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Finding our Way Back: How Trauma-Responsive Practices Can help us Face this Moment

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There were moments during the pandemic when it seemed this time might never arrive. But day by day, week by week, children are returning to classrooms. Even as we face the future, it’s important to reflect on how we have all endured a prolonged period of stress. Over many months, we have experienced cues of life threat, triggering additional stress and even trauma. A month or two of pandemic conditions would have caused most of us moderate or manageable stress, perhaps even strengthening our resilience. Instead, it went on and on and on—and continues to weigh heavily, even as vaccines become more universally accessible and we see what may be the light at the end of this long tunnel.

As things creep toward some semblance of normal here in the United States and in some countries though, children, parents, and teachers are facing another transition. To meet this moment, we would do well to draw on the wisdom of trauma-responsive practices. It can help buffer the stress that is inevitable after what we have endured for so long.

A few tips:

Understand that everyone—students, teachers, providers—is returning to school with nervous systems that are more vulnerable to stress than before the pandemic. We’ve all come through an extended period of toxic stress and we will all need time to recover. For those who had experienced toxic stress or trauma prior to Covid-19, it’s likely that the pandemic’s toll will be even greater.

For the adults: You may find that your threshold for triggers is lower than before. You may become upset, angry, or activated more easily and feel the urge to discipline more harshly than ever before. You may feel sad, depleted, or scattered in your thinking. You may find that your productivity, organizational skills, and energy just aren’t they were a year or two ago.

For the children? They may exhibit more “challenging” behaviors than before. They probably feel more need to move their bodies. That means more fidgeting, hitting, shoving, talking out of turn, and less auditory receptivity. Kids may find it more difficult  to pay attention and stay on task. Some children will disengage, lingering on the periphery of the room or playground. We need to be extra aware of those children because it’s healthier for the nervous system to want to move than to want to disconnect. We need to see these children’s stress.

How should we respond? First, develop an awareness of what the human body feels like and looks like under stress and trauma. Then use that knowledge to promote healing. Take care of yourself, and try to reduce the expectations you have for yourself as you transition back to a new “normal” schedule—whatever that looks like for you. When you recognize your nervous system’s state, the children you teach or parent will directly benefit.

Then reflect on this question: What is your nervous system asking of you? To move, to sing, to have a cup of tea or coffee, or try to go sleep earlier tonight? How can you meet those needs on a short-term basis? (Remember: we are entering recovery mode;  these feelings won’t last forever if we give ourselves space and time.)

And then consider the children.

In order to learn, children need to feel regulated in their bodies. How do we help them to regulate themselves?  We redefine behaviors beyond the surface level. Unfortunately, too many teachers have been trained to focus on getting children to comply rather than on emotional regulation—which is what they need. The more challenging the behaviors, the more vulnerable the child’s nervous system.

My colleague Ross Greene frames it this way: behaviors are the signal, and shouldn’t be the target of our interventions. We shouldn’t punish children for the signals they send, but rather use them to discover what lies beneath: the child feels unsafe on a physiological level. Now, more than ever before, we need to go beyond behaviors to the underlying meanings. If we don’t, our road back from the pandemic will be far more difficult.

So it starts with us, with the adults in the room. When you feel out of control, or agitated, or upset, notice it—without judgment or guilt. These are natural responses to the chaos and disruption we have all endured. Next, extend this awareness to your child or students. When the children in your care also begin to show signs of stress by moving their bodies or speaking in ways that seem “noncompliant,” use a trauma-responsive lens. Children want to please us, and if they can’t there’s a reason.

  1. Check out the behavior and look underneath. Is the child’s body movement telling you that she’s feeling unsafe emotionally?
  2. Reframe the behavior as a stress response and act accordingly.
  3. Move away from sticker charts, telling a child to behave properly, and reminding the child of the rules.
  4. Move toward the child with compassion and see the child as a human struggling on re-entry after an extended absence. Children need time to adjust to transitions. Soften your tone of voice, your gaze, your posture and relate first through reassurance, not discipline.
  5. Be aware of trauma-responsive care in education and what it means as we redefine what behaviors mean in children and adults trying to function under the conditions of toxic stress.
  6. Ask for help when you need it. Take time off, even for an hour or a day, if you need it to maintain your own emotional regulation.

Then exhale and appreciate just being here and present. Develop awareness of what your body is telling you. And accept it—don’t fight it. Remember, it’s okay to be compassionate to yourself.  Doing so will extend to the children. As we unite on this journey ahead, let’s take the opportunity to make our parenting and educational practices better than ever before.

I share more about how we can employ trauma responsive practices in education and parenting in Beyond Behaviors: Using Compassion and Brain Science to Understand and Solve Children’s Behavioral Challenges.and in a new Beyond Behaviors course for teachers, providers and parents of children who struggle.

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