be acknowledged and addressed to ensure children’s school success.

Start your life-changing journey

Schedule a visit   Request information