Intentional Connection Over the Holiday Break

We are quickly approaching the final days of instruction for many before schools close for holiday breaks. A lot of teachers and students are looking forward to a couple weeks of rest, relaxation, and some fun. However, breaks from school for some students bring stress. This is because when school is not in session students lack opportunities to interact with caring adults and peers, and have little or no consistency to help structure their days. This is difficult, especially for traumatized children who thrive when they experience predictability and connection.

Why are the holidays hard on mental health?

The holidays can be a hard on anyone's mental health. In fact, according to the American Psychological Association, 9 in 10 adults struggle with this time of year including a 41% increase in stress reported compared to other times of the year. When adults express their stress and anxiety, kids notice. While traditional "holiday stress" can include financial concerns, busy schedules, or thoughts of loved ones, this collective stress can also find it's way into our school climate as well.

Common concerns for students around the holidays

In between the fun of class parties, the scramble to wrap up projects, and teaching the importance of generosity during this season are several underlying concerns for our most vulnerable kids:

  • Fears of Routine Change: For some students, the structured environment of school provides a sense of security and predictability. The holiday break disrupts this routine, leading to anxiety and uncertainty. This is particularly challenging for students who thrive on the regular schedule of school days–the sudden lack of structure can be disorienting and stressful.
  • Domestic Situations: Unfortunately, not all home environments are conducive to relaxation and safety. For students facing challenging domestic situations, school is often an escape and a place of support. The holiday break can mean an extended period in an environment where they may feel unsafe or unsupported, exacerbating feelings of anxiety and isolation.
  • Financial Concerns: The holiday season often brings additional financial pressures, which can be acutely felt by students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. The lack of access to school meals and the expectations of the holiday season can add to the stress, making them worry about basic necessities and the inability to participate in holiday activities that might require financial expenditure.

Support Mental Health over the Holidays

The holidays are a time of year where the felt effects of connection are incredibly important. It's also a time where we all should find the opportunity to reset.

For those teachers and students who enjoy breaks – relish in every moment!

  • Get outside on sunny and warm(er) days
  • Connect with family and friends outside or virtually
  • Take a nap
  • Read a book
  • Catch up on movies and shows

For those who need consistency and connection, educators might try one of two of the following strategies

  • Schedule email messages to be sent a few times over break to students who benefit from interactions
  • Invite students to a “challenge” where they write down one thing every day that made them feel happy – tell them you will check in with them after the break for a full report.
  • Take some time in class this week to create a sample “holiday break” schedule for students where they identify two or three things they will do each day (e.g., play outside, read for 15 minutes, connect with a friend).
  • Remind them that even when you do not see them in class or virtually, you are thinking about them and will be excited to see them when you both return from the break.

How to talk to children about traumatic current events and media exposure

Update: In response to the outbreak of violence in Israel and Gaza, Starr Commonwealth has chosen to re-publish this article from January of 2021, previously updated February 25, 2022. Please note that this conflict and region have deep historic, cultural, and religious roots that can have implications on a child’s sense of safety, belonging, and wellbeing. In conjunction with community support services, struggling families may want to consider seeking support and guidance from their religious/cultural leaders and organizations.

In addition, we would like to include a sample of childhood worry interventions to use at home, in the classroom, or in your clinic. You can download your sample of One-Minute Resilience Building Interventions for Traumatized Children and Adolescents here.


As much as possible, it is important to keep children away from media coverage following the violent traumatic events in Israel and Gaza. For younger children, this is easy. Keep the news turned off and avoid talking about the events when they are nearby. For school-age children, especially those with access to social media, exposure to images and details of both events is plentiful and hard to view and hear. In this case, it is important to 1) communicate and 2) limit media exposure.

It is important to share as many details with children as you feel is developmentally appropriate about the events, but please follow the lead of the child–if they have questions, answer them. If you are unsure of how to answer, simply tell them you will try to find the answers and discuss with them when you do. Some children will not have many questions at all while others may have several. There is no need to tell them more than they are asking about. If you are working with a group of children, carve out additional time for those who have more questions, need discussion, and can voluntarily participate.

Normalize the symptoms and reactions children display surrounding what they learn or already know about Israel and Gaza.With so many unknowns and very little control to do anything about the situation of children and families impacted, children may feel a significant sense of hopelessness and helplessness. Encourage all children to limit their exposure to media. Let them know that being informed is okay but to watch the news and media several hours per day over the course of days on end is not healthy. The developing brains of children and adolescents are not equipped to buffer the stress of a constant barrage of negative news that often includes terrifying images and videos. For this reason, limits should be established. When the media is viewed, a caring adult who can help them process what they read, see, and hear is necessary. Children should be encouraged to continue playing with their friends, attending sports and extra-curricular activities despite the devastation happening overseas.

Helpful articles from the American Psychological Association and NPR,and%20well%2Dbeing%20can%20flourish.

How to Create a Trauma-Informed Resilient School | Foster Connections

Foster Connections

Students who feel connected to their school are also more likely to have better academic achievement, better school attendance, and stay in school longer.

How can you connect to your students?

One of the best ways to connect with your students is having classroom meetings. These meetings not only allows you to connect with students, but also allows the students to connect with each other and build community within the classroom.
How can you implement a classroom meeting?
Step 1: Form a shape (circle, square). Teacher and students discuss, decide, and practice:

  • Floor or chairs
  • Where, how do you get there?
  • Who do you sit by?
  • What does it look like?
  • What does it sound like?
Step 2: Introduce a talking piece. This talking piece helps regulate communication between students. Whoever has this piece is allowed to talk. Talking pieces may be a toy, a stick, a stone, or another small object.

Step 3: Practice using various topics to create proactive classroom meetings:

  • Get to Know You and Greetings
  • Who Am I
  • Compliments and Appreciations
Below is a video of education professionals like yourself explaining the topics they talk about at their classroom meetings:

10 Steps Book Cover

For more implementation on how to foster connections in the classroom, check out Starr’s 
10 Steps to Create a Trauma-Informed Resilient School!

How can you Create a Trauma-Informed Resilient Classroom or School?

Step 1:  Focus on Student Resilience

What is student resilience?

Student Resilience is the ability to achieve positive outcomes—mentally, emotionally, socially, and spiritually despite adversity.

To focus on student resilience, start by creating a set core of values and beliefs about the children you serve.  The Circle of Courage is a model of positive youth development based on the universal principle to be emotionally healthy, all youth need a sense of belonging, mastery, independence, and generosity.

Circle of Courage

What does this look like in a school?

Belonging at school is when every student believes they are valued, seen, heard, and cared for.

Mastery at school is when every student believes they can achieve despite their challenges.

Independence at school is when every student believes they have the power to make decisions that will impact their own lives.

Generosity at school is when every student believes they have a purpose for their lives that can positively contribute to the world.

Click here for a resilience activity to help connect more with your students.

Looking to learn more about how to do this in your classroom or across your building for all students? Reach out to Starr Commonwealth today for a personalized consultation about our training and consulting services to help ensure every child learns in an environment where they can flourish!

Allyship and DEI-B

At the moment, our society, institutions, democracy, personal lives and organizations like Starr Commonwealth are experiencing turbulent times.  Times that stem from long developed problems grounded in systems of oppression that have gone unaddressed, or simply ignored since the founding of our nation.  As a result, many people have taken steps to make their voices heard through protests, rethinking oppressive societal structures, acknowledging history, and undertaking efforts such as diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging with the ultimate goal of bringing about change. 

Whether it is racism, ableism, sexism, classism, sexuality and gender issues, health disparities, wealth disparities, educational disparities, or DEI-B, allyship, or becoming an ally, is a great tool to help bring about change. 

What is allyship?  Perhaps we should begin by defining what it means to be an ally.  Being an ally does not mean sitting on the sidelines waiting for your number to be called (sorry about the sport’s analogy).  It means choosing to use your privilege, life experiences and knowledge to advocate for others.  “An ally is any person that actively promotes and aspires to advance the culture of inclusion through intentional, positive and conscious efforts that benefit people as a whole.”  (Allyship – The Key to Unlocking the Power of Diversity, by Sheree Atcheson, Forbes, March 7, 2023)  Anyone can be an ally – White people can be actionable allies to BIPOC; men can be allies to women; cis people can be allies to members of the LGBTQIA+ community; able-bodied people can be allies to those who are not, etc. Heck, even Albionities can be allies to Marshallites! One should note that when the concept of “intersectionality” comes into play, another way I would say this is, “when you bring your whole self into the situation” – the power dynamics above can shift, for example, women can be allies to men.  

A true ally is a person who backs up their words with action!  Martin Luther King, Jr once said that it was not the violence of the few that scared him, it was the silence of the many. An ally’s words and action must be in sync, because words without action do not bring about change, in fact, they can be detrimental, or cause harm.  Once again, Dr. King stated that a person dies when they refuse to stand up for that which is right.  A person dies when they refuse to stand up for justice.  A person dies when they refuse to take a stand for that which is true.  (Selma, AL, March 8, 1965)   

In Starr’s Glasswing training, becoming an ally is viewed as a way to bring about healing.  It is a commitment to:

  • Taking the time to review one’s own personal history with regard to diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging.
  • Developing the ability to objectively listen to the anger and hurt of another person without taking it personally, knowing that the hurt may come from a long history of injustice and frustration.
  • Being able to listen and find the fear in a person who is acting out how they have been conditioned in light of a lack of diversity, inequity, exclusion and constant and relentless questioning of their humanity and their whole selves.
  • Continuing to educate oneself on what is currently happening with others in our world.
  • Learning how to risk making mistakes and to change mistakes into growth experiences.
  • Becoming aware of our implicit biases, and making consistent efforts to bring them into our consciousness in order to overcome them.
  • Forming appropriate DEI-B support groups.
  • Intervening in/interrupting situations where something harmful is being said or occurring in a safe or non-judgmental manner.
  • Making the decision and taking action to establish meaningful relationships with people of different backgrounds and experiences allowing one to overcome our societal patterns toward separation.

(Glasswing Transformation GUIDEBOOK, Starr Commonwealth 2015, revised in 2018 by Christi Barrett and Kenneth Ponds, pg. 62)

Allyship then is a lifelong process of building relationships based on trust, consistency, and accountability.  Allyship understands that we do not define our own work and efforts.  Our work and efforts must be recognized by those we are seeking to ally with.  And we must take opportunities to grow and learn about ourselves, while building confidence in others.  Allyship is a continual investment in time, supporting others, and holding ourselves accountable when mistakes are made.  Allyship also calls for flexibility when there is a need for change in our relationships, or situations.

In conjunction with DEI-B, allyship within Starr might look something like this—Starr Commonwealth itself becomes an ally. 

  • Starr would use it’s privilege and power to identity, sponsor or support someone already within, or someone becoming a member of, the Starr family who has experienced in their lives a lack of diversity, inequity, exclusion, or who has been hesitant to bring their whole self into the organization.
  • As an ally Starr would call out unacceptable behavior towards underrepresented persons within the organization.
  • As an ally Starr would make use of inclusive language.
  • As an ally Starr would regularly implement trainings focused on issues of DEI-B such as racism, implicit bias, and sexuality with the understanding that this is an ongoing and never-ending process of growth and learning.
  • As an ally Starr must be willing to have uncomfortable conversations regarding systemic oppression within our society and how it impacts individuals, communities, our nation and our future.

In conclusion, a true ally–Starr included–must regularly listen to those around them; adapt their thinking; rework what they believe to be acceptable and correct; and become comfortable with being uncomfortable. 

young girl of asian descent takes a brain break by sliding down slide on playground smiling

Why Brain Breaks are Even More Important at the End of the School Year

Did you know that taking short outdoor brain breaks during the school day can help you learn better? When the school year is almost over and the sun starts shining more, it's easy to dream about summer vacation. So, let's talk about what brain breaks are and why they matter so much at the end of the year.

Brain breaks are a short time when you stop doing schoolwork and do something different, like taking a walk, playing a quick game, or just sitting quietly and thinking about something else. Brain breaks are especially helpful towards the end of the school year when everyone's excited about the nice weather, ready for summer break, or stressed about final exams.

According to research, our brains can't focus for prolonged periods of time. This is especially true the younger a student is. After about 20 minutes of focusing, our brains start to get tired and we can't learn as well (Scientific American). When we're close to the end of the school year, this can be an even bigger problem. But brain breaks can help our brains get ready to focus again.

The nice weather can help with brain breaks, too! Research shows that spending time outside in nature can make you feel happier and think better (Harvard Health Publishing). So, outdoor brain breaks like a short walk or game can give your mind some rest and help it work better at the same time. You can even incorporate curriculum in fun ways.

Here are a few more great examples for both younger and older students (and some for both!):

Elementary Brain Breaks

  • Extra recess!
  • Tag games
  • Nature scavenger hunt
  • Jump rope challenges
  • Sidewalk chalk art
  • Yoga
  • Outdoor story time/quiet reading

Middle School/High School Brain Breaks

  • Walking meditation
  • Frisbee/ball games
  • Gardening
  • Outdoor sketching/journaling
  • Bird/plant identification
  • Yoga
  • Mindfulness exercises

Remember, the goal of brain breaks is to give students a mental rest and help them refocus, so choose activities that are enjoyable and stress-free! 

Brain breaks are also great for helping us deal with stress. At the end of the year, we might feel nervous about exams or sad about saying goodbye to friends for the summer. Group games during brain breaks can help us feel closer to our friends, and quiet thinking time can help us feel calmer (Edutopia). 

As we finish up the school year and the weather turns warmer, remember how important brain breaks are. They can help us learn better, feel less stressed, and even enjoy school more, even when summer vacation is just around the corner. So, let's make the most of brain breaks. Remember, it isn't just relaxing—it's actually helping us learn! 


Parents as Partners in the Classroom

Education is increasingly viewed as a shared responsibility of educators, families, and communities. Schools, parents, and the community should work together to promote the health, well-being, and learning of all students. When school involve parents and engage community resources, they are able to respond more effectively to the needs of students.

Family and community involvements foster partnerships among schools, family, and community groups and individuals. These partnerships result in sharing and maximizing of resources, as well as a strong belief that all families, regardless of level of education, socio-economic status, and race or ethnicity can contribute to all student learning and development. When schools communicate well and often, parents and communities are not only informed but feel like they have an active voices in their school community. Additionally, they build a culture of inclusivity and eliminate feelings of distrust, uncertainty, and hostility. When educators fail to communicate fully, misinformation, misinterpretations, misunderstanding, and mixed messages can cause a system breakdown. But when school leaders communicate effectively, students learn, parents and community members understand and support what the school is doing, and the process of teaching and learning moves forward.

Case Study: Mr. Cunningham

Jimmy was in 8th grade when his mother, after using heroin for several years, had recently and unexpectedly left Jimmy and his father and moved 200 miles away. Despite her addiction, she had been the primary school contact and was inconsistently present at Jimmy’s school events. The school social worker attempted to reach out to Jimmy’s father, Mr. Cunningham, on a few occasions following the mother leaving. After a few months, Mr. Cunningham finally called back. He agreed to come in to talk to the counselor, but always canceled or just didn’t show up. Knowing the importance of parent involvement, the social worker didn’t give up. He called Mr. Cunningham and was never upset with him for missing the appointments. Instead he communicated with Mr. Cunningham in a way that showed understanding and compassion. He also talked with him about Jimmy, but didn’t press an in-person meeting. He made sure to let him know in what ways Jimmy was doing well, and in ways he could use support from him. He indirectly educated Mr. Cunningham about the importance of his expectations for his son and how his involvement would benefit him. After communicating this way for several months, during one of their calls Mr. Cunningham asked if he could come up to the school sometime to finally meet in person. The social worker told him he would love that and to stop by anytime. Later that week, Mr. Cunningham came in when he dropped off Jimmy and brought the social worker a cup of coffee. All he said was, “Thanks—you didn’t push me. I just needed some time.”

The Power of Constant Curiosity with Families

Watch the complete panel discussion when you sign up for your free trial of StarrPASS at Cancel anytime in the first 7 days!

young girl using cognitive flexibility in front of chalkboard with a questions mark over her head

Cognitive Flexibility in the Classroom

Cognitive Flexibility Definition

Cognitive flexibility means being able to think in different ways and adjust to new situations. It’s important because it helps people handle changes and deal with difficult things. Sometimes when kids experience difficult things, like a traumatic event or ongoing toxic stress, they might find it hard to change their thinking or behavior. But, if they can learn to be more flexible in their thinking and practice it, it might help them feel better.

Because trauma impacts cognitive functions, the key is to pair teaching cognitive flexibility with practices that help to lower a student’s arousal. This can be accomplished through the use of mind-body strategies such as breathwork, guided imagery, drawing, or movement. By using mind-body techniques, students can help their bodies relax and allow their brains to access functions that may be blocked during times of stress or trauma.

Cognitive flexibility has two main benefits for kids who’ve experienced trauma. First, it can help them think about their problems in a different way. Sometimes after a traumatic event or during times of prolonged toxic stress, it can be hard to see anything good. But by learning how to be flexible in their thinking, they can find more positive ways of dealing with their problems.

Additionally, cognitive flexibility can help kids be better at solving problems and making friends. Trauma can make it difficult for an individual to form meaningful connections and relationships with others. But by learning how to think in different ways, they can understand how other people feel and make better decisions. This allows them to build a larger social circle and boost their self-esteem.

Click here to learn more about cognitive flexibility from Trends in Neuroscience.


So what are some cognitive flexibility examples, and how might they benefit students who are overwhelmed? One tip for teachers to help students work through cognitive flexibility is to encourage them to see things from different perspectives. Teachers can do this by first inviting students to take a few deep breaths and then asking open-ended questions that promote critical thinking and encourage students to think about things from multiple angles.

For example, instead of asking a yes or no question, teachers can ask students how they think a character in a book might feel about a certain situation, and then ask them to explain why while they draw an image of a symbol that might represent the character’s feeling. This can help students learn to think more flexibly and develop empathy for others, which can promote emotional regulation and social functioning.

Additionally, teachers can model cognitive flexibility by being open-minded themselves and demonstrating how to adapt to new situations and challenges.

Another tip for teachers to help students work through cognitive flexibility is to encourage them to try new things and take risks. Engaging students in activities that promote movement such as simple yoga poses or stretches that can be done in the classroom, teachers can create a safe and supportive environment where students feel comfortable stepping outside of their comfort zones and trying new approaches.

Teachers can also help students see mistakes and failures as opportunities for growth and learning, rather than as something negative. This can help students develop a growth mindset and learn to be more flexible in their thinking and problem-solving. By encouraging students to take risks and try new things, teachers can help them develop the cognitive flexibility skills they need to navigate life’s challenges with confidence and resilience.

Cognitive Flexibility Worksheets

Interested in applying these theories in your classroom? Download Starr’s free sample of cognitive flexibility worksheets from Mind Body Skills: Activities for Emotional Regulation.

Download your free worksheets

Coping with the aftermath of the MSU shootings

As Michiganders struggle to deal with the aftermath of the shootings at Michigan State University on Feb. 13, many are juggling conflicting emotions: anger, fear, sadness, rage, grief, helplessness and others.

That’s all normal in light of the trauma we collectively witnessed Monday night, according to Dr. Caelan Soma, the chief clinical officer for Starr Commonwealth in Albion. Many watched the search in real time for the lone gunman who terrorized the East Lansing campus, killing three and sending five to the hospital before turning the gun on himself.

And many, Soma says, are struggling for answers days later.

Soma says the first step is validating the feeling that this was a very scary situation that elicited an acute stress response for many of us, whether we had a student or loved one on the MSU campus or a child on a campus across the country or we are Michiganders without a direct connection.

“You begin to relate to what those kids experienced last night and put yourself in their position,” Soma  said. “Even if you are safe at home, understand the person is no longer a threat and logically know the danger has passed, you can take on a lot of those symptoms and reactions as well. ”

Those stress hormones can continue to roil in our bodies for weeks, keeping us on a high state of alert with fear and worry. Soma notes the next step is to find things that make you feel safe – and that can have little to do with logic.

“Telling yourself that the police have the shooter, he can’t hurt anyone anymore, that everyone is safe and lockdown is over isn’t helpful,” Soma explained. “What you have to do is help your body return to a state of balance.”

That can differ person by person, but Soma says it often comes back to connecting with people – hearing the voice of a loved one, spending time with friends, being able to discuss what happened and how you are feeling and then hearing others are feeling the same way. Other body-based ways to help you feel comfort and safety might include cozying up to watch a movie, listening to music, baking cookies, going for a walk or anything that helps you get your body back in balance.

“Our stress response is intense anxiety, and telling people to chill out doesn’t help,” she says. “They need to feel their body is chilling out and experiencing a sense of safety. It doesn’t matter how old you are.”

Founded in 1913 as a home for runaway and homeless boys, Starr Commonwealth has grown and evolved over the decades to provide community-based programs, education and behavioral health services that create and promote universal hope, boundless love and limitless success for children. Starr recognizes that trauma is real – but it does not seal an individual’s fate.

Classroom Management

There are a wide variety of classroom management systems used by schools today. Levels, colors, clips, stickers, and tickets are variations of the many popular ways to motivate students to demonstrate appropriate behavior in the classroom. However, what we know about behavior charts is that they usually work really well for children who already demonstrate pro-social behavior, but trigger the fight-or-flight response in individuals who struggle to pay attention, learn, and interact positively with their peers. Children of trauma are already in a heightened state of stimulation, and can easily activate their fight-or-flight response when behavior systems are used. This trigger can result when a child them self, or even another student, lose a level, don’t earn a sticker, or earn a reward for their behavior.

Private Logic’s role in Classroom Management

Children who have developed a private logic that says, “I can’t trust others” or “I am not valued,” will believe that they are “BAD” when they don’t earn a sticker, clip, or star – or when their color is “moved”. Shame is an intolerable state for children of trauma. Shame reinforces the distorted self-identity they have formed and triggers a response that can lead to additional behavior challenges. Simply put, behavior charts do not help teachers understand the underlying causes of their student’s behavior, and true healing cannot happen unless we know what is influencing a child to behave a certain way.

Any school staff, regardless of their own background or role in the school setting, can help these students thrive academically, behaviorally, socially, and emotionally. We believe we can help when we view behavior not as a problem but as the clue to what the child needs the most. Behavior is the language children use to convey messages to adults, and brain science supports the difficulty children have accessing words when they are overwhelmed. While a child may want to say they are worried, hurt, angry, or scared, when words fail them, behavior often wins. Therefore, their messages may be communicated with defiance, withdrawal, or fighting. Understanding these reactions help us identify when a child is in need, and then how we can begin to help them heal.

learned helplessness in students child with shadow of strong person

Learned Helplessness in Students

Learned helplessness in students is a psychological phenomenon in which children begin to feel as though they have no control over the events or circumstances happening to them, which can manifest within in the classroom. This can lead to feelings of despair, hopelessness, and a lack of motivation. For students who are experiencing the effects of trauma or toxic stress, the signs of learned helplessness can be exacerbated even further.

Recent research has shown that there is a strong connection between learned helplessness and trauma. Trauma and toxic stress can lead to a feeling of helplessness, as individuals may feel as though they have no control over the traumatic event that occurred, was witnessed, or perceived. This feeling of helplessness can then lead to the development of learned helplessness, as individuals begin to believe that they are unable to change or improve their circumstances.

How to overcome learned helplessness in the classroom

Teachers should look for several signs of learned helplessness in students in order to identify who may be struggling. Some of the signs that teachers should look for include (and how to help the child):

  • Lack of motivation: Students who have learned helplessness may lack motivation and engagement in the classroom. They may avoid participating in class discussions or completing homework assignments. Try breaking work into smaller “bite-sized” pieces that you’re confident the student can achieve, or work with the student to find a method or platform for participation that ensures both the student’s sense of safety and an accurate representation of the student’s learning.
  • Low self-esteem: Students with learned helplessness may have low self-esteem and a negative self-image. They may be critical of themselves and their abilities. Make sure to find opportunities for praise to reinforce all that the student can do well.
  • Difficulty with problem-solving: Students with learned helplessness may have difficulty solving problems and may give up easily when faced with a challenge. Establishing effective routines can be a great solution to this issue. By defining routine as wide-ranging as daily class schedules to the steps to solving math equations, we can help students perceive any situation as a series of steps to work on one at a time.
  • Avoiding challenges: Students with learned helplessness may avoid challenging tasks or activities in the classroom. They may prefer to stick to what is familiar and comfortable, rather than taking risks and trying new things. When we can understand the benefit of failure, we’re more likely to test ourselves. So, celebrate failures! [Also, the Circle of Courage’s universal need of mastery is a perfect topic to explore to begin embracing challenge.]
  • Passive attitude: Students with learned helplessness may adopt a passive attitude, and may not take responsibility for their own learning. They may also blame external factors for their failure rather than taking responsibility for their actions. This is another area where the Circle of Courage can overcome helplessness. Not only does proper development of mastery help with passive attitudes, focusing on student generosity (specifically, sharing skills with one another that can help with class activities) can build a sense of community and healthy accountability to their peers.

It's important to note that these signs can be indicative of other issues as well, therefore, teachers should be cautious when making a diagnosis of learned helplessness in students. If you notice signs of learned helplessness in students, it's important to reach out and provide them with the support and resources they need.

Promoting Inclusion in the Classroom through Generosity

Promoting inclusion in the classroom is crucial for creating an equitable, safe learning environment for all students. The good news is that intentional inclusion is instrumental to being trauma-informed. The key lies within the Circle of Courage. This model for positive youth development provides four critical areas to explore, but for now let’s focus on the universal need of generosity. By focusing on and practicing generosity, we can create a more inclusive classroom, where students feel a sense of belonging, can gain mastery over the material and develop independence. In this blog post, we will explore how incorporating acts of generosity in the classroom can promote a more inclusive environment for all students.

Strategies for inclusion and generosity in the classroom

Effective efforts to teach generosity don’t need to be grand or complicated. When properly structured and monitored by teachers, it can be as simple as everyday group work! Help your students enrich their sense of generosity with these fun activities:

  • Collaborative Learning: Create small groups of students with diverse backgrounds (which can be as simple as their background in your classroom—what skills can you pair/group together who don’t normally interact to accomplish a challenge together?) Encourage students to share their unique perspectives and skills, and to rely on one another for support. Provide an opportunity for groups to share what they appreciated about what others brought to their team.
  • Random Acts of Kindness Challenge: Encourage students to perform random acts of kindness towards their classmates, such as leaving a positive note on a classmate's desk, offering to help a struggling student with their work, or sharing materials with someone who forgot theirs at home. Students should be intentional about helping those who they don’t regularly play or study with. Have students reflect on the impact of their actions and discuss as a class how these small acts of generosity can promote a culture of inclusion and belonging in the classroom.
  • Generosity Day: Set a day of the week where students can come in and share something with their classmates, it can be an item or a skill. Incorporating items/skills important to family traditions or cultural background can help further promote inclusion. Exit notes for the day can challenge students to celebrate their favorite contribution and what they learned about their fellow student who presented it.
  • Empathetic Icebreakers: A tried and true staple throughout classrooms, icebreakers are fun—and can be powerful tools for connection. Challenge your students by designing your icebreaking topics around opportunities for inclusion. From familial trivia to hopes and dreams for their futures, these icebreaker discussions can peel back guarded layers of students to celebrate their true selves with their peers. As students get to know each other better, the icebreakers can shift to challenge students to seek out and compliment students for their uniqueness or perhaps what they’ve noticed that student does well.
  • READ!: There are thousands of age-appropriate books to help students be more sensitive about their classmates’ lived experiences. A quick Google search for “books to teach diversity and generosity” is a great starting point.

No matter the activity, it’s critical that teachers set up their students for success. Use your knowledge of each kid that the rest of the class might not have that will help celebrate their skillset. Afterward, always be intentional about debriefing activities to gauge what impact these activities might have on your class and adjust moving forward.

What other activities do you find help students explore their sense of generosity through an inclusive lens? No matter your approach, the first step should always be the bond formed between the teacher and every student. You can learn more about breaking down barriers to learning and relationships through 10 Steps to Create a Trauma-Informed Resilient School.

Four Simple Questions: Resetting Mindsets for the New Year

The return to school after a long holiday break can be tricky for everyone. Routine is critical for success in any classroom—not only for our students but for our own practices as educators (read more about trauma-informed routines here). Having a trauma-informed mindset requires practice like any other skill. As you come back from school after the holiday break, there are simple questions you can ask yourself to reset your trauma-informed mindset.

  • Do you believe there is no such thing as a bad child?
  • Are you curious about unmet needs when you see challenging child behavior?
  • Are you viewing children through a lens of what is happening in their life rather than what is wrong with them?
  • Are you providing children with an environment of love and activity?

Badness is not a normal condition – it is the result of misdirected energy and unmet needs. Children flourish in an environment where they feel connected and safe. Reframe how you view challenging behavior. Perhaps a child is communicating through behavior that they are struggling with a challenge at home or with friends. Some children might need more opportunities to feel like they belong or that they are good at something. Maybe they need more structure and predictability after being away from the school routine for a week or two.

Asking yourself these four simple questions will help you get back to seeing children through a trauma-informed lens. Better yet, get your students involved! This is the perfect time of year for resetting mindsets for everyone. Download our free lesson on the power of new year's resolutions for students below. Is there anything your students are committing to that can help shape your perception of them?

Peace on Earth

“Peace on earth, goodwill towards people!”  A high school friend has sent me this seasonal greeting for several decades now.  Oh, and my friend changed the wording, “towards men” to “towards people” with the very first greeting.

“Peace on earth, goodwill towards people” is an expression often heard this time of year during our Festivals of Lights when we express joy, love and peace for one another.  Joy and love are gifts which we give freely, with no strings attached, to each other that really capture the spirit of the season.  We want peace to be this way also, but it is not.

Peace is a dream.  It is like the “beloved community” which Starr wants to achieve through DEI-B — diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging.  The results Starr would like through our equity planning is this:

Our desire is to live and work with one another with a felt sense of safety, compassion, and belonging.  We dream of a ‘beloved community’ where all beings feel

                    seen, heard, and respected.  Starr Commonwealth is striving to create a culture where it is believed and understood that all can embrace and respect one

                    another and pursue the highest attainment of health, joy and opportunity for all.

Peace is something which we humans have longed for since we first walked upon this earth.  As Hillary McDowell states in On the Way to Bethlehem, we seek peace like an ointment to soothe a heart in pain; or to wipe out feelings of guilt; or to escape from an uncomfortable and stressful situation.  We want peace to be a remedy, a cure; however, it is not.  Peace as dream is an aftermath.

Peace follows only when we are willing to personally let go of that which creates barriers between ourselves and those around us.  These barriers lead to fear and so many of the issues which shape our human experience.  Peace requires work, sacrifice and, dare I say it — belief!  Peace is not serenity; it is not a hiding place, or a relief from trouble.  Peace is brought about by those who are willing to endure the uncomfortableness of change; those who are willing  to see life through the eyes and experiences of the marginalized; those who know that there will be betrayals and disappointments on the journey towards peace;  those who hold onto the hope that peace is possible not in some distant “future”, but in the reality of “now”; and those who know the work of peace is ongoing and daily.

The dream of “beloved community” is the same.  We can plan and scheme, but it really comes down to those who are willing to change, who are willing to see life differently, those who understand there will be betrayals and disappointments along the way, those who believe such a community is possible, and those who work at it daily.

So, to everyone, “Peace on earth, goodwill towards people” — peace to all!  However, this is not just a seasonal greeting for this time of year; it is a daily greeting all year long.  If I may paraphrase the words of the late theologian, Howard Thurman —

When the lights of the Festivals are extinguished and put away

                    The work of Peace really begins……

                    To find the lost,

                    To heal the broken,

                    To feed the hungry,

                    To release the prisoner,

                    To rebuild the nations,

                    To bring joy and love among brothers and sisters,

                    To make music in the heart.

The Time to Take Action on School Shootings is Now

It’s not a single issue.

It’s not a soundbite.

It’s not a quick fix.

But it is possible to prevent school shootings.

As we take pause and reflect on the first anniversary of the Oxford High School shooting, many are looking backward to try and make sense of this senseless violence. Starr Commonwealth is looking forward as we work to equip teachers to build communities were children feel safe, understood and empowered.

But how to do that? The national mental health emergency has led to a severe shortage in trained counselors, often thrusting teachers into a role for which they are ill-prepared. The trauma created by the COVID-19 pandemic continues to impact students, families and classrooms. The continued threat of school shootings further extends toxic stress so many are feeling.

At Starr Commonwealth, we recognize that trauma – any experience in a child’s life that leaves them feeling hopeless, helpless and stuck – impacts how children feel, behave, learn, view and interact with others and themselves. Schools provide an opportune system for early intervention and prevention.

Recognizing and understanding the signs of trauma in children changes the way adults respond. Rather than punishing a child for an inappropriate behavior, a trauma-informed educator will look behind that behavior to understand the root cause – divorce, sexual abuse, domestic violence or any of a host of factors.

Our work offers educators practical things they can do in their classrooms to connect with kids who are hurting and angry. I’m convinced our work can – and does – prevent school shootings.

Understanding trauma and building resilience in children improves the climate of a school, boosts academic achievement and tests scores and improves graduation rates. It reduces student outbursts, bullying, harassment, fights and other issues that create stress for staff and students.

Left unchecked, trauma and toxic stress can lead to unspeakable outcomes. We only have to open the newspaper or turn on the television to see this played out, week after week across our bruised and aching country.

But it is possible to prevent school shootings – and the time to take action is now.

pillars of intervention

The Core Pillars of Intervention

There are three inter-related core needs or pillars of intervention as referred to by Bath & Seita (2018) for successful intervention with children affected by adversity. These pillars include: safety, connection, coping ability. A felt sense of safety in the physical, emotional, relational, and cultural realms is established when educators and practitioners remain in a place of curiosity with children. This also supports connection and alignment to promote healing and build resilience, buffering or protecting against future experiences. Connection-building through meaningful interactions establishes a caring and healing environment where learning how to cope adaptively with stress can occur. Empathy and a nonjudgmental approach is necessary for children to feel supported in being honest and open in exploring how what has happened is impacting the way that person experiences themselves, others and the world around them.

Unfortunately, each of us only has limited opportunities to establish safety and connection throughout children's days or weeks. So how can we make the most of the time we do have? I spoke about this topic in an episode of Resilient Educators. Watch the excerpt below.

Earn your trauma certification with 10 Steps to Create a Trauma-Informed Resilient School

How Can Teachers Prevent Bullying?

October is National Bullying Prevention Month

Name-calling, mockery, harassment and threats are bullying. They are traumatic. Remember: Any experience that leaves a person feeling hopeless, helpless and unable to do something about their situation is trauma. Children who experience bullying often feel unsafe at school. They might worry about seeing other students in class or in the hallways who are overtly mean by calling them names or show more covert behaviors such laughing as they walk by or giving nasty looks. Students who are bullied might be fearful of rumors saying, “Someone is going to beat you up today.” They are often afraid to discuss their problems due to embarrassment or worry that reports will just make things worse.

What Are the Signs of Possibly Bullying?

While every student may process the emotional toll of bullying in different ways, there are several signs that should encourage teachers to stay curious about what might be happening:

  • Sudden tearfulness but will not disclose what is wrong
  • Sitting or doing things alone
  • Self-deprecating remarks
  • Changes in mood and behavior
  • Decline in school functioning
  • Attendance issues – students who are bullied often skip school

How Can Teachers Prevent Bullying?

It's certainly the responsibility of staff to intervene when witnessing or hearing about bullying in their school or classroom. However, there are several strategies for teachers to be proactive before the bullying occurs:

  • Do not brush off the small stuff. Take name-calling, mockery, harassment and threats seriously.
  • Set the tone immediately for kind, inclusive and respectful interactions and behavior. Continue these discussions often.
  • Make reporting bullying feel safe for victims and witnesses.
  • Adult supervision should be present everywhere in the school building.
  • Make sure every student feels connected to at least one adult in your building.
  • Make intentional connection opportunities for students who need support from peers.

Making intentional efforts to connect with all students throughout the school is critical. We should not expect every staff member to have a relationship with every student in the school, but we can certainly expect the staff as a whole to ensure every student has an adult they can rely on in the building. Click below to download Starr's individual and school-wide connections assessments.

Download your free connections assessment

Earn your trauma certification with 10 Steps to Create a Trauma-Informed Resilient School

6 Ways to Show Educators You Care

6 Ways to Show Teachers You Care

The National School Climate Center notes that “empirical research has shown that when school members feel safe, valued, cared for, engaged, and respected, learning increases and staff satisfaction and retention are enhanced.” (2017)

More than ever educators need to feel respected. Maybe you are an administrator or an educator yourself. Regardless, you can help promote a school climate where teachers feel special and most importantly valued.

If you are an administrator, consider a year-long campaign—rather than just during teacher appreciation week—to celebrate and support educators. Put together a group of school board members, PTA members, parents, and students to make this come to life.

If you are an educator, put together your own group of colleagues to find ways to help support one another. Encourage your school administration to participate.

6 Ideas to Show your Teaching Staff You Care

  • Posters, social media posts or newsletters to the school community featuring an educator of the week or a group of educators each week depending upon the number of staff in your building
  • Regular handwritten notes from administrators, PTA members, parents and students given to their educators
  • Secret Teacher friends – assign secret teacher friends for anyone who wants to participate. Small treats, notes of encouragement are given to the teacher several times throughout the year
  • Bagel or Donut Fridays
  • Gift cards to local restaurants or coffee shops – ask for donations from parents or local establishments
  • Set up a coffee bar and snacks in the teacher’s lounge


Educators are natural helpers. While this mentality is critical for student success, we often find teachers neglecting to help themselves. Click below to identify your potential stressors and resources to remain resilient.

More related resources from Starr Commonwealth

5 Reasons for Teachers to Co-Regulate Emotions

5 Reasons for Teachers to Co-Regulate Emotions (and How to Start from Day One)

We cannot expect children who are already stressed and activated to be able to regulate on their own. They need our help. When you help a child regulate, rather than expecting them to regulate on their own, it is called co-regulation. Adults underestimate how much children and adolescents require adult support and guidance to manage their feelings when they are worried, angry, hurt or scared. When adults provide the correct strategies for regulating emotion, the results can mean the world to a child’s success.

  • Improved attitudes towards self, school, and others
  • Enhanced positive pro-social behavior
  • Reduced misbehavior and aggression
  • Reduced emotional distress
  • Improved academic performance

How can I help my students co-regulate emotions?

Be with a child when they are feeling out of control emotionally and/or behaviorally. Your demeanor is important. The less words you use at this time, the better. Simply let the child know you understand they are feeling overwhelmed and you are there to help them until they feel more in control of their emotions and behavior.

Start by teaching breathwork and movement activities to children and then practice them on a regular basis. Encourage them to practice the activities on their own or with the help of their parent/caregiver. The goal is for them to easily engage in breathing or movement changes when they need help regulating their emotions or behaviors. The more they practice, the easier it will become for them to call upon these resources during uncomfortable or overwhelming situations.

The calmer you remain, the more the child will begin to calm down.  Model how to regulate by taking a deep breath, walking slowly, or distracting the child with play or drawing. Practice this often. It takes many co-regulation experiences for some children to learn how to do so on their own.


Start teaching breathwork and movement activities to children and then practice them on a regular basis. The goal is for them to easily engage in breathing or movement changes when they need help regulating their emotions or behaviors. The more they practice, the easier it will become for them to call upon these resources during uncomfortable or overwhelming situations. Learn more and download our free co-regulation activity below.

More related resources from Starr Commonwealth

teacher helping stressed student

4 Habits for Teachers to Help with Student Stress

4 Habits for Teachers to Help with Student Stress

Trauma and toxic stress aren’t always rooted in the obvious. In many cases there is not just one thing that has happened but a constant experience of stress related to multiple exposures. As we focus on critical events that receive the attention of adults and even gain media coverage, it is often the day-to-day traumatic experiences impacting so many children that are forgotten. Chronic experiences such as living at or below the poverty line aren’t specific events but rather ongoing circumstances.

How Can Teachers Help Students with Stress?

You may have one or several students in your own classroom this year struggling with stress—especially at the beginning of the year. When students experience stress, they have a hard time learning. Stress makes it difficult for all of us to stay focused, recall information and problem-solve. Stressed students may be inattentive, fidgety, disruptive – even defiant. If their stress is from circumstances outside of school, you might feel helpless to do anything about their situation. While you may not be able to do anything about what is causing their stress, you can help them while they are at school. There are simple things you can do to help keep their stress levels managed and support their learning.

  • Connect with the student. Let them know you notice that they might be having a difficult time learning and that you are there to help support them. Not sure where to start? Read my 6 tips for making connections.
  • Observe the child’s behavior and consider what they might need. If a child is fidgety and in and out of their seat, perhaps they need a quick water or walk break. If a child is inattentive, perhaps they need a different way to engage.
  • Ask the child what they think they need most to be successful in the classroom at specific times or throughout the day. Set them up for success.
  • Provide the student with options to reduce stress and support their learning: working alone, or with a small group, visiting the comfort corner, using noise-canceling headphones, alternative seating options, planned breaks during the day, access to fidgets, drawing supplies or puzzles.

Psychotherapy with Infants and Young Children: Repairing the Effects of Stress and Trauma on Early Attachment by Alicia F. Lieberman and Patricia Van Horn

Understanding the effects stress can have on a students performance is paramount to success, and something teachers must understand on day one of any given school year. Click below to map the brain’s response to trauma and identify how it may look in your students.

More related resources from Starr Commonwealth

6 Simple Tips for Building Relationships with Students

Building relationships with students is the most important thing you can do as an educator. It can be the strongest factor in reducing incidents of anxiety, depression, suicide, substance abuse, and violence. Additionally, Starr has witnessed measured improvements in reading, writing, and office referrals in schools utilizing Starr’s 10 StepsRegardless of race, ethnicity, or level of family income, a sense of belonging and community is universal!

This can be easily obtained through routine strategies that define a teacher student relationship. 

  • Ratio of 5:1 interactions – Notice a student 5 times when they are on task or behaving appropriately for every 1 time you notice them when they are not on task or are misbehaving.
  • Time “in” and co-regulation – When a child is dysregulated, you offer them an opportunity to regain a sense of control in your presence. You sit with them, go for a walk with them, breathe, engage in a regulating activity.
  • Check-in & check-out – Invite students to check-in and out with you at the start and end of each class period or school day so they can let you know if there is anything they need you to support.
  • Clubs, youth groups, sports, classes and opportunities to be with other children.
  • Phone calls home to parents & caregivers to share good news, updates on what happened during the school day.
  • Buddy and peer-to-peer opportunities for both learning and play.

As students return to school, the feeling that there is at least one accessible and trusted adult for them in their building will improve their desire to come to school and lower anxiety while they are there. Conducting a “Connections Assessment” is a simple activity to ensure every student has a connection to one or more adults in your building. Circulate a document that identifies each student by name or photo to each adult in your building. Ask adults to indicate each student to whom they feel connected. Then, distinguish the students who have little to no connections from those who have many. For students in need, link them to at least two adults in your building who will make intentional bids to connect with them every day. These meaningful interactions do not have to take a lot of time but are powerful when repeated over time. Connections happen through non-verbal gestures such as smiles and waves or by saying hello and asking a question or two. The goal is for students to have at least one adult who notices them every day.

How to Build Relationships with Students

Not sure where to start building relationships with students? Download our simple “Fostering Connections & Who Am I?” worksheets for teachers and students to teach you more about themselves.

More related resources from Starr Commonwealth

Rejection: The Crisis of Belonging

Belonging - I am important to someone and they want to know what my life is like – not only what I need help with but what my strengths are too.

The power and influence of positive human relationships in fostering resilience cannot be overstated. Urie Bronfenbrenner, a developmental psychologist renowned for his ecological systems theory of child development, once stated that ”every child needs at least one adult who is irrationally crazy about him or her.” Bronfenbrenner believed this was the greatest factor contributing to one’s healthy well-being later in life. Family and social environmental processes associated with resiliency include a stable, nurturing parent or caregiver, a connection to an adult in the extended family, and consistent family processes such as rituals, traditions, and structure. But when children have experienced or continue to experience trauma and toxic stress, sometimes the need for belonging is not met. What we know now is that if families can’t always provide a sense of belonging and the connections children need, schools are the next best place to meet these needs. This is why the National Center for Traumatic Stress Network has issued a call to action for schools to play a critical role in addressing childhood trauma.

How about those whose sense of belonging is stripped from them at school because of how they self-identify? How many of us have taken pause within our leadership meetings or when collaborating with our colleagues to be curious about why many youth who identify as LGBT+ don’t feel safe to be who they are at school, and consequently suffer academically and emotionally?

According to GLSEN, 85.2% of LGBT+ youth report being harassed at school. Regardless of one’s values or beliefs, educators must respond to this call for help. We must create environments where all kids can show up authentically and be accepted for who they are in order to learn to the best of their ability.

Click below to learn more about crisis of belonging LGBT+ youth—as well as many other students—face in our schools.

Make sure to take advantage of Pride month savings by purchasing Starr's LGBT Youth: From Trauma to Belonging eCourse before July 1!

More related resources from Starr Commonwealth

The Silent Pandemic of Grief

I want to take a moment to acknowledge the grief, loss, pain and trauma experienced by so many over the past two years – it is impossible for me to put its severity and intensity into words. Many of us have experienced our own personal adversity and as child caring practitioners in various settings, we have been witnesses to the impact of the pandemic, racial and political tensions and more recently the war in Ukraine. We see firsthand how the events of the past years have affected children, families, our colleagues and the places where we live and work. However, the past years have also highlighted the resilience of the human spirit. We have seen friends, families, schools, organizations and communities coming together to support one another during this challenging time.

While this article will present the impact the experiences of trauma, fear and isolation have had on children, families and communities, it will also focus on resilience. For years, Starr training offerings have reinforced the importance of refraining from keeping those who have experienced trauma stuck in victim thinking. Trauma-informed work means to understand adversity is part of someone, but not all of someone. It means that, yes, we acknowledge how the things that have happened affect individuals emotionally, behaviorally and cognitively. However, this work reinforces the importance of learning what people need to feel supported and utilizing interventions that support their strengths and resilience. Starr strives to teach child caring practitioners how to facilitate the movement of individuals who are at risk for or who have experienced trauma to view themselves not as victims but as survivors.

The experience of trauma is one of fearing for one’s safety, for survival – or the safety and survival of someone you love. The experience of trauma is one of not having control over your situation, feeling stuck. The experience of trauma happens when stress is chronic, when it is prolonged and exaggerated.

It is safe to say this has been the experience of our children, and ourselves, for over 2 years.

Given the staggering number of COVID-related deaths, we are now facing a silent pandemic of grief, which will have a lifelong impact on the many children who have lost a loved one to death from COVID.

According to several new reports, COVID-19 has had a negative impact on mental well-being for 70% of Americans. Major Depressive Disorder diagnoses have risen by 28% and the prevalence of anxiety disorders rose by 26% from January 2020 to January 2021. Alcohol and drug use has increased. When the mental health of our adults struggles, the impact on our children is severe. The Hospital Association reported in just the first half of 2021, children’s hospitals had a 45% increase in the number of cases of self-injury and suicide in children ages 5 – 17 than during the same period in 2019. COVID continues to have a disproportionate impact on children and adults of color.

In 2021 The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP) and the Children’s Hospital Association (CHA) declared a national emergency in child and adolescent mental health. Reports about the supply of mental health therapists according to an analysis by the Health Resources and Services Administration say that the United States needs a population to provider ratio of 30,000 to 1 and is coming up short by over 6,000 providers. There is a system design issue and over 1/3 of Americans live in areas lacking mental health professionals. This means all adults matter – all child caring adults must be trauma-informed and resilience focused, not just our mental health professionals.

Symptoms and reactions we are seeing in our children

  • Easily startled.
  • Anxious.
  • Cry easily. Depressed mood. Lonely.
  • Sensitive to sounds, sights and senses of touch.
  • Difficulty remembering things. Challenges with learning.
  • Behavior might be hard to regulate. Fighting, acting out.
  • Trouble “using their words”.
  • Somatic complaints. Headaches and stomachaches.

Trauma and stress symptoms and reactions are often mistaken for other mental health disorders. This is because the overlap in symptomology is significant.  Hypervigilance and hyperactivity can look like ADHD. Worry and fear can look like anxiety. Loneliness can look like depression. Fighting and acting out can look like oppositional defiant disorder.

How do we address the grief and trauma of COVID-19 and other world events?

Ask yourselves:

  • What has happened or what is happening that is affecting this child right now?
  • How can I best support this child?
  • What is going well for this child?
  • How can I build upon this child’s strengths and resiliency?

Ask children:

  • Since all of this happened, what is your biggest worry?
  • Who is taking care of you?
  • How is everyone in your family doing?
  • Is there anything good that has come out of this experience?
  • What things or people have helped you get through this experience?
  • Is there anything you need or that I could do to help you feel even a little bit better?

Resilience is the ability to bounce-back, to recover from difficulty and to achieve well-being in all areas of life – despite adversity. A child can develop coping skills that support resilience developed at any age. Most children do not know how resilient they are. Believe in them and tell them that they are – with lots of support!

The following are the key experiences children need to nurture and build their resilience.

  • Connections and a sense of belonging. Children need to feel connected to their families, schools and communities. They need to feel like they matter and like they belong.
  • High expectations and high support. Children can meet their potential when given the support they need. Just as we wrap-around children when they have difficulty reading, we must do the same to support their behavior and emotional regulation.
  • Emotional awareness and regulation. Children need adults to help them notice their feelings and their emotions and they need adults to help them regulate those feelings and emotions. We can’t expect them to do it on their own.
  • Feeling valuable. Children must feel like they have something to offer the world – like they make a difference and can help by using their own strengths and talents.


  • Get to know children, be curious
  • Cultivate a sense of belonging and community
  • 5:1 interactions (for every one redirection or correction, provide at least 5 positive interactions)
  • Time “in” and co-regulation
  • Check-in & check-out
  • Virtual and in person clubs, youth groups, sports, classes and opportunities to be with other children
  • Phone calls home to parents & caregivers – good news
  • Buddy systems and peer-to-peer opportunities

High Expectations and loads of support

  • You can keep expectations high. You just need to ask, what does the child need to meet their potential? Many children need support to get there.
  • Provide scaffolding to children who require help. If a child cannot reach something from a high shelf, you might lift them up, or offer them a stool. The same is true in helping them obtain skills in academics, behavior and emotional regulation.
  • You cannot try something once and expect it to work!
  • Support and teaching must be ongoing. Repetition works!

Emotional awareness and regulation

  • Children feel empowered when they have control of their own emotions, behavior and learning – not that it is perfect, but they can regulate things if they feel overwhelmed.
  • Teach and practice coping strategies such as breathing, movement, creative expressive and journaling.
  • Co-regulation means you help the children regulate instead of asking them to figure out how to regulate on their own.

Feeling valuable

  • Service-learning projects
  • Children in helper role (jobs, chores, offer advice)
  • Letters, drawings, postcards to parents, neighbors, senior centers, healthcare workers, other schools etc.
  • Penny drive, can drive
  • Car wash

In these past years, we  and witnessed amazing people – many children – doing extraordinary things in their families, schools and communities – despite their experiences of adversity. We have seen children and adults rising to the occasion to use their strengths and their resilience during a time of great stress and heartache. Children shine when they feel connected, like they belong, when they are supported and feel like they are good at something, when they can regulate their emotions and behavior, and when they feel valuable, as they have something to offer others.

Prolonged Stress Response in War

Our hearts are with the children and families in Ukraine who are experiencing the trauma and upheaval of war.

The bombardment of Kyiv has plunged 3.4 million individuals – nearly 510,000 of them children – into a state of terror. Exposure to violence and uncertainty strips away the basic needs all humans require for overall well-being: safety, connection and the ability to remain emotionally stable. Exposure to missile launches, damage to homes and schools, lack of access to food, safe water and medical supplies – all these things cause a significant stress response because people fear not just for their safety, but also for their survival.

When stress responses are prolonged and intense, the impact on emotions, behavior and cognitive functions is devastating. Emotional safety is damaged as children and families risk losing loved ones to violence and separation as they flee for their safety. Some who have fled remain worried for the safety of their friends and family who remain in Ukraine.

Not knowing when the fighting will end puts tens of thousands of families at risk for continued exposure to violence and potential displacement, which will lead to both short- and long-term needs as they struggle to navigate the hurt, worry and fear they experience not only now, but also in the months and years to come.

Starr Commonwealth offers our thoughts and prayers to the people of Ukraine and to their friends and relatives around the world.



FOCUS with Starr Commonwealth's Chief Clinical Officer Caelan Soma, PsyD, LMSW

Infant and Toddler Trauma

The field of trauma and resilience has accelerated over the past two decades. We now know how trauma and stress negatively affect children as young as infancy and preschool age. Despite abundant research, many well-educated and caring adults continue to think children are immune to adversity. Mistakenly, many think that infants and toddlers are unaffected by abuse, neglect and other traumatic experiences because they are “too young to understand” and “resilient”. What we know is that many, if not MOST, maltreated and traumatized infants and toddlers do suffer from symptoms of abuse and trauma, as victims, witnesses and even as siblings or friends of others that have experienced a trauma. While they often cannot verbalize or communicate their experiences, their dysregulated emotional and behavioral responses tell their stories.

You can learn more about infant and toddler—and begin the healing process—through Starr’s Zero to Three Trauma Intervention Program. Click below for a free look inside the program and learn about “the child’s perspective”.

Read A Child's Perspective

FOCUS with Starr Commonwealth's Chief Clinical Officer Caelan Soma, PsyD, LMSW

Noticing and 5 to 1 Interactions

Did you notice all of your students today?

There is tremendous power in noticing. When you strive to notice kids several times each day on a consistent basis, it will help you foster connections in your classroom and reinforce each student’s value.

There are many ways to notice children. Here are some examples.

  • Greet students by name when they enter your classroom.
  • Say good-bye, using students’ names, when they leave your classroom.
  • Acknowledge students when you observe kind gestures.
  • Use non-verbal noticing such as waving or nodding your head.
  • Praise students when you recognize that they are taking risks such as trying a difficult math problem or solving a problem.
  • Thank students for asking or answering questions.
  • Compliment students when they are helpful.
  • Tell students you are happy to see them after weekends or holiday breaks from school.

The goal for child-caring adults, educators and caregiver is to display a ratio of 5:1 positive interactions between themselves and children of all ages.

Learn more about 5:1 interactions in 10 Steps to Create a Trauma-Informed Resilient School

FOCUS with Starr Commonwealth's Chief Clinical Officer Caelan Soma, PsyD, LMSW

Connections Assessments

One of the strongest protective factors to foster resilience in children is to feel a strong connection to at least one caring adult in any part of their life – home, extended family, school, community, etc. As students return to school, the feeling that there is at least one accessible and trusted adult for them in their building will improve their desire to come to school and lower anxiety while they are there.  Conducting a “Connections Assessment” is a simple activity to ensure every student has a connection to one or more adults in your building. Circulate a document that identifies each student by name or photo to each adult in your building. Ask adults to indicate each student to whom they feel connected. Then, distinguish the students who have little to no connections from those who have many. For students in need, link them to at least two adults in your building who will make intentional bids to connect with them every day. These meaningful interactions do not have to take a lot of time but are powerful when repeated over time. Connections happen through non-verbal gestures such as smiles and waves or by saying hello and asking a question or two. The goal is for students to have at least one adult who notices them every day.

Not sure where to start? Download our simple “Who Am I?” worksheet for kids to teach you more about themselves.

Download the Who Am I worksheet

FOCUS with Starr Commonwealth's Chief Clinical Officer Caelan Soma, PsyD, LMSW

Back to School: Normalize Reactions

Many caregivers and parents are curious about the signs they might see that children are feeling worried about the return to school. Here are some common symptoms kids experience when they experience stress.

  • Tearfulness
  • Regression
  • Clingy
  • Complaints of headaches and/or stomachaches
  • Resistance going to school; school refusal
  • Opposition and defiance
  • Withdrawn behavior

It is important to normalize reactions for the first few weeks while getting back into a new routine – especially after last years’ breaks from in-person school for many students. All transitions create some stress and you can expect to see some changes in all children, but if they persist longer than the first few weeks, then you should see if the child might benefit from some additional support.

Courageous Classrooms: Making Mistakes is Courageous

Starting the year with learning how to handle mistakes is important because this is something we will most likely be doing every day. We all make mistakes and it happens often. We are not robots that are programmed to do the same thing over and over. We are human beings who make mistakes, mess up, and sometimes make bad choices. This is all part of being human.

Ask students how they feel when they make a mistake, mess up, or make a choice that is later regretted.

All feelings are normal and OK. Some feelings include:

  • Embarrassed
  • Sad
  • Angry
  • Not smart (students may identify “dumb” or “stupid”)
  • Worried or nervous

Although our feelings change when mistakes occur, our abilities, talents, and who we are as a person DOES NOT change. It does not change who we are. The most important part of making a mistake is how we respond when it happens.

Mistakes can be good:

  • When we learn something new, we often mess up several times. One example is learning to ride a bike. We will most likely fall several times before learning how to ride a bike. If we don’t ever try, we won’t learn new skills.
  • It teaches our body to be flexible so we can go with the flow.
  • We might also be able to learn to have fun even if things aren’t going perfectly. Sometimes it can be fun to laugh at yourself (not others) when you mess up!

We all make mistakes. When we make mistakes at school, our teachers and friends can remind us that it is OK and that we are still good students/friends/people even if we make a mistake. Making mistakes reminds us that we are courageous!

Download the resource below and post it in your classroom to remind your students to be courageous through mistakes.

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focus article by dr Caelan soma about universal needs

Back to School: Control the Controllable

As parents, educators, and students prepare for and begin the 2021-2022 school year, the normal back to school concerns are running into new unknowns related to the COVID-19 pandemic leaving children and adults more worried than usual. The unpredictability of this challenging situation reminds us that while we cannot control some things right now, there are strategies to alleviate stress and bolster resilience in all of us.

  1. Communicate: Talk to children, parents and educators about what to expect. This includes proactive strategies for keeping everyone healthy. Are masks required? Is physical distancing going to be enforced? Will there be modified schedules or changes to specials, lunch and recess time? If there are concerns, brainstorm ways to manage them. For example, some children and adults still have difficulties keeping their masks on all day or have an increased fear of getting sick.
  2. Routines: Create and practice routines as they offer predictability. At any age, when we know what we can expect, our stress lessens. A routine is enhanced when it is meaningful and interactive. This can be accomplished by adding music to the morning drive, using a special greeting when students enter your classroom or emailing a newsletter to caregivers each week that highlights positive things happening in your classroom or building.
  3. Stress management: Caregivers and educators are the biggest models for children. It is fine to admit to being worried as that normalizes feelings associated with difficult times. Showing children how you manage stress though the use of strategies such as taking some deep breaths, a quick walk or getting a drink of water to reset teaches them that we all have uncomfortable feelings from time to time and finding ways to manage them is the main goal. Adults can even invite kids to join them.

Courageous Classrooms: Build the Foundation

The new school year is upon us, and it’s important to recognize that the beginning of the year can be difficult and can cause a variety of feelings for students and adults. To get started on the right foot, have students think about all of the feelings that their body may be experiencing. There may be so many that they become mixed up and they may even be unsure of how they are feeling. It’s not important to know exactly what we are feeling, but instead know that it’s OK no matter what. All feelings are normal and OK. It’s great if you are excited to be at school and it’s also OK if you feel mad, nervous, or sad. Together we will support each other and our feelings will change over time.

How can we help support our kiddos feelings? As early in the school year as possible, discuss concepts related to being courageous. Ask students what it means to be courageous and/or examples of being courageous.

Being courageous means (include some of these concepts):

  • To be brave
  • To believe in yourself
  • To keep going even when something is difficult
  • To not give up (to try your best)
  • To handle tough things
  • To accept yourself when you are making mistakes, when something is hard, or when you aren’t doing as well as you want
  • To believe you can keep working hard to accomplish something (even when part of you thinks you can’t do it)
  • Courage is something within you that is always there even when you don’t feel it and can’t find it (it is within all of us)
  • Doing the right thing even when you don’t want to or when others don’t agree with you

Together, we can practice being courageous, and it will get easier for all of us.

Students can earn compliments, your school/classroom incentives, and can feel proud when using courageous skills. Remind students that an adult may not even know that they have used the skill, so encourage them to let an adult know when they were being courageous. Also, encourage students to notice when adults are being courageous. Teachers should be modeling these skills during the week (e.g., computer not working so being courageous by teaching the lesson a different way).

Reinforce ANY behavior that can be considered courageous. This week should have the most amount of reinforcement to help students develop a positive mindset about school and their ability to be successful. Acknowledgement also helps them to feel important and valued.

Our Courageous Classroom

Throughout the next several weeks, this blog will help you build a courageous classroom. The introductory statements below start simple, but will evolve into power SEL reminders for your students.

  • In this room we will be courageous, we will work together, and we will be there for each other
  • Some days we won’t feel courageous, but we will keep going and we will try our best

Optional follow-up activity: Create a banner or poster with courageous classroom in the title (We are a courageous classroom, Mrs. Smith’s Courageous Class, etc.). Have students decorate the poster with pictures or words to represent courage. You may also want to students and staff sign the poster.

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Post-COVID Stress Disorder and Pandemic Trauma and Stress Experience

The COVID-19 pandemic is triggering a wide variety of emotional, physical, and economic issues. There is extreme distress and children and adults alike are reporting worry, fear, hurt, and anger along with symptoms and reactions such as anxiety, depression, fatigue, difficulty focusing, problematic behavior, and the use of at-risk coping skills such as substance abuse. There is grief over what has been lost, and uncertainty about how to navigate daily life and concerns about what the future holds. Exposure to the pandemic, however, does not fit neatly within prevailing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) DSM-5 diagnostic criteria. This is because the DSM-5 attributes traumatic stress reactions to past, and largely direct, exposure to certain life-threatening events, and thus do not readily account for emerging evidence that COVID-19 is associated with PTSD symptomology (Bridgeland, et al., 2021)

Fortunately, there is literature appearing that provides us with names for all we are experiencing related to the pandemic. Post-COVID Stress Disorder and Pandemic Trauma and Stress Experience refer to the abundant responses and psychological consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic (Taxman, Owen & Essig, 2021).

Protective Factors

  • Social support
  • Financial stability
  • Healthcare resources
  • Safe workplace
  • Wellness programs

Traumatic Stress

  • Severe illness
  • Hospitalization
  • Witnessing death
  • Death of a loved one
  • Extreme exposure to COVID-19 details

General Stress

  • COVID-19 exposure and quarantine
  • Social isolation
  • Employment and/or income loss
  • Working from home with children
  • Being a caregiver
  • Making difficult decisions about health, education, finances, etc.

For individuals, this includes features reflecting the harmful consequences of accumulating stress and trauma. However, there are also features that reflect resilience and positive adaptations.

  • Fear for the future, weariness for the present, and grief for a lost past.
  • Increased frustration and despair.
  • Increased withdrawal, isolation, and fear of others as a source of the infection.
  • Loss of focus, both on specific tasks as well as general goals.
  • Increased mental mistakes and “fuzzy thinking”.
  • Hypervigilance to potential losses.
  • Realistic worries about finances.
  • Disruptions of normal patterns of behavior.
  • Closer family ties and reliance on friends.
  • Increased altruism, including worry about others.

The experience is real and we are feeling it. For many, the use of Post-COVID Stress Disorder and Pandemic Trauma and Stress Experience provide us with ways to name and validate the impact of the pandemic on our lives.

No matter how COVID-19 and its impact are manifesting in your or your loved ones' lives, its never too late to learn the skills and strategies to build resilience. Our streaming content can help! Get access to 60+ hours of trauma-informed professional development content to transform the lens through which you see childhood behavior. Get started for free today!

Get started for free!

Bridgland, M., Moeck, E., Green, D., Swain, T., Nayda, D., Matson, M., et al. (2021). Why the COVID-19 pandemic is a traumatic stressor. PLoS ONE 16(1): e0240146.

Taxman, J., Owen, G. & Essig, T. (2021). Pandemic Trauma and Stress Experience (PTSE): Adapting Together. For the APsaA Covid-19 Advisory Team. Webinar January 2021

Tucker, P. & Czapla, C. (2021). Post-COVID Stress Disorder: Another emerging consequence of the global pandemic. Psychiatric Times. Volume 38: Issue 1.

Expressive Art and Sensory-Based Interventions

The somatic effects of stress and trauma have been long misunderstood, or identified as symptoms of a terror experience that left no apparent physical injury or scar. However, advances in science now confirm the invisible wounds of trauma are imprinted and stored within the central nervous system of the body (Stanley, 2019; van der Kolk, 2015).  Access to emotions through a process that is aware and connected with internal sensations (temperature, body position, muscle tension, respiratory rate, heart rate, and other internal somatic sensations) is translated to have emotional meaning. This is possible through the use of expressive arts because the engagement with art materials along with the concrete visual imagery allow for easier access to emotions than through verbal communication alone (Kaminski-Cohen & Weihs, 2016).

Immutable research on how children most effectively heal from trauma-related mental health reactions encourages Starr’s movement further away from cognitive approaches and instead promotes the use of expressive art interventions, play-based activities, and attachment-based strategies. For example, play interventions for difficulties such as fear and anxiety have a strong research base that has continued for over the past 50 years. Art therapy provides a tactile experience that induces body sensations and emotions, increasing emotionality ratings and positive affect when compared to verbal processing alone (Czeamanski-Cohen & Weihs, 2016). Additionally, creating art is a personal integrative experience – an experience of flow that increases functional connectivity in the brain and brings an increase in qualities of resilience (Bolwerk et al, 2014). All are interactive treatment modalities, utilizing both mind and body which further strengthen connection and attachment (Porges, 2005).

Starr's intervention programs and training rely heavily on expressive art and other sensory-based activities. Watch an example from my course Structured Sensory Interventions II, and find our best offerings below to get started with the children you work with today!


Bolwerk, A., Mack-Andrick, J., Lang, F. R., Dorfler, A., & Maihofner, C. (2014). How art changes your brain: Differential effects of visual art production and cognitive art evaluation on function brain connectivity. PLOS ONE, 9 (7), e101035. Doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0101035. 

Czamanski-Cohen, J., & Weihs, K. L. (2016). The bodymind model: A platform for studying the mechanisms of change induced by art therapy. The Arts in psychotherapy51, 63-71.

Kaminski-Cohen, J. & Weihs, K.L. (2016). The Bodymind Model: A platform for studying the mechanisms of change induced by art therapy. The Arts in Psychotherapy, 51, 63 – 71. 

Porges, S. W (2005). The role of social engagement in attachment and bonding.  Attachment and Bonding, 33 – 54. 

Stanley, E. (2019). Widen the window: Training your brain and body to thrive during stress and recover from trauma. Penguin Books. 

Van der Kolk, B. A. (2015). The body keeps the score: Brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma. Penguin Books.

Rituals: How to support a smooth transition back to in-person, remote or hybrid learning

Many students and educators are back to school in various formats. In-school, virtual, and hybrid variations of teaching and learning for many have made scheduling and establishing a routine a challenge. During the pandemic, while some days are monotonous, our lives and interactions are also unpredictable. With so many unknowns, some will feel worried and scared. Educators and parents can buffer the stress through the creation of rituals.

You may not know when school will be back in-person. You may be back in-person but fear it may not last long or that it isn’t as safe. You may worry your school district will not go back in-person. You may love virtual school and not want to return any time soon. There are numerous scenarios on the minds of educators, students and families every day.

Rituals are meaningful and interactive activities that help lower stress and promote a sense of connection.

  • Play music or sing a song upon waking up, eating breakfast or during your morning meetings and classes.
  • Make the drive to school, start of class or a new lesson fun by playing a game like i-spy, 10 questions, or tell a joke.
  • Take a break for play or movement at regular times during the day. Use a code word or signal so students know break time is on the way.
  • Celebrate the end of a class, lesson or school day with a fun hand gesture or phrase.

When rituals are established and practiced often, students (and educators) come to expect them – they are fun ways to make a schedule and routine special. Watch my segment below on routines from Starr’s latest Resilient Educators episode for more information!

The APA Stress in 2020 Survey and Overlapping Symptomology

The American Psychological Association’s 2020 Stress in America survey revealed that Americans are experiencing a significant and negative impact as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Americans of all ages are struggling to cope with the disruption—on top of other factors creating stress, including political conflict, burdens of racism, and an economic downturn. The APA has declared a mental health crisis that will yield physical and behavioral health problems, as well as social consequences for decades.

The unfortunate reality is that the stress Americans have endured has been chronic and exaggerated. With such prolonged exposure, emotional and behavior regulation becomes difficult. What we can expect to observe in the youth we work with in clinical and education settings are symptoms and reactions that will look like many other mental health disorders. It will be important for us to remember that our observations might direct us toward diagnoses of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, anxiety, depression, and learning disabilities. However, with all that is going on in the lives of youth, we must be curious and cautious before assuming, labeling or assigning a diagnosis. While the presenting symptoms and reactions may look like a mental health disorder, we must remember to consider the underlying drivers of what we observe. As we have said before, a small amount of stress is tolerable, but our central nervous systems are not made to handle the marathon of stress created by an almost yearlong, global pandemic.  Normalization of the stress response, the practice of stress reducing strategies, and connection to as many protective factors as possible should be our priorities as child caring professionals.

For access to the full APA Stress in 2020 report:

While we know trauma is a fact, so is resilience. Despite the threat of an upcoming trauma tsunami facing our nation due to the Coronavirus pandemic, there is hope. We are seeing proof of the hope every day as parents, essential workers, and communities come together. We are calling on our nation’s congressional leadership, and policymakers at every level, to join this campaign, and support trauma-informed policies and provisions. Together we will be resilient.

Mental health disorders are the most common diseases of childhood. Trauma-Informed, Resilience-Focused Assessment & Differential Diagnosis will provide participants an understanding of the significant overlapping symptomology between mental health disorders and childhood trauma, and a clear view of what it looks like in schools and classrooms. In addition, the gap between the need and treatment of mental health problems in schools will be discussed. Participants will learn practical ways they can help, including: reducing the stigma of mental health, bridging the gaps between treatment and need, and focusing on fostering and nurturing characteristics of resilience in students. Watch the trailer below.

Trauma-Informed, Resilience-Focused Assessment  and Differential Diagnosis is on sale now!

Victim vs Survivor Thinking

One of the hallmarks of trauma work is to help facilitate movement from victim-thinking to survivor-thinking. This is why we spend just as much time processing trauma themes as we do promoting experiences where children can feel safe, empowered and resilient. During prolonged periods of stress such as what we are experiencing during the global pandemic, it is easy to get lost in victim-thinking. Victim-thinking is rooted in feelings of helplessness and hopelessness – feeling unable to do anything about the situation that has happened to us or continues to impact us.

One way to reframe victim-thinking is to explore with children how they are coping despite the difficulty of the pandemic.  The following statements and questions will help children begin to see themselves as survivors rather than victims.

  • You may not feel 100% but you are still here and you are you coping!
  • What is it about yourself that is helping you get from one day to the next?
  • There must be some real strengths you are utilizing to help you during this hard time. What are your greatest strengths?
  • Who is helping you to survive?
  • What is one word you might use to describe how you have gotten through the past several months?
  • What would you say to others to help them get through this time?
  • You are a survivor!

These questions and more can all be centered in a child's Universal Needs. In my course, Structured Sensory Interventions II, I discuss how each Need can also be applied when using the SITCAP model. Watch below and follow the links in the description for the course page.

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Students as Resources: Navigating Virtual Learning

Educators have reported some surprises in virtual education. Some students who were disengaged during in-person school are actively engaging virtually. Not all students who were actively engaged in-person are engaged virtually. Let’s remember that our students are valuable resources. As we all try to navigate teaching and learning online consider gathering a group of “high flyers” who are having great success with virtual learning. Invite them to attend a virtual focus group where you explore what they enjoy about the new learning environment.

Ask them:

  • What motivates you to participate?
  • What might be turning other students off?
  • What suggestions can you offer to educators, school leadership, parents and clinicians to help us support all learners?

Similarly, connect a group of students who were having success with in-person learning, but are struggling in the virtual environment.

Ask them:

  • What is different for you?
  • What are you missing the most?
  • What are alternative ways school can help you meet your needs (academic, social, emotional, etc.)?

Here are some of the responses Starr has received when students are asked similar questions.

I like not having to worry about impressing people with how I look or what I wear – school online makes that worry non-existent.

Most people don’t want to turn on their cameras but they will if other students do so first.

Sometimes our classroom doesn’t work, but I like that my teacher is learning too and we can fix it together.

I like it when we play games about what we are learning.

It is fun to work in smaller groups than to have so many people on the screen at one time. Maybe we can start all as one group and then break into smaller groups.

I miss seeing my friends.

It is really hard to figure out how to move around the (virtual) classroom – it is confusing with so many links and tabs.

It is really hard for me to learn how to do algebra online – my teacher goes too fast. I just wish he would take it one step at a time. He is rushing and most of my class doesn’t even understand what we learned last week.

These conversations become even more important as many states grapple with a return to online learning and potential isolation. I recently spoke on this topic to my Back to School During a Pandemic learning community. Watch below and follow the links in the description for the course page.

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8 Quick Ways for Youth to Practice Gratitude

Gratitude is thankful appreciation and acknowledgement of the goodness a person receives or experiences in their life. In positive psychology research, gratitude is strongly and consistently associated with greater well-being. Gratitude helps people feel more positive emotions, relish good experiences, improve their health, deal with adversity, and build strong relationships.

Despite the solid research supporting gratitude, when life is challenging it becomes more natural for many of us to focus on problems; what we aren’t feeling or experiencing; things we don’t have - than it is to practice gratitude. But, intentional and simple gratitude practice will allow you and the youth in your life will reap all of the benefits being grateful has to offer.

Notice. Simply notice when you are interacting with another person who makes you smile or feel good. This can be on the phone or other virtual platform.

Say thank you. Verbally say thank you to others for their smile, their friendship, helping you, making you dinner, etc. Say thank you to yourself for carrying on even when you are tired, for taking the time to practice gratitude even if it doesn’t come easily.

Write a thank you text, email or note. Take a minute or two to send a text, email or thank you note to someone who has made a positive impact on your life. Instead of just thinking about it, reach out and let them know.

Breathe. Take one deep breath and be thankful for the air you breathe and how it fills your lungs.

Acknowledge a positive experience. Acknowledge a positive experience by writing it down in a notebook or by telling someone about your experience.

List your VIP(s). Make a list of the very important people in your life. You may have one or you may have many. Write down their names and be thankful they are in your life.

One-a-day. At the end of the day, write down (or even think of) one thing that happened or one thing you experienced that made you grateful.

Gratitude Jar. Find a jar (or box, basket, bowl) and ask your family or friends to all identify one thing or person they feel gratitude for – and add everyone’s gratitude to the jar. Once filled, take out one piece of paper at a time and everyone can share their contribution.

Expressing gratitude is crucial for professionals as well! It is the first line of defense against compassion fatigue, vicarious trauma, and burnout. My colleague and Starr's Senior Trainer Erin Madden Reed explains this important connection in Practicing Resilience: Essential Self-Care Strategies for Helping Professionals. Watch below and follow the links in the description for the course page.

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Emotional Awareness and Regulation

The use of body maps to help with body scans is a great way to teach and practice emotional awareness. It is very difficult to manage emotions and behavior if you don’t know how to notice and pay attention to the sensations your body provides you when you experience various emotions.

This practice is not only beneficial for adults but also the students and children in our care.

The more you practice listening to your body, the easier it will be to be in charge of how you feel and act at home with your families, in the workplace and for students - at school and with your friends. It is a great feeling to be in control of our emotions and behavior but that comes with emotional awareness practice.

Here is a script you can use on your own or read to a child/student. Make sure you download the following body map to use and have some colored pencils or thin-tipped markers nearby.

Download your Body Scan Map

Sit comfortably. Take a few deep breaths in and out. Now, just take a few seconds to check in with your body. Start with your head and face. Then bring your attention to your neck and throat.  Do you feel any tightness? If you feel like you want to move – feel free to do so.

Now roll your shoulders back a few times, how do your shoulders feel? What about your arms, wrists and fingers. Wiggle your fingers. How do the muscles feel across your back and chest. Now notice your stomach. How does it feel? Lastly, move your attention to your legs and all the way down to your feet and the tips of your toes.  

What are the parts of your body that feel good? Bad?

Is there any part of your body that feels calm? Tense?

Do you feel any aches, pains or other sensations like happiness in your heart or butterfly feelings in your stomach?

The sensations in your body help you understand how you are feeling. They are the first clue that you may be nervous, angry or scared. The more we listen to them, the more you will be able to make good decisions with each feeling that comes your way.

Make a mark or color in the parts of your body on the body map outline that you notice the most. Use any color you wish to represent feelings of calm, tension, pain or good feelings like happy or excited.

Great job – What stands out most to you as you look at your body map? What do you need most right now to feel more balanced and comfortable?

My colleague and Starr's Director of Professional Training and Coaching L. Kathryn Hart dives deeper into emotional awareness in Healing Trauma & Restoring Resilience in Schools. Watch below and follow the links in the description for the course page.

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Connection and Vulnerability

The need and desire to connect with others remains essential. The prolonged need to physically distance, teach, learn and work remotely coupled with the inability to visit friends and family due to travel restrictions and other necessary coronavirus prevention precautions is taking a toll on us all. In recent months, there has been encouragement to reach out to others and remain connected. This is because connection with others gives our lives significant meaning and purpose. We are all wired to connect and as childhood trauma expert Bruce Perry says, “We are born to love.”

We all know what it feels like to be in the presence of others (even virtually) but not truly feel connected. I have felt this lately through virtual telehealth sessions and trainings where everyone is trying to remain calm, get used to the technology and juggle barking dogs and household demands with the person or people with whom we are interacting. Educators are feeling disconnected from students because they aren’t in person or lack of participation. We all know how middle and high school youth loathe turning on their cameras. Sometimes we spend hours talking to a computer without seeing faces.

Brene Brown has taught us that true connection requires vulnerability. We all desperately need connection, but it comes at a cost – we must get comfortable with discomfort and that isn’t easy.

What does this really mean? How can we do get there, and what are the benefits?

Vulnerability is consciously and intentionally choosing yourself to be seen, and to be seen fully. To say it another way, being vulnerable means that we make a decision to be honest with ourselves and others by exposing and sharing authentic thoughts, feelings, opinions, and even appearances. This is not an easy place to be – it is uncomfortable and scary. It takes courage. The fear of others thinking you are not worthy or not good enough because of your uniqueness is universal. We all experience this unease in some way. But, it is essential for true connection. So how can we, as child-caring adults, practice vulnerability so we may reap the full benefits of connection?

  • Compliment others, tell them they are appreciated, you respect them, you love them.
  • Establish clear boundaries. Maybe you need more time to prepare for a meeting or only want to answer email during working hours.
  • Admit if you need help or support. Reach out and let someone know you are struggling.
  • Say “I’m sorry.” Take responsibility for your actions and do not blame.
  • Tell someone if they are being hurtful or insensitive. You can be kind and truthful simultaneously.
  • Be unique. Don’t hold back trying out a new hairstyle. Let your taste in music, art, or politics be known.
  • Be okay with “not knowing. “ Ask questions. Be curious.
  • Tell yourself daily that you are worthy of being loved.
  • Believe you are enough, exactly the way you are! There is no such thing as perfect.

Szalavitz, M. & Perry, B. (2010). Born for love: Why empathy is essential and endangered. Harper Collins: NY, NY.


Ted Talk with Brene Brown

The power of vulnerability

Making connections, despite one's vulnerability, is crucial to establishing belonging among all of us. I dive deeper into establishing belonging in our Back to School During a Pandemic series. Enjoy a free episode below.

You can join the conversation! In Back to School During a Pandemic, Dr. Soma walks alongside professionals, answering your questions and providing insight and support during this trying time. Learn more on our store.

Learn more with these offerings from Starr Commonwealth

Finding Purpose, Meaning, and Value

Finding meaning, purpose, and value in a time of significant change and loss is a step in both the grieving and healing process.  We might be grieving the loss of a family member or friend, the loss of school and work routine, and everything else that was normal in our lives prior to the global pandemic. It is a time when we have been shaken to the core both professionally and personally. While we might be feeling forced to make sense of difficult life events or experiences, I am inviting you to view this time as an opportunity and as a gift to engage in a part of healing that can give you energy, help make you healthier, and increase your ability to be productive and helpful to others. Making meaning helps jump-start hope, redefines your place in the world, and provides purpose in life. Meaning making also gives a sense of control of the situation because you are acting as a participant in your healing. At the same time, it also helps frame your meaning as part of something bigger in the world.

Reflect upon your sense of meaning, value, and purpose:

  • First, recognize the losses you are grieving and are leading you to want to make meaning in your life.
    • e.g., I miss teaching my students in the classroom. I am grieving the loss of being able to attend larger family gatherings.
  • Make a list of your values and life goals; include your personal, familial, cultural, professional and religious/spiritual values – this is your purpose.
    • e.g., I value health and wellness. I value my family and the ability to provide my children with experiences that bring us joy and laughter. My goal is to support others emotionally who might be struggling.
  • How is your presence and existence significant and valued by others who care about you and the world?
    • e.g., My children rely on me for co-regulation. My friends value my ability to be a good listener. My mom appreciates that I always think about her and include her in my family meals.
  • Are there any creative ways you can find hope and meaning in your life, especially if you find yourself as having little to no free time or space during this pandemic?
    • e.g., Send text messages often to friends and loved ones to check in. Deliver non-perishable food to children in my community with food insecurity. Have a movie or game night with my children at least once on the weekend.

All of these examples are founded in hope. Below, I discuss the importance of hope in our course Back to School During a Pandemic.

You can join the conversation! In Back to School During a Pandemic, Dr. Soma walks alongside professionals, answering your questions and providing insight and support during this trying time. Learn more on our store.

Take your mind body skills or self-care further. Be one of the first 100 subscribers to use BREATHE at checkout to save %75 on Practicing Resilience or Mind Body Skills. Click below before it's too late!

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Just Breathe!

When you don’t know what to say…just BREATHE.

Part of resilience is having a voice, choice and the ability to help ourselves feel better when overwhelming feelings come our way. The Circle of Courage refers to this universal need as independence. Without this universal need met, adults and children alike feel helpless, hopeless and emotionally exhausted.

It is proven that the part of the brain responsible for language becomes compromised when we have acute or chronic stress. In other words, there are NO words to describe the hurt, fear, anger or overwhelm we may be experiencing with back to school 2020. I hear over and over again, “I just don’t know what to say.” Many also feel like there is little to no choices or solutions for the best approaches to teaching or learning during a global pandemic. Teachers and students are navigating uncharted waters and the waves have been rough – impacting our sense of control and ultimately our sense of independence.

The good news however, also backed by brain science is the power of breath. While breathing is an involuntary function of the brain, we can make a choice and help ourselves feel better by regulating our overwhelming feelings when we breathe with intention. Intentional breathing strategies quickly activate the parasympathetic nervous system, counter-acting the stress response and elicits feelings of calm. The next time you aren’t sure what to say, or what to do or when a student is having a difficult time emotionally or academically, use the power of taking or encouraging an intentional breath.

Click below to learn more and watch Starr Senior Trainer Erin Reed demonstrate several exercises for breathwork at any age.

Learn more breathwork activities and other regulating exercises for all ages in Starr's Mind Body Skills: Activities for Emotional RegulationDownload a free sample below.

Take your mind body skills or self-care further. Be one of the first 100 subscribers to use BREATHE at checkout to save %75 on Practicing Resilience or Mind Body Skills. Click below before it's too late!

Learn more with these offerings from Starr Commonwealth

Hope: Building Resilience as a Survivor

If we can face hard things or times with a sense that there’s something we can do about them, life becomes easier to live. In a time where we are all feeling quite overwhelmed this can be tough. But, hope can truly be the catalyst to get us to create and engage in other behaviors that do make things a little easier and enjoyable. And, performing these behaviors can, in turn, fuel more hope.

The following are ways to help both you and your students feel hopeful. These strategies are things we can do and ARE in our control even amid the pandemic, the overwhelming demands of in person, online and hybrid teaching and learning.

Demonstrate love. Demonstrating love for yourself is just as important as for your students. Be kind to yourself and your body by making sleep and movement priorities during this stressful time. Show kindness and care to your students by noticing them often and offering appreciations for the little things they do or say.

Show grace. Show grace for yourself and your students. This is a time to make a shift to reasonable expectations, a time to ask for help and to offer support if you see someone might need it.

Encourage the sharing of successes. Take inventory every day of your small wins. Ask students to do the same – what made you feel good about yourself or others today? Remember, a win and success doesn’t mean perfection. Instead look for anything you did, said or noticed about others that made you feel good.

You and your students deserve happiness and fun. So go for it – take 5 or 10 minutes at the start or end of class to have fun. Laugh, play music during class, sing a song, have a dance party, ask students to share funny stories or jokes.

In order to sustain this time, it is imperative that we let go of regret, worry and certainly perfection. Those things squash hope. Instead, focus on love, grace, successes and happiness to uplift and renew hope. Use Starr's samples from One-Minute Resilience Building Interventions for Traumatized Children and Adolescents to help brainstorming sessions around the concept of hope.

Download "Building Hope as a Survivor"

Take your pathway to resilience further with Starr's related resources:

Hope: The Pathway to Resilience

What we can all use now is a little bit of hope! The new “now” is hard, it is confusing and it is unpredictable.

For the past couple of weeks we have talked about the Circle of Courage and a quest to provide resilience building and nurturing opportunities for practitioners, educators and the children in their care. We know experiences of belonging, mastery, independence and generosity are protective and healing. But, there is something I should have mentioned earlier: Hope.

Hope is the belief that your future can be better than your past and you play a role in making it – despite adversity. The science and power of hope as a driver for prevention and intervention is grounded in evidence-based research. To the extent that resilience remains a target, hope is the mindset that should serve as the “on ramp” or “driver” of resilient behavior. Increasing hope when stress is high deserves our primary focus as we aim for creating or enhancing resilience. The evidence is convincing that hope buffers stress and adversity, predicts important outcomes, and can be learned and sustained. These findings are consistent for both adults and children demonstrating that hope mitigates the negative effects of toxic stress trauma. To date, there are over 2,000 published studies investigating hope. In every published study of hope, it is one of the best predictors of well-being. So, what does this mean? Goal setting, exploring future-orientation (even very short term), motivation, empowerment and a lot of encouragement are essential. If you or your students are finding it difficult to connect, identify their strengths, engage in activities and learn, start with one of these Hope, Life Goals, and Mastery activities.

Download Hope, Life Goals, and Mastery Worksheets

Duncan, Ashten & Jaini, Paresh & Hellman, Chan. (2020). Positive Psychology and Hope as Lifestyle Medicine Modalities in the Therapeutic Encounter: A Narrative Review. American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine. 155982762090825. 10.1177/1559827620908255.

Gallagher, M. W. (Ed.). (2018). Introduction to the science of hope. In M. W. Gallagher & S. J. Lopez (Eds.), Oxford library of psychology. The Oxford handbook of hope (p. 3–7). Oxford University Press.

Take your pathway to resilience further with Starr's related resources:

Building Mastery in Your Classroom

Mastery is reaching our potential with supports. Mastery is NOT perfection.

The second universal need according to the Circle of Courage resilience model is MASTERY. When we talk about mastery we are not talking about perfection but rather the engagement in activities and tasks with adequate supports in place to allow ourselves to feel good about both our efforts and accomplishments. We all require various levels of support to reach our unique potential. Without support, there is often frustration, giving up easily and not enjoying the learning process. This is true with new rules, academics, sports, hobbies and even social situations.
Any person, of any age, will feel empowered and motivated when given experiences and opportunities to engage in activities that bring them connection and joy and learn new ideas and concepts that have meaning to their lives. When activities and learning are coupled with encouragement, patience and support, resilience builds.

  • When teaching in-person or in a virtual classroom, some students may need additional (or even ongoing) verbal or visual reminders about rules and etiquette.
  • Developmental age rather than chronological age should always be considered to set students up for success. If a student is developmentally more of an 8 year old than his chronological age 12, what might you modify or provide as a support to help him stay engaged in your lesson?
  • Scaffolding new ideas and concepts with a breakdown of steps helps.
  • Peer to peer or small group discussions allow for both connection and collaboration.
  • Provide real life examples in your teaching.

What are some of the ways you offer support to your students to set them up for success? Much like the Belonging staff self-assessment, Starr Commonwealth offers an assessment to gauge how you are building Mastery in your classroom. Download your free copy below!

Download your Mastery self-assessment

Learn more about building Mastery in your classroom with my colleague L. Kathryn Hart in Starr's course Healing Trauma & Restoring Resilience in Schools.

Our full Circle of Courage staff self-assessment is featured in Starr's 10 Steps to Create a Trauma-Informed, Resilient School. This resource provides the foundation to empower students, staff, and family. Not only does 10 Steps feature easy to implement steps, but includes case studies, worksheets, and behavior intervention forms. Purchase today and save 50%!
Claim your limited time offer!

Self-Awareness to Regulate Stressors

We are now well into the school year, and everyone has a different scenario–in-person, hybrid, virtual and some teaching one way while their own children are learning a different way. The new “now” is, no doubt, filled with some level of stress for many if not all of us. While there are many aspects we can’t control about our unique situations, there are fast and easy ways we can at least manage our situations and ward off some of the stress we may be experiencing.

What are some signs we can look for that may indicate the various manifestations of stress?

  • Emotional distress might show up looking like anger or anxiety.
  • Personal stress often results in isolating behavior and striving for unobtainable perfectionism.
  • Physical complaints like headaches and stomachaches are often the result of the physical toll of stress on your body.
  • At work, signs of stress might be not wanting to return email or avoidance of tasks.

Most, if not all, parents and teachers I have talked to in the past few weeks returning back to school have reported feeling overwhelmed and exhausted – both indicators of stress overload. While some stress is tolerable, chronic or exaggerated stress is not. It makes it really hard to think clearly, respond patiently, and feel good in general. Identifying indicators of distress is the first step to alleviating stress.

We have created a worksheet for you to use. The downloadable worksheet to identify any distress signals your body is giving you in each of the four areas. These four areas include emotional, personal, physical, and work.

This is a must – you have to identify distress be able to help reduce it. Stress shows up in symptoms, reactions and behaviors.

Download the Self-Awareness Worksheet

Need a quick activity to help anchor you in your awareness? It starts with breathing! Below, my colleague Erin Madden Reed explains both the importance of breathing, as well as how to approach breathwork for children and adults.

Learn more breathwork activities and other regulating exercises for all ages in Starr's Mind Body Skills: Activities for Emotional RegulationDownload a free sample below.

Learn more with these offerings from Starr Commonwealth

Fostering Connections through Who I Am Worksheets

School connectedness is a significant protective factor for all students in preventing substance abuse, violence, absenteeism, suicide emotional problems and eating disorders. Students who feel connected to their school are also likely to have better academic achievement. Now, more than ever – even in a virtual setting, child caring adults must foster connections. Connection is made through ongoing and repetitive moment-to-moment interactions school professionals have with their students. For some, the guide of 5:1 noticing is useful. Aim for at least five positive interactions to every one corrective interaction with each student per day. Noticing comes in many forms:

  • Greet the student by name.
  • Praise for participation.
  • Acknowledgment of character strengths.
  • Gratitude for kindness or helpful interactions between yourself and student or student and peers.
  • Checking-in: “How is your family doing?”
  • Friendly gesture like a wave or head nod.

This may seem like a simple intervention strategy but it is powerful. Every interaction we have with a student matters because it provides an opportunity to promote a sense of safety and engagement.

To take fostering connection with your students a step further, you can use the worksheet Who I Am available to download below. Students can be asked to complete this worksheet and it can then be shared in classroom meetings, office hours and small group sessions with students and their peers.

Download the Who am I worksheet

Fostering connections is Step 3 in Starr's 10 Steps to Create a Trauma-Informed, Resilient School. This resource provides the foundation to empower students, staff, and family. Not only does 10 Steps feature easy to implement steps, but includes case studies, worksheets, and behavior intervention forms. Purchase today and save 50%!

Claim your limited time offer!

More related resources from Starr Commonwealth

Are You Building a Sense of Belonging for Your Students?

In Native American and First Nations cultures, significance was nurtured in communities of belonging. Lakota anthropologist Ella Deloria described the core value of belonging in these simple words: “Be related, somehow, to everyone you know.” Treating others as kin forges powerful social bonds that draw all into relationships of respect. Theologian Marty observed that throughout history the tribe, not the nuclear family, always ensured the survival of the culture. Even if parents died or were not responsible, the tribe was always there to nourish the next generation.

In the classroom, ensuring a sense of belonging for each and every student is critical for success. While this theory is easy to grasp, the reality of developing that sense of belonging isn’t always as clear. To support educators in their everyday practices, Starr has developed a simple self-assessment to help you reach your universal needs goals. Below, Dr. Soma explains the self-assessment tool in our latest Back to School During a Pandemic episode. Click below the video to download your belonging self-assessment. You can print it out, post it around your desk, and ask yourself each week how well you did building belonging!

Download your belonging self-assessment

Our full Circle of Courage staff self-assessment is featured in Starr's 10 Steps to Create a Trauma-Informed, Resilient School. This resource provides the foundation to empower students, staff, and family. Not only does 10 Steps feature easy to implement steps, but includes case studies, worksheets, and behavior intervention forms. Purchase today and save 50%!

Claim your limited time offer!

More related resources from Starr Commonwealth

Developed by Starr’s 2nd President, Dr. Larry K. Brendtro (PhD), and his colleagues, the Circle of Courage® provides the philosophical foundation for Starr’s resilience-focused approach to working with children, families, and communities, in addition to the work of Reclaiming Youth International.

Celebrating Students with Strength Inventories

Every child has strengths. It should be common practice to conduct a strengths inventory on every student in your school. As we begin the school year, now is the perfect time to celebrate each child in your room and their unique qualities. While there are several inventories on the market that help assess strengths, you may also choose to do your own inventory on your own or with colleagues. Click below for a simple strengths inventory that is not only easy to use, but extremely informative. Information provided from a strengths inventory can help with student regulation, inform behavior plans, and drive intervention strategies.

Download your free strengths inventory

Our strength inventory is featured in Starr's 10 Steps to Create a Trauma-Informed, Resilient School. This resource provides the foundation to empower students, staff, and family. Not only does 10 Steps feature easy to implement steps, but includes case studies, worksheets, and behavior intervention forms. Purchase today and save 50%!

Claim your limited time offer!

We are excited to announce Starr's debut of a new offering: Trauma-Informed, Resilience-Focused Episodes. Your time is valuable. As such, we are proud to offer low-cost, short-form content in order to expand and reinforce your toolkit while being sensitive to your time and budget. Each episode is eligible for continuing education credits.

Browse Starr's Episodes

More related resources from Starr Commonwealth

Back to School During a Pandemic: Starr’s Expert Panel

At the culmination of Starr's 2020 Trauma & Resilience Conference, our experts came together to directly address the questions of our attendees. Throughout the session, they discussed returning to school, staff self-care, balancing the myriad of considerations of COVID-19, and many other topics to inspire educators and child-caring professionals.

Starr's Experts:

  • Dr. Caelan Soma
  • Derek Allen
  • Kathy Hart
  • Katie Carpenter
  • Erin Madden Reed

The Expert Panel is one of 21 sessions available for conference attendees. We are excited to announce that these sessions are Starr's debut of a new offering: Trauma-Informed, Resilience-Focused Episodes. Your time is valuable. As such, we are proud to offer low-cost, short-form content in order to expand and reinforce your toolkit while being sensitive to your time and budget. Each episode is eligible for continuing education credits.
NOTE: While the expert panel above is not eligible for CEs, purchase of any conference episodes include details to earn CEs for the panel as well!

Browse Starr's Episodes

More related resources from Starr Commonwealth

Quick Tips to Start the School Year Right

Kathy Hart and her team stand ready to help schools and organizations get the most out of Starr's courses, resources, and materials. Schedule your organization's training today by emailing

Prepare your school to support students, staff, and families as we return to class by purchasing Starr's back to school guide, complete with COVID-19 considerations, resilience-building activities, and more!

Learn more about Starr's back to school resource

Promoting Resilience as Children Return to School

Resilience provides hope, an essential experience for not just students but all of the adults working with them. We may not be able to take away toxic stress and trauma a child has experienced during COVID-19 or will continue to experience in their homes or communities post-pandemic, but we can create new experiences of resilience. Being trauma-informed means we take a child’s past and current adverse experience into consideration. Post-disruption recovery will require that educators are always looking for new opportunities and experiences to provide to students which will either uncover their hidden resilience or cultivate characteristics of resilience to positively shift their view of self, others and the environment.

Resilience is the ability to achieve positive outcomes – mentally, emotionally, socially and spiritually – despite adversity

Resilience research points to many characteristics that will protect children when they experience adversity. For example, psychological and emotional attributes and opportunities associated with resilience in children include: above average verbal skills, cognitive and problem solving opportunities and abilities, positive self-esteem, ability to self-regulate behavior, positive expectations about the future, familial and social supports (Loitre, Martin & Linares, 2005; Rice & Groves, 2005). However, there are four main factors we see repeatedly, in almost every article written about childhood resilience;

  1. Supportive adult-child relationships,
  2. Sense of self-efficacy and perceived sense of control,
  3. Adaptive skills and self-regulatory capacities,
  4. Sources of faith, hope, and cultural traditions that provide meaning and a sense of value in life.

These four main factors align with the Circle of Courage® model of resilience. The following is a look at protective factors that may prevent COVID-19 from being a traumatic experience for children despite exposure to the challenges brought upon by the pandemic.

Belonging, Connections, and Support

  • Parents and caregivers that do their best to connect with children throughout the day–even if it is for short but meaningful interactions in between work, household responsibilities.
  • Children who have maintained connection with family and friends by texting, emailing, sending letters and setting up calls.

"My friend and I have started this pen-pal thing—we send one letter every week and I put fun things inside like teabags or pressed flowers." - 9th grader

Mastery, ability to engage in and practice hobbies and activities

  • Lots of outside activities. Do what you love!
  • Online and home opportunities to practice skills – music, dance, academic, language, art, sports, etc.

“My soccer coach has an online call with us every week. When quarantine started I could only juggle the soccer ball on my knee 8 times in a row but now I am up to 16 juggles!" - 5th grader

Independence, choice, and control over self and situations

  • Empower children to decide which of a group of activities they can complete through lists and/or choice boards.
  • More independent time while parents are working.

“At first I was bored, but now I have a lot of things I like to do while my parents work and I have finished my school work. I learned how to bake a cake from scratch.” - 8th grader

Generosity, helping others, feeling of value

  • Opportunities to help others during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“My mom had us do this thing – we put positive messages on postcards like, “after the rain sunshine will come” and “you’ve got this!” and we sent them to a nursing home in our city. I’m not sure if they got them but it was fun to do.” - 7th grader

This article is an excerpt from Dr. Soma's Resilient Schools: A Back to School Guide During a Pandemic (previously titled COVID-19 Response, Reintegration, and Post-Disruption Recovery)

Learn more about Starr's back-to-school resource

Dr. Soma and her colleagues presented many topics related to the traumatic experience of COVID-19 at Starr's 2020 virtual conference. Watch her keynote below!

Watch the keynote Use the password: freekeynote

Self-Care: Gratitude Writing

There is a great deal of research that supports the effectiveness of expressing gratitude. Gratitude has been shown to help you make friends. One study found that if you thank someone, even an acquaintance, they're more likely to seek a deeper relationship with you. Gratitude has even been shown to fix your physical health. People who show gratitude report less aches and pains and a general feeling of better health. Grateful people also enjoy a higher rate of well-being and happiness and suffer from less symptoms of depression.

We know gratitude enhances our feelings of empathy, and those who show gratitude are more likely to be more forgiving and more likely to behave in a more socially sensitive manner. Gratitude has even been shown to help people sleep better. People who are grateful and appreciate other people's achievements are more able to appreciate their own achievements.

There's several options for how you can engage with being aware and connected to your gratitude. One powerful method is through writing. When writing on your gratitude, do your best not to be too cognitive about it. Try not to censor yourself. Just let yourself feel what you're grateful for. Think of the big things and the small things. Add in your relationships. Maybe material goods, personal talents, people, opportunities, or anything that you feel deeply grateful for.

When you've finished, take a moment to pause and notice how you feel when you immerse yourself into what you're grateful for.


Click below to learn more about gratitude writing and download your guide.

Download your gratitude writing template

Starr's Virtual Trauma & Resilience Conference will feature self-care sessions, in addition to many other topics. Register below!

Register today!

More related resources from Starr Commonwealth

PBIS in Trauma-Informed Resilience-Focused Schools

Many educators may think that Positive Behavior Supports & Interventions is a straightforward system that may not vary school to school. The reality is that PBIS can, in fact, take many forms. It can even be integrated with other areas of focus. Trauma-informed, resilience-focused schools look at the needs of each child. Therefore, PBIS can be integrated into trauma-informed, resilient schools but it should be done with a focus on relationships, self-awareness, and regulation rather than on rewards and punishments.


  • Positive reinforcement through encouraging feedback and noticing.
  • Connect with students.
  • Build relationships – not just rapport.
  • Search for and build upon student strengths and interest.
  • Assess for each student’s universal needs indicating which needs are being met and those which are not being met.
  • Don’t just reward a few. Celebrate the entire class for effort.


  • Use behavior as your clue.
  • Behavior is a response to unmet needs and/or a survival response.
  • Be curious about behavior.
  • Ask “What might be driving this behavior?”
  • Ask “What might the child’s private logic be and how is that impacting the behavior?”


  • Intervention is not for tracking negative behaviors.
  • Use the Starr’s Behavior Support Plan to support the Circle of Courage universal needs of belonging, mastery, independence, and generosity.


  • Adapt the environment to support the student.
  • Provide calming corners.
  • Use sensory supports, mentors, reset spaces, restorative practices, brain breaks, and play.

Click below to learn from Starr Executive Vice President & COO Derek Allen as he explains what to keep in mind when implementing PBIS within a trauma-informed, resilience-focused culture.

Integrating PBIS with a trauma-informed, resilience-focused school can be done seamlessly through Starr's 10 Steps to Create a Trauma-Informed, Resilience-Focused School. Download a free sample below.

Download a sample of 10 Steps

Starr Commonwealth is diving deeper into PBIS and trauma-informed, resilience-focused schools at our virtual conference! Click below to learn more. Additionally, you can learn more with these resources from Starr—including the eCourse Resetting for Resilience seen above. You can register now for 75% off!

De-Escalation: It All Begins with Awareness and Mindfulness

Recently, Starr Commonwealth has received many questions regarding techniques for de-escalating dysregulated behavior. Before any of us can control our fight or flight responses, we must be able to bring awareness to our present moment.

Present moment awareness discharges activations due to fight/flight responses, and brings energy to shutdown. Activities to bring an individual’s awareness to the here and now is the first step to restoring their sense of safety and connection. Practicing present moment awareness on a regular basis leads to more experiences of the vagus nerve/social engagement network being activated, rather than experiences of shut down/fight/flight.

Click below to learn more and watch Starr Senior Trainer Erin Reed explain the process of awareness and mindfulness in the present moment.

Learn more de-escalation with One-Minute Resilience Building Interventions for Traumatized Children and AdolescentsDownload a free sample below.

Download a sample of One Minute Resilience Building Interventions

Learn more with these offerings from Starr Commonwealth

Racism Leads to Death. Enough.

The murder of George Floyd in broad daylight must be met with accountability and justice.  George was called “Big Floyd” by his close friends. He was known as a peacemaker, and a mentor to many. He was a father and a brother. The devastating truth is that George Floyd is another name on a long list of black lives that have been taken due to the trauma of racism. Starr Commonwealth’s values, mission and vision drive us to stand in solidarity with those putting their lives on the line to demand real, meaningful change to systemic racism in the United States of America. It is long overdue that ALL citizens of this country come together to demand equity. We must say loud and clear Black Lives Matter, against the pervasive message that black and brown lives are dispensable looms in our shadows.

Every single day in the United States, our citizens of color are suffering due to the disease of racism. Every. Single. Day. A father, a mother, a sister, a brother, a son or daughter is lost due to the inequity in our systems of wealth, access to housing, education, mass incarceration, and health care. These systems are intentionally designed to keep people of color from their boundless success and unlimited potential. Every single day institutionalized racism allows white supremacy to continue. Every day white citizens are turning a blind eye, making excuses, or willfully ignoring the truth about the systems that uphold their privilege.

At Starr Commonwealth, we live by the creed that no one has the right to hurt another human being, and everyone has the responsibility to help. White silence and blindness is turning away from our responsibility to help, and if we are not helping, we are hurting.  In the words of Angela Davis, “It is not enough to not be racist, you must actively be anti-racist.”

Starr Commonwealth believes deeply in the oneness of the human family. Today, as we mourn the loss of yet another black life, we call to all of our human family to look deeply into your hearts and find the courage to help change the insidious systems of racism in America. As an organization we are looking into our own hearts, looking to leaders of color for wisdom, and leaning into the experiences that are different from our own. We are looking in the mirror, listening deeply, and taking every opportunity to engage in the long overdue conversation about racism. We know that in order to heal, first we must show up and feel, reach deep into our empathy, and then take action. We have been speaking and teaching and working toward healing and justice for decades and we pledge to continue our work towards a world where peace, justice, and equity are realized for our entire human family.

Our greatest power to heal is through relationship. Starr Commonwealth is committed to continuing the conversations and building connections that support people in reflecting on thoughts, feelings, and actions regarding equality, and taking action to dismantle systems of racism. To start we have linked some resources to support your understanding of the reality of racism and its impact. So please stay connected as we are actively working to create experiences that help us move towards a beloved community.

“The end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the Beloved Community. It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opponents into friends. It is this type of understanding goodwill that will transform the deep gloom of the old age into the exuberant gladness of the new age. It is this love which will bring about miracles in the hearts of men.” - Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Download Starr's Glasswing Racial Healing Manual

Anti-Racism Resources

Defusing Sessions Available through Starr Commonwealth

What is defusing, and where would these sessions fit in the crisis response timeline?

Defusing is both supportive and educational. Its purpose is not to process or explore feelings, nor to allow for the ventilation of feelings (this happens 1:1 and after 4 weeks has passed). Why? This process prevents participants from revealing more about themselves than they wish to in a group and also protects the other participants from being exposed to others emotional intensity that may further dysregulate them. Through defusing, we allow participants to know they are not alone, normalize thoughts and reactions, educate participants about what they may experience in the following days/weeks, and provide referral resources should they wish to talk with someone in the future. When defusing, the sooner after an event the better so people can begin to cope more effectively and plan for the future while holding the unknowns. However, during ongoing situations like COVID-19, any time is appropriate for defusing.

Who can benefit from defusing?

Anyone who is feeling stressed and unsure what is next. There are many unknowns right now— especially for our educators and their students. We want to offer a space to process and check in, to make sure we as professionals are in a good headspace before diving back in to teach or help kids. This is a service we are able to offer to anyone in the United States.

How do I know if we're ready for defusing, or the steps following defusing?

Defusing is for all of us right now. COVID-19 has created an ongoing traumatic event, and none of us are quite sure what our afters look like yet. But there was a before that has passed. Many of us may have also experienced losses of many kinds during this time, whether friends or family members, or events and things we were looking forward to, or even just our normal routines.  After defusing, we offer whole staff training, reflection groups, and more.

What are the most important factors to consider when defusing? What can readers begin to do immediately, even before a defusing session?

Crisis intervention is the appropriate intervention for the first few days, however we want that crisis intervention to be framed within a trauma informed context. Appropriate crisis intervention is designed to meet the basic needs of people in crisis and then help them discover or realize they have the strength and resilience to cope with what they have experienced. This also involves helping them regulate their emotional and physiological reactions.

The most important mindset in crisis intervention is one that is survivor focused, curious and able to shift thinking from victim to survivor thinking. When we allow what is learned about how survivors are experiencing the current experience and what matters most to them, we will succeed at helping them feel better and will promote healing.

In addition, the professional can normalize their own and others reactions, and begin to think about how to create new routines. Utilizing self-care plans like those available in Starr’s Practicing Resilience course is a great place to start!

Starr Commonwealth is currently offering both Trauma-Informed Resilient Schools (education focus) and Children of Trauma & Resilience (clinical focus) free of charge. These courses provide powerful context to trauma and toxic stress in children and how professionals can begin to help the healing process. Starr Commonwealth also offers telehealth services in the state of Michigan for anyone who may need further assistance.

What can Starr offer other clinics and agencies?

With our combined years of experience, particularly in trauma treatment, we are well equipped to assist you in your growth as a clinician. We would be happy to work with you for ongoing supervision, case consultation if working with a difficult case, or to meet the licensing requirements of the State of Michigan.

We can also provide consultation on building a trauma informed clinical program, how to select the right materials, and training to meet your or your agencies needs to best serve your clients.

Trauma work requires the clinician to be reflective and take care of oneself to prevent secondary trauma and burn out. We can support you in this! My own clinical supervision that I have continued beyond my licensing requirement is the best investment I have made in my development as a clinician, a supervisor, and now a director of behavioral health. I meet with my supervisor every other week, and she sorts out challenging cases with me, holds space for me, and offers insight and feedback on how to best supervise and support my team.

Anyone interested in consultation or supervision can contact us at

If you are interested in defusing sessions for yourself, your loved one, or your organization, please fill out this form and a Starr Behavioral Health representative will contact you shortly.


Learn more about defusing sessions through Starr

Children’s Mental Health Awareness in Times of COVID-19

Children’s Mental Health Awareness Week is designated annually in May to bring national attention to the importance and needs of youth, mental health, and their psychological well-being.  This year CMHA Week is May 3-9.

Children’s Mental Health Awareness Week 2020 is substantially unlike year’s past as the result of the Coronavirus pandemic.  During this time of crisis, immense disruption, and tremendous change, there are many trauma-informed considerations that helping professionals, parents, and adults involved in the lives of children and adolescents can employ to help with the emotional impact of COVID-19 with support and care:

  • Establish and maintain a schedule at home. Creating or maintaining a schedule and a consistent structure can be valuable to foster a sense of security, safety, and help reduce anxiety. Instilling or supporting a routine in the child or teen’s day-to-day activities at home helps create predictability, decrease uncertainty, and offers valuable moments to feel in control, especially during these times of upheaval because of the impact of COVID-19. Generally knowing what to expect helps create a healthy structure of purpose for the day and a routine that the youth can depend and rely on.
  • Engage in activities that support regulation. Sensory-based interventions, because of their ability to support and facilitate functioning in lower parts of the brain that manage traumatic experiences, can be effective to regulate hyperarousal responses. Cognitive- and language-focused interventions can often be limited and unsuccessful in helping youth make sense of and cope with experiences of distress and overwhelming emotions that can be triggered.  Engaging in music, art, movement, and other creative practices can be a great outlet for youth (or together as a family!) to release feelings and thoughts, as well as create safe ways to support self-soothing, a sense of control, and calm the mind and body.
  • Sensory-based activities to consider:
    • Deep breathing
    • Listening to music
    • Making art
    • Dancing to a favorite song or playlist
    • Stretching or yoga
    • Journaling
    • Going outside for a walk
  • Validate emotions and normalize reactions. Feelings can be difficult to identify and express. Letting children and teens know it is OK to have and express emotions communicates that their feelings matter and are important. Support emotional expression and development through listening with a calm, non-judgmental presence that conveys your support as a safe ally.  In times of distress, it is common for youth to experience anxiety, worry, and fear.  Be attentive to how these emotions may express themselves: through play, drawing, writing, in the body (i.e., stomach aches, headaches, etc.), or their conversations.  Use these observations to open a dialogue about these feelings, how your child experiences them, and that you are available to help them. The COVID-19 pandemic has drastically changed much about our everyday lives, relationships, and daily routines. For children and teens, this has resulted in losses associated with attending school, prolonged separation from friends and extended family, cancellation of familiar group activities, such as play dates, sports, band, and more. Special milestones such as end of the school year celebrations, graduation ceremonies, or holidays are taking a very different form this year. Some youth may experience worries about their own health and the health of others. Being exposed to the anxieties and fears that adults are managing as a result of this pandemic also creates additional worry for children and teens. Resist the urge to make a child’s feelings and experiences associated with this pandemic go away. Validate and normalize what they are experiencing in these challenging times.
  • Foster relational enrichment and connection. Youth who have been exposed to a traumatic event or loss can benefit tremendously when they experience consistent, loving, and involved adults (i.e., parents & caregivers, teachers, coaches, therapists, community group leaders, etc.) in their lives. Youth look to the adults around them to assure that they will be cared for, especially during times of uncertainty. In these times of COVID-19 when youth have experienced physical isolation, displacement, and disconnection, it is important to remember to create meaningful ways to promote and foster emotional connection with others. Emphasize there are loving, kind, and trusted adults still in their lives to help, protect, and attend to their wellbeing. Relational enrichment can also include getting kids involved in helping the community or participate in volunteer projects (with safe physical distancing practices, working remotely, from home, etc.)  that encourage benefiting others during this time and encourage life affirming values such as generosity, kindness, and gratitude. Showing our mindful attention, calm presence, and compassion through the connection of relationship, healthy boundaries, engagement in activities, or community involvement can help kids have an emotionally safe and sound place in this pandemic to feel accepted, valued, and cared for.
  • Be mindful of media intake and exposure. Breaking news, social media feeds, and broadcast reports about the COVID-19 pandemic happening throughout the world, nationally, regionally, and in our local communities are accessible 24/7. Emotions such as worry, helplessness, confusion, unease, anger, and more can become heightened as a result of this exposure. Constant coverage of COVID-19’s impact is overwhelming for adults to manage and make sense of, let alone children and teens. Young people can be particularly vulnerable to ongoing media exposure, influencing their reactions, feelings, questions, and concerns. While it is important to stay informed about COVID-19 from reliable sources, do limit or take intentional breaks from media exposure at home—on television, devices, and online. Adults involved in the lives of youth can serve as positive role models, leading by example and advocating for this need.


Supporting Children During COVID-19 | The National Child Traumatic Stress Network

Addressing the Psychological and Emotional Impact of the COVID 19 Pandemic for Children | Center for Pediatric Traumatic Stress

How to Talk to Your Anxious Child or Teen About Coronavirus | Mental Health America

Simple Activities for Children and Adolescents Amidst the COVID-19 Outbreak | The National Child Traumatic Stress Network

The Circle of Courage and COVID-19 | Starr Commonwealth

COVID-19, School Cancellation, and Trauma | Starr Commonwealth

CMHAW Activities for Children, Youth, and Families | National Federation of Families for Children’s Mental Health

Related Resources


The heart rate is a large part of the physiological affect we experience, both when regulated or experiencing reactions of stress. Having awareness of our own heart rate in any of these platforms and having a practice to alter that rate can affect our experience of safety on the body level.

How can we best control our heart rates? Through breathwork!

Breathwork refers to many forms of conscious alteration of breathing, such as connecting in-breath with outbreath, or intentionally changing the pace or deepness of breath. Breathwork is something that children of all ages can learn and practice. For younger children, it is fun to use props like pinwheels and bubbles to support breathwork activities. Adolescents will enjoy learning that they can practice breathing activities without any props and without anyone knowing they are practicing!

Click below to learn more and watch Starr Senior Trainer Erin Reed demonstrate several exercises for breathwork at any age.

Learn more breathwork activities and other regulating exercises for all ages in Starr's Mind Body Skills: Activities for Emotional RegulationDownload a free sample below.

Learn more with these offerings from Starr Commonwealth

Authentic Self-Care

What is authentic self-care?

Self-care is a commonly used phrase that validates us in doing whatever we want to achieve instant gratification, even if it isn’t serving us long term. We often confuse material or external substance as self-care. Self-care is not a hedonistic blowing off of steam, but a commitment you make to yourself to nurture your body, mind, and spirit. It is not indulgence, but reflection, awareness, and commitment. I could eat chocolate cake every day and call it self-care – but would that be serving my body long term? I could buy all my favorite clothes, and call it self-care, but will this lead to my financial well-being? I could numb all of my stressful thoughts or unpleasant emotions with substance, but would that be an experience of my wholeness?

I have learned that authentic self-care requires that I dig a little deeper. Genuine self-care requires that we stay aware and be honest with ourselves about what is really nurturing. Honest reflection is essential. Sometimes this honesty in self-reflection can be difficult, even painful as we toss off old perceptions or patterns that are not supporting our wholeness. We can’t stop at bubble baths, wine, and chocolate. Authentic self-care requires that we stay true to finding what serves our completeness.

Think of how you would treat a small child, or a dear friend that you cherish. Self-care is showing up to yourself in the same way that you show up for someone that you love.

Watch below as I explore the concept of authentic self-care more in depth.

How have you prioritized self-care? Use the assessment below to find patterns or possible areas you may have ignored.

Learn more with these offerings from Starr Commonwealth

What Do Tigers, Meerkats, and Owls Have to Do with Coronavirus?

What do tigers, meerkats, and owls have to do with the Coronavirus?

Any experience that leaves you feeling scared, worried, and uncertain creates an involuntary stress response in your body. This means that despite logic, reason, and good coping skills, some of the reactions we have in times of crisis are largely out of our control.

Why does this happen?

Here is an easy way to understand the stress response and something you can teach to your students.

First, imagine that three animals live in your body. We all (at every age) have an imaginary meerkat, tiger, and owl living inside of us.

If you have ever seen a meerkat, you know that they have very large eyes and usually stand up on their hind legs. When meerkats sense danger they alert their pack by letting out a very loud screeching sound. Meerkats are like smoke detectors. The meerkat inside of us rules the stress response by directing the other two animals inside of us how to respond, depending upon the current level of stress.

When everything is calm, safe, and there is no danger, the meerkat tells the tiger to do what they do best – sleep, eat, and interact with their tiger friends. When everything is calm, safe, and there is no danger, the meerkat tells the owl to do what they do best – solve problems, read, learn, and make wise decisions. But, when things are not calm, safe, and there is potential danger or crisis, the meerkat tells the tiger to get ready to fight. And, the meerkat tells the owl that he better fly away fast to stay safe!

Make sense?

In the past weeks, maybe you have noticed your meerkat being more on alert? No doubt, the pandemic has made our meerkats more sensitive to worry, fear, and uncertainty.  Our tigers may be having trouble sleeping, eating, and getting along with others. Your tiger may be more irritable and argumentative than usual. That is likely because the meerkat is telling the tiger to be ready to survive.

What about your owl? If your owl has flown away you may be finding it hard to concentrate right now and to trust logic and reason. Despite hearing from others that the pandemic will not last forever, it might be hard to really believe things will ever go back to normal.

So how can use tigers, meerkats, and owls to help our kids? Use this script and worksheet to help them express the animals inside them:

Watch me explain the animals inside all of us in Children of Trauma and Resilience:

This Week's Deals

Those who have taken Trauma-Informed Resilient Schools and Resetting for Resilience can take the next step towards their trauma-informed certification with course 3 in Starr's education track. Learn more and take advantage of these savings at

Haven't taken Resetting for Resilience yet? You can still save!

Use the code 10STEPS29 at checkout to save!

10 Steps to Create a Trauma-Informed Resilient School provides the tools you need to put your classroom, school, or district on the path to becoming trauma-informed and building resilience in all students. This latest edition, complete with a new name, features over 100 more pages of lessons, activities, and case studies to ensure schools are even more equipped to break through the social emotional barriers to learning.

With this great resource, you will:

  • Gain an understanding of how childhood trauma impacts learning and behavior.
  • Review actual scenarios and expert answers to tough questions.
  • Learn 10 concrete steps to guide the creation and implementation of a trauma-informed school.
  • Be provided practical activity worksheets to copy for use with students.
  • Have access to Starr PTSD assessments, Life Event Checklist, ACE questionnaire, and school questionnaire forms.

Self-Care: Morning Rituals and Intentions

As we settle into the new “normal” it can be extremely grounding to set up rituals to support your days which most likely have less structure than normal. Rituals differ from routines as they are practices that add meaning and connection to your procedural activities. I recommend setting intentions every morning as you sip your coffee, brush your teeth, or take a few deep breaths. Setting intentions can add meaning, and support you in attuning to the bigger picture of your life. Intentions are different than goals, since they are not based on outcomes, but more connected to a felt sense of being. Even better, getting clear on intentions not only has impact on you, but those around you.

Take it further with our guide for setting intentions, taken from the course Practicing Resilience: Essential Self-Care Strategies for Helping Professionals.

The Circle of Courage and COVID-19

The Circle of Courage is a model of resilience built upon the belief that all individuals, regardless of their age, have four universal needs. When any one or more of these universal needs is not being met, our “circle” is thought to be broken and as a result there are symptoms and reactions such as worry, fear, loneliness, depression, or anxiety.

Let’s take a look at how the coronavirus pandemic might be impacting our own circles and how we can keep them whole.


We are all being asked to physically withdraw from anyone outside of our immediate families. This is a challenge and can lead many of us to feel lonely and isolated. We miss our co-workers and students!

What can you do?

While we must physically withdraw, we can maintain social connections through phone calls, email, text, social media, and other virtual platforms. It is important to maintain contact with students, colleagues, friends, and families during this time.


If you feel best in your role as an educator, this might be a hard time for you. It may also be tough to balance the demands of being at home with your own families while staying connected with your students virtually. Sometimes when we are stretched in too many directions we don’t feel like we are doing well in any area.

What can you do?

Focus on one thing at a time. Small increments of quality time with your own family will go a long way. If you are feeling like you don’t know what to do with all the time you do have, use this time for things that you normally don’t have time to practice and enjoy such as reading, writing, creative artwork, puzzles, handy work around your home, and playing with your own children or pets.


This coronavirus pandemic is leaving many of us feeling uncertain and powerless to do anything about our situations.

What can you do?

Take time to care for yourself. You may be feeling a range of emotions and staying regulated might be a challenge. Rest, move your body, and take deep breaths as often as needed.


If you are stuck at home during this time you may feel like you aren’t doing much to help others.

What can you do?

Draw pictures or write letters to friends, family, your students, and colleagues. Check your local extended care facilities, homeless shelters, and residential treatment centers for children who would love receiving letters or drawings from you during this time.

Developed by Starr’s 2nd President, Dr. Larry K. Brendtro (PhD), and his colleagues, the Circle of Courage® provides the philosophical foundation for Starr’s resilience-focused approach to working with children, families, and communities, in addition to the work of Reclaiming Youth International.

Exclusive Deals!

Use the code 10STEPS29 at checkout to save!

10 Steps to Create a Trauma-Informed Resilient School provides the tools you need to put your classroom, school, or district on the path to becoming trauma-informed and building resilience in all students. This latest edition, complete with a new name, features over 100 more pages of lessons, activities, and case studies to ensure schools are even more equipped to break through the social emotional barriers to learning.

With this great resource, you will:

  • Gain an understanding of how childhood trauma impacts learning and behavior.
  • Review actual scenarios and expert answers to tough questions.
  • Learn 10 concrete steps to guide the creation and implementation of a trauma-informed school.
  • Be provided practical activity worksheets to copy for use with students.
  • Have access to Starr PTSD assessments, Life Event Checklist, ACE questionnaire, and school questionnaire forms.

Deep Brain Learning provides a blueprint for building strength and resilience in all youth by creating positive environments filled with opportunities that support the four universal needs of the Circle of Courage, while 10 Steps to Create a Trauma-Informed School provides a guide to care for all students' universal needs in schools.

Trauma is Fact. So is Resilience!

We are so pleased that so many of you are finding the Trauma-Informed Resilient Schools course content helpful. Thank you for completing the survey! For those of you who haven’t had a chance, please register for our online course free of charge, and let us know how we can support you in the upcoming weeks and months.

Ready to take the next step? Those who have taken Trauma-Informed Resilient Schools can now take Resetting for Resilience for 75% off! Use the code RESILIENCE (all caps, click "Apply Changes" at checkout) to save today!

We know it can be challenging to shift mindsets during times of such uncertainty. It might help to know that while trauma is a fact, so too is resilience. And there is even science to support that!

Any experience that leaves us feeling powerless, helpless, or hopeless can result in trauma-specific symptoms and reactions. The good news is that the opposite is true as well—any positive experiences help build resilience! Learn more from Starr Senior Trainer Erin Reed:

During the first few days and even weeks of a crisis it is normal to feel out of sorts – our bodies are experiencing acute stress. Every person will respond differently, if you feel worried, angry, irritable, confused, tired or even if you feel the same as always and not concerned at all  – these are all normal responses. There is not a way you should or should not feel or experience the coronavirus pandemic.

What is most important right now is that you are doing whatever you can for yourselves, your students and your own children to feel even just a little bit better if needed. Comfort will not come in the form of logic or reason but rather in sensory experiences. I like to refer to this time as the “all the milk and cookies you want” time. Do what you need to do to feel better. Watch funny movies, bake, cook, play a game, or draw!

It is important to keep yourself in mind during this time as well. Helping professionals are just as vulnerable as our kids when it comes to effects of trauma! In this next clip, Reed discusses the various ways that professionals are impacted when children experience trauma:

Practicing Resilience: Essential Self-Care Strategies for Helping Professionals is available at

Being Trauma-Informed and Resilience-Focused is a Mindset

During this time of uncertainty and potentially traumatic consequence, Starr Commonwealth is committed to supporting teachers and other caring adults in whatever way we can. To best assist educators poised to provide the nurturing foundation our children need, we would like to offer our online course Trauma-Informed Resilient Schools free of charge to anyone interested in the underlying traumatic roots of behavior, as well as the key components necessary to allow students to flourish. Visit for more details.

Today, let’s take a look at what being trauma-informed and resilience focused really means – and how this relates to all we are experiencing with the coronavirus pandemic.

Uncertainty, increased worry, fear and lack of routine increase stress levels and exacerbate challenging behavior. When we connect behavior to experiences and the impact these experiences have on children’s bodies, we view them through a new lens. Then, we can begin to ask, “What new experiences – given all that this child has going on – are needed most right now?” Staying connected by phone or email, providing opportunities for play, music, movement and creativity every day will mitigate the impact of all they are experiencing related to COVID19.

COVID-19, School Cancellation, and Trauma

During this time of uncertainty and potentially traumatic consequence, Starr Commonwealth is committed to supporting teachers and other caring adults in whatever way we can. To best assist educators poised to provide the nurturing foundation our children need, we would like to offer our online course Trauma-Informed Resilient Schools free of charge to anyone interested in the underlying traumatic roots of behavior, as well as the key components necessary to allow students to flourish. Visit for more details.

In times of crisis, it is critical that parents, teachers, and all caring adults are prepared to serve as sturdy, nurturing foundations that children can lean on for love and guidance. Regardless of the nature of the traumatic event, there are some universal factors we must always consider that are at play with how kids perceive events, and how those perceptions may impact their reactions and behavior.

Children fear many things, but illness, going to the doctor/hospital themselves, or the illness or death of a parent or loved one are among the top of those fears. You may not hear a child verbalize worry or fear, but they may show it through changes in sleep, eating, or behavior – so if there are changes, explore what might be causing those changes.

How we can all help our children:

  • The most important thing a parent/adult can do is to remain calm themselves. Children will mirror the reactions of adults. So, pay attention to what you say and do! They will pick up on changes in your tone of voice and non-verbal body language.
  • Answer their questions (even if they are repetitive and don’t make sense to you). Answer in a way that is direct and calm.
  • Give children the facts in a developmentally appropriate way. If you do not, they will imagine something on their own that may be far worse as to what the crisis really is. Try not to engage in gossip or conversations sparked from social media panic.
  • During a pandemic, remember these responses:
    • “Yes, we do need to be careful about washing our hands and staying away from others who may be sick.”
    • “The likelihood of one of us getting the virus is not high – but if we do, doctors will take care of us.”
    • [Concerning COVID-19] “It seems scary, but it is very rare to die from this virus.”
    • “It is okay and normal to be worried, scared about this—of course you are. We all are, and that is why we are doing everything we can to keep you safe.”
  • Above all else, this is an opportunity for lots of quality time. Make new connections with your children or students (if possible). Play! Lighten up expectations (behavior, communication, academics, etc.) when children are worried or scared.

The Traumatic Impact of School Cancellation

Above and beyond the panic and trauma that comes from pandemics, we’re facing an undetermined amount of time when school, and consequently the only structure and sense of safety for many kids across the nation, is taken away. For many, school provides safety, food, routine, socialization, connections, and stimulation. Any change from routine is stressful. And, if parents now have to look for childcare or are worried about money/income, etc., stress levels go up. When stress levels go up in parents, behavior changes usually occur in children.

So what can educators do to help kids feel safe during this time? It really depends on what communication channels you have available with your students, and much of that is certainly being worked on in each district. Trust and support your administrations, and make clear that everyone is unified in their efforts to be there for each child. Beyond that, anything you can do to make a loving and supportive connection to your students while they are at home can be what they need in a time of uncertainty.

When it’s time to return to school, teachers must keep in mind that this shift back to the school routine can be as difficult for some as the cancellation was for others. Every child is different in their reactions to the change of schedule. Teachers must stay aware of what’s happening at home, and be mindful of what’s happening to each child.

What the world is enduring right now is of universal concern. This will be stressful for even non-traumatized parents/children. For children and parents who already experience ongoing toxic stress, this will be an additional stressor on their already very worried minds/bodies. Remember, the most important thing we can do for our kids is to simply be that loving adult who is there to support and comfort them.

focus article by dr Caelan soma about universal needs

The Bullying Experience

You don’t have to be a victim to experience trauma. Trauma can be experienced by those who witness traumatic events. Relatives or peers of the victim are at risk as well. You can even experience trauma by listening to the details of an event on the news or by someone telling you their traumatic story. The victim, the bully, and witnesses feel the themes of trauma. Look at these common feelings experienced after traumatic events and notice the ways in which they are similar and different:

The Victim

  • Terror - Scared for one's safety/one's life.
  • Powerlessness - Unable to do or say anything to stop the current situation.
  • Hurt - Physical and emotional hurts from being bullied physically/verbally.
  • Fear - Never knowing if/when bullying is going to happen next.
  • Anger - Anger at the bully, anger at self for not being able to do anything to stop it.
  • Revenge - Wanting to "get back" at the person who bullied.
  • Victim Thinking - I am no good and nobody likes me.

The Witness

  • Terror - Scared for the victim's safety/life.
  • Powerlessness - I can't protect others, how can I protect myself?
  • Hurt - Viewing physical and emotional abuse.
  • Guilt - I'm okay but he/she is not.
  • Fear - Is it going to happen again? Could it happen to me? If I help will I be outcasted too?
  • Anger - Mad that the victim "takes it." Angry that the bully "bullies."
  • Revenge - Wanting to "get back" at the person who bullied.
  • Victim Thinking - I could be next. I'm no good for not stopping the bullying.

The Bully

  • Terror - I'm out of control.
  • Powerlessness - I can't stop what I am doing.
  • Hurt - Physical hurts from bullying behaviors.
  • Fear - I have to stick up for myself.
  • Anger - I am angry with the victim for "making me do it."
  • Victim Thinking - I'm too stupid not to fight.



The experience of bullying is often underestimated. However, brain imaging studies have documented that the intensity of the emotional pain and hurt that bullying elicits activates the same brain pathways linked to physical pain. Bullying increases rates of anxiety, depression and panic and can leave a harmful imprint on children into adulthood.

Help survivors cope, as soon as possible, after the bullying occurs. What can you do?

  • Show the child that they are not alone. Be present. You may not be able to offer them immediate solutions but listen closely to what they have experienced.
  • Normalize and validate the child’s reactions to the experience. Don’t minimize what happened. Don’t get hysterical either – remain calm and let them share their perception of the experience with you.
  • Remember, it is their experience, not yours.
  • Identify connections. Who is the child connected to at home (parents, siblings, cousins), school (peers, teachers, coaches) and in the community (neighbors, spiritual leaders, boys and girls club mentors)?
  • Create or restore identified connections to provide a sense of belonging.
  • Engage the child in activities that they enjoy and are good at to further support belonging and provide a sense of mastery of their skills.
  • Teach the child how to identify and name reactions to overwhelming feelings such as anger or sadness. Provide and practice strategies that help the child regulate these emotions.


Learn from Starr Director of Professional Training and Coaching Kathryn Hart about the most important factor for reducing bullying in schools:

To learn more about bullying and trauma, consider these offerings from Starr Commonwealth.

focus article by dr Caelan soma about universal needs

PTSD and Yoga

The experience of trauma is one of prolonged stress accompanied with worry, fear, anger, and sadness. Following trauma, memories are re-experienced in a person’s mind as images. However, they are also re-experienced as sensations in a person’s body because trauma is stored in sensory memories. The sensations experienced following trauma can be terrifying, evoking uncomfortable reactions like rapid breathing, racing heartbeat, tense muscles, and even the feeling of not being able to move at all. Trauma is overwhelming and leaves people feeling powerless and hopeless to do anything about their situation.

Yoga is a sensory-based modality that can be used as a trauma intervention activity. It provides a new experience for the traumatized person. Through deliberate breathing and body movements, yoga practice teaches traumatized individuals how to become more aware of their body’s sensations. Yoga provides an opportunity for a person to notice, tolerate, and better manage post-trauma sensations in a safe space. The practice of yoga helps to calm the central nervous system, decreasing the physiological and biochemical byproducts of stress. In addition, yoga practice is empowering. Individuals actively participate in activities that help lower stress and provide them a sense of control over their body. In yoga, the participant is invited to manipulate their breath and posture so that it is comfortable and safe. Therefore, instead of feeling stuck and helpless, yoga provides a new experience of movement and empowerment that is safe and structured.


There are plenty of mind body skills beyond yoga! Watch below as Starr Senior Trainer Erin Reed explains why any mind body strategy works.


Learn more and begin implementing mind body skills with the children you work with, as well as in your own life, with these related resources:

focus article by dr Caelan soma about universal needs

What Every Parent Needs to Know – Trauma & Dysregulation

Trauma is an overwhelming experience for children and parents. Parents want to help their traumatized children but don’t always know what they can do. Providing parents with five ways to help their traumatized children will offer them reassurance for what they are already doing and ideas for how they can do more.

1. Understand
Remind parents that trauma is like no other experience. Traumatized children may not have control over their emotions and behavior because the terror they experienced has left them feeling out of control.

2. Be Patient
Trauma destroys a child’s sense of safety and security. Children will need time to feel safe again. Be patient with regression.

3. Be Nurturing
This is an “all the cookies and milk you can eat” time. Encourage parents to spend more time with their child interacting in meaningful ways. Play games, read books, or go for a walk together.

4. Keep It Simple
A traumatized child will find it difficult to concentrate and remember even the simplest of things. Remind parents to keep things simple by saying only one or two things at a time. Visual charts of the daily schedule or tasks to be completed are helpful.

5. Normalize
Parents should reinforce their understanding that the reactions their child is experiencing are normal following this experience.


Guide parents using these reminders:

    • Be as predictable as can be in your routines at home while your child is present. Consistency helps create a sense of safety.
    • Do not show your fears and worries to your child, as this will frighten them. Talk about your fears to your spouse, friends, or trauma specialist. Bring laughter into your home. If your child sees you laugh, they will feel so much more at ease.
    • Read books to your child about others who have survived. Brave Bart is a great place to start. For teens, leave the book lying around where they can see it. If they need to, they will read it.
    • Unconditional love and acceptance is the best medicine. This is not always easy to give your child when you are angry, upset, or terrified yourself. Sometimes traumatized children simply need to release the stress created by their fears and they do this by fighting or verbally attacking. As a parent, your initial response to fighting needs to be to insure that your child is not hurt nor hurts others. Words, of course, do not cause bodily harm, even though they can be difficult to hear at times.
    • If this outburst is trauma-driven, often after this release your child will be calm and in control. This is not about a physical or verbal release, but a release of the intense stress of trauma, of trauma residue.

This is when your child needs you the most. Your child needs you to stay in control. Do not lose control, scream, or overreact. This may not be easy, but it is so important!


Learn more about dysregulation in children from Starr Commonwealth's recent roundtable discussion with Dr. Soma, President Carey, and Executive Vice President Allen:

To learn more about trauma, dysregulation, and mind body skills, consider these offerings from Starr Commonwealth.

focus article by dr Caelan soma about universal needs

Universal Needs

We've learned so much about trauma and resilience over the years. In fact, for the uninformed practitioner, the amount of information available nowadays can be daunting. So what do I talk about when I have friends or concerned parents approach me with questions about trauma or toxic stress affecting their loved ones?

It all comes back to our universal needs and the Circle of Courage®.

What are the Universal Needs according to the Circle of Courage®?

The Circle of Courage® is a model of positive youth development based on the universal principle that to be emotionally healthy all youth need a sense of belonging, mastery, independence, and generosity. This unique model integrates the cultural wisdom of tribal peoples, the practice wisdom of professional pioneers with troubled youth, and findings of modern youth development research.

  • Belonging

    • The presence of a strong sense of belonging makes young people more receptive to guidance from other community members. And, even if parents/caregivers are struggling, there are others there to help children. A sense of belonging helps children draw from a group as well as from themselves.
    • How can we connect with others?
      • Be continuously curious about how the child is experiencing their world.
      • Get to know them!
      • Find out their likes, dislikes.
      • Explore what they need most to feel supported.
  • Mastery

    • The goal of mastery is to achieve one’s potential, not perfection, and then contribute to and provide for their greater community. When success is met, the desire to achieve is strengthened.
    • How can we promote mastery?
      • Identify each child's potential.
      • Teach emotional awareness and regulation, and then practice with them.
      • Provide opportunities for students to experience their strengths.
  • Independence

    • In contrast to obedience models of discipline, teaching should be designed to build respect and teach inner-discipline. Children should be encouraged to make decisions, solve problems, show personal responsibility, and learn/practice emotional awareness and regulation. Adults can model, nurture, and guide, but children should be given opportunities to make choices without coercion.
    • How can we promote a sense of independence?
      • Provide choices.
      • Provide options.
      • Ask the child what they need the most.
  • Generosity

    • Children must be given opportunities to develop abilities for being generous and unselfish. In helping others, we create our own proof of worthiness, for we have the power to make positive contributions to the world. Children increase their sense of self-worth as they become committed to the positive value of caring for others.
    • How can we help children feel valuable?
      • Point out the child's self-worth.
      • Provide opportunities for them to experience their value when they help others!

It is important to keep in mind that children with broken circles may display distorted senses of their universal needs. For example, someone with a distorted sense of belonging may flock to gang involvement. You can learn more about distorted universal needs in the related materials below.

Unmet universal needs can be an enormous barrier to learning. At Starr, we know stressed brains can’t learn. We also have the tools and lessons to help you break through the social emotional barriers in children.

Reclaiming Youth at Risk draws on early youth-work pioneers, Native tribal wisdom, and youth development research by outlining the four essential elements every child needs in order to flourish and thrive: belonging, mastery, independence, and generosity. Together, these are known as the Circle of Courage®. This book also includes innovative approaches for building relationships with youth, fostering their self-esteem, and instilling positive values in any setting.

10 Steps to Create a Trauma-Informed School is informed by Reclaiming Youth at Risk, as well as the Circle of Courage®, and applies the teachings therein to a set of concrete steps for implementation in schools. Complete with behavior support plans, lesson examples, and resources for teachers and parents, 10 Steps is the foundation for any school seeking to establish an environment of safety and learning for all children.


Have you taken the time to consider the universal needs of each of the children you care for? What simple opportunities arise every day where we can help bolster a kid's sense of belonging, mastery, independence, or generosity? These small moments can make an incredible impact on their self-worth!


Learn more about universal needs from Starr Commonwealth's recent roundtable discussion with Dr. Soma, President Carey, and Executive Vice President Allen (Dr. Soma's co-author on 10 Steps to Create a Trauma-Informed School):

To learn more about universal needs, consider these offerings from Starr Commonwealth.

The Circle of Courage® was developed by Starr’s 2nd President, Dr. Larry K. Brendtro (PhD), and his colleagues at Augustana University.

4 Trauma-Informed Essentials About the Power of Creative Expression

As trauma practitioners, we know the benefits of processes that engage the senses and the role that non-verbal expression can have to help youth manage trauma and loss. Creative arts therapies offer children and adolescents impacted by trauma a safe outlet to express feelings of worry, sadness, fear, anger, and more. Creative arts therapists, who hold professional credentials and have fulfilled the necessary training in their respective field, utilize art-based interventions and the creative process as the primary mode of their clinical practice with individuals, groups, families, and communities.

Here are four trauma-informed essentials about the power of creative expression:

  • Creative expression is sensory-based: Art, music, drama, writing, dance, and other forms of creative expression engage our senses and can communicate our experiences and stories without words. Trauma often significantly challenges areas of the brain that employ cognitive functioning, explicit memory, and verbal language. Sensory-based intervention can become a visual voice that helps reveal content from parts of the brain where traumatic experiences live without words. Experiences are made visible and transformed with paper, clay, a song, canvas and more.  Art safely gives survivors the power to speak about emotions, thoughts, and memories when words are insufficient.
  • Creative expression places us in the here and now: When we interact with with arts, such as viewing art at a museum, watching a performance, listening to music, or engaging in a creative activity with creating, performing, or composing; these experiences position us to be in the present moment. In trauma, restoring a sense of safety and wellbeing in the here and now can help regulate emotions into manageable states of contentment and refuge.
  • Creative expression supports relational connection: The arts not only create opportunities and a relationship to connect to our own experiences, but also to others, our communities, and the world around us. In trauma, the relationships we experience can have a stronger impact than any adversity. Difficult circumstances can be safeguarded by the healthy, positive relational connection we have in our lives, which can be nurtured by the arts.
  • Creative expression fosters empowerment: Engaging art, such as, but not limited to: painting a picture, writing a poem, or moving your body to music supports making choices, problem-solving, and safely learning how to navigate decision making in the form of creative expression. For trauma survivors, creative expression serves as an opportunity to build and strengthen resilience through meaningful art-based interactions and interventions that explore safety, change, vulnerability, and regulation. Engaging in the creative process also strengthens ones internal locus of control and empowers new ways of seeing the self and the recovery path ahead.

Another trauma-informed essential to keep in mind related to creative expression is when and how to connect to a creative arts therapist when needed. A referral to a creative arts therapist is important for trauma survivors who emotionally respond strongly to the use of creative expression.  Treatment and intervention by a creative arts therapist can provide a trained and an applicable understanding in their respective discipline about the power of the arts for children and adolescents exposed to trauma.  These associations provide more information about how to find professional and credentialed creative arts therapists in your area.

Take it further with these related materials from Starr Commonwealth

The Trauma of Addiction

To introduce her new course, Healing the Trauma of Addiction, Becca Gerlach, LMSW, CAADC, revisited her October 2018 blog post addressing the trauma of addiction.

Addiction is a way to hide

Let’s talk about addiction as trauma. I am sure we have all worked with someone who struggles with substance abuse–maybe a parent of a child client, maybe a teenager. I am also certain we all have a family member or friend who has struggled in some way or another with substance abuse, gambling, or some other addictive behavior. It can be hard work to love and care about people who seem intent on destroying themselves. It is important work though, and it is urgent that we begin to look at this struggle in a different light. Our clients and loved ones are not intent on destruction, but intent on hiding—intent on not feeling in such a big, scary way. We need to ask what has happened to this person, not what is this person doing.

From degrees and certificates to curiosity and empowerment

I worked for an agency whose primary focus was substance abuse treatment. I never imagined as a young social worker, recently graduated and feeling knowledgeable, that I would work in a substance abuse setting. But there I was. I learned a lot in that job, and I also learned what I believed to be helpful, and what may not be, to people in early recovery. Around that same time, I attended the Starr Commonwealth summer conference for the first time, and so much of what I learned there made sense in terms of the adults and teens I was treating for substance abuse. The impact on the brain seemed similar, and this made sense to me in a way my CAADC and MSW coursework did not. I felt empowered with information and armed to help people in a way I had not been. I went from feeling like I was a competent therapist to a therapist armed with information and compassion. I was comfortable with not knowing and with admitting that I did not know much at all actually, but that I have the capacity to be curious about another’s experience.

Partners on the path to resilience

We need to remember that no matter the client, no matter the issue that brings that person to treatment, they are the expert on themselves. We as helpers need to remember that we are in a position to walk alongside, over time perhaps be a guide, and ultimately to be a partner with the person we are working with. Rather than telling a client struggling with substance abuse “you need to go to AA, or you need to do x, y, z,” we need to ask, “What do you think feeds the healthy part of you? What fills you up?” We can help our clients, parents of clients, and family members acknowledge their recovery as their own, and that it must be nurtured in order to flourish. Recovery is a time to find peace within the self, and Starr’s Mind Body Skills and Healing the Experience of Trauma: A Path to Resilience manual and journals are really helpful here. People who have been using substances, and then cease, get flooded with the feelings that they were likely running from initially. If we can help our clients to regulate and sit with those feelings, we can come to know what their experience was like, what those feelings are, and we can be curious with our clients who may be wary of being curious about themselves.

Through my new course, Healing the Trauma of Addiction, we can provide education about the brain, trauma, and substance abuse, as well as provide connection. We can build resilience in our clients and loved ones. Using Starr programming along with substance abuse knowledge, we can assist our clients to regulate, to learn about themselves, to experience recovery and what that means for them as an individual. We can provide a containing experience for big emotions, and bear witness to what occurred before, during and after the substance abuse. Substance abuse itself is a trauma, after all, and while not always, there may have been a trauma before the use began. We can offer our clients and ourselves grace to begin again each day, to learn something new each day, to sit a little longer with our emotions each day. One day at a time.

focus article by dr Caelan soma about universal needs

Understanding Private Logic and Behavior

Imagine an eleven-year-old student who, their entire life, has experienced that when adults in their home yell, someone gets hit or hurt. And then this student is in your classroom and you, in a well-intentioned and benign manner, raise your voice to get the attention of the class. When this happens, he is immediately triggered based on his past experiences. And then his best friend sitting next to him pokes him in the shoulder. The student reacts, possibly hitting his best friend. On the surface this looks like an irrational, unstable, and aggressive behavior. But underneath, based on the what is called the student’s private logic, there is some level of rationality to what has occurred, but his body is still scared. We have to be curious rather than certain when observing behavior that seems to not make sense on the outside.

There is a distinct link between a student’s private logic and their behavior. Private logic can be described as how a person views themselves, others, and the world around them. Private logic is created as a result of experiences. Based on that logic, they act accordingly. Think of private logic as an invisible backpack. In the backpack, a student carries around beliefs about themselves, beliefs about the adults that take care of them, and lastly, beliefs about other people they interact with in their lives and beliefs about the world. This logic is a result of experiences – both good and bad – over the course of development and life. If their lives have been filled with fear, abandonment, and anger, their private logic will be consistent with those experiences. They will view themselves as scared and powerless, others will not be trusted, and the world to them is seen as a scary place. If their lives have been filled with comfort, connection, and love, their logic will be consistent with those experiences. They will view themselves as capable and valued. They will see others as consistent and approachable, and will view the world as filled with opportunities of goodness and hope.


So, the next time a child you work with makes a comment about themselves or others, or acts in a particular way—either positive or negative, remain curious! Based on what I just witnessed:

“How might this child view themself? How might this child view others? How might this child view the world?” Then, approach your care with their world-view in mind!


Learn more about Private Logic in
the eLearning course Children of Trauma & Resilience:

To learn more about private logic, or to incorporate private logic-focused resources into your profession, consider these offerings
from Starr Commonwealth.

The Helper’s Charge to Recharge: Doing and Becoming Our Best

Recently a teenage client asked me a question that threw me, unexpectedly. (Over the years, I’ve amassed a considerable anthology of examples on what makes them famous for this gift, so it’s not an easy thing to do these days!)

I attended an engaging group session on characteristics of community and racial trauma, after which the group’s therapist allotted time for a “Q and A” between her adolescent clients and me, their guest. One member asked me, “How do you deal with trauma?”

I started to summarize the vast nature of trauma, and the equally vast approaches to treating it – then asked him for an example of the type of trauma he was referring to. He repeated his question, “No – how do you deal with trauma?”

“How do I?” I asked, taken aback.

“Yes,” he replied. “You hear about other people’s trauma every day, so how do you deal with it?”

I was struck by the sophistication of his question, especially when I realized what he was really asking. He wasn’t asking me about my trauma, or how I’m impacted by other people’s trauma. He was asking me about my resilience! I paused to evaluate why I felt so caught off guard, and was reminded: As helpers, this is something we don’t discuss often enough.

I started listing some of my self-care practices: yoga, meditation, playing in an ensemble, spending time with loved ones and reflective consulting with supervisors. (Heads nodded as they recognized some of these as the very techniques they’re encouraged to adopt.) I summed up by echoing their therapist’s message on the universal requirement for dealing with trauma: “Just like you, I don’t do it alone.”

[Re]charging toward resilience.   

The helper bears significant weight in leading this complicated, and often painful, journey with clients. Sensory-based interventions assist us with helping clients access, activate, integrate and heal their body, mind and spirit – and the therapeutic relationship navigates this path, as we work to know our client’s trauma as they know it. The interventions offered through Starr Commonwealth (Zero to Three: Trauma Interventions, SITCAP®, Mind Body Skills, Expressive Arts Therapy, etc.) provide the tools to treat the psychophysiology of child trauma with activities that are:

  • relationship-based and experiential
  • adaptive to myriad stages of child development
  • inherently designed to foster empathic attunement within the therapeutic relationship

The attunement we establish with the client can put us closer in touch with our own vulnerability, as we become proximate to theirs – while also providing the opportunity to connect with our own resiliency, as we help them build theirs. In doing so, we charge toward the horizon of resiliency, as our clients reclaim their power from a place of wholeness.

What charges the charge?

We know that self-care is essential to maintaining health and wellness, and defending against the perils of secondary traumatic stress and vicarious trauma. Part of maintaining personal well-being includes solitary space to reflect. Whether on our yoga mat, steeped in a hot bath, sprawled on the masseuse’s table, napping, walking, running or cycling to achieve that meditative hum in perpetual motion, physical care is essential to a healthy mind, body and spirit. But how much of our self care are we doing alone?

A barrage of solitary self-care routines do not make a complete self-care practice.

Without relationship, connection and support in spaces where reflective processing occurs, our self-care practices leave us… alone. Staying healthy, staving off symptoms of secondary traumatic stress and avoiding compassion fatigue are all critical aims, of course. But, the act of being reflective within a relationship is critical, whether through individual or group supervision/consultation. Our dear friend, Dr. Jeree Pawl, PhD, offers us a wise navigational compass toward the parallel process, in The Platinum Rule:

Do unto others as you would have others do unto others.

We draw upon on the tenets of Polyvagal and Attachment Theories to provide sensory-based, integrated approaches to healing the individual and interpersonal wounds of trauma. We engage the fields of the brain and nervous systems to help our clients heal and achieve resiliency – and how we restore our own depleted systems informs our capacity to do so. As helpers, it’s our charge to sustain and advance this capacity. We require a space where we’re held with what we hold, seen with what we see, and can be shown what has not yet been revealed while reflecting on our own. Maintaining a reflective practice in a relationship helps elevate our ability to hold that crucial space for clients through the parallel process. Thinking about self-care as a means of advancing our efficacy as helpers prompts us to consider it as a key to simultaneously putting ourselves and our clients first. When we take better care of us, we take better care of them.

Pawl, J. H., & St John, M. (1998). How You Are Is as Important as What You Do… in Making a Positive Difference for Infants, Toddlers and Their Families. Zero to Three, 734 15th Street, NW, Suite 1000, Washington, DC 20005-1013

Helping a Friend with Grief

For Linda Duran, the need for a grief and loss support group emerged when students in her school had already experienced tragedy.

Click here to download your free “Helping a Friend with Grief” pamphlet.

For 22 years, her group “Dealin’ with the Healin'” helped children heal from the pain and trauma of death, illness, family loss, and more. She was even able to help faculty members dealing with grief.Duran’s school’s climate improved greatly, and her group was well received by students, staff, and parents. They even witnessed an increase in academic achievement!

For anyone interested in starting a grief and trauma support group at their school, consider the following:

  • Decide if it’s important enough to have a group. Are there serious underlying issues in your hallways, or do students simply need an adult they can trust?
  • Get administrative approval.
  • Prepare a parent permission form.
  • Get referrals from teachers/students/parents. Keep in mind that there are instances where anonymity is important.
  • Meet with each student individually to explain the group process.
  • Keep clear communication with staff, including an attendance sheet, hall passes, a meeting calendar, etc.

Trauma-Informed Schools: What Parents Need to Know

Fall is in full-swing, and hopefully a sense of “normalcy” to the school year has set in. It’s a welcome feeling for many families!

There is a growing movement across our nation that parents may not be aware of. It’s the concept of having trauma-informed and resilient classrooms. Parents may have lots of questions around this:

What does this even mean and why is it important? I don’t think my child has experienced trauma, how would they benefit from a trauma-informed and resilient classroom? I know my child has suffered significant trauma but I thought that would be something we would turn to mental health resources for?

How do we as education, mental health, or other professionals inform parents and answer their questions?

A trauma-informed classroom understands the wide-spread impact of trauma, the signs and symptoms of trauma, and how individuals recover. It also is part of a larger school system that integrates knowledge about trauma into its policies and procedures, putting these into practice. It also seeks to not re-traumatize students.

How can we teach parents and the community about trauma in schools?

First, we must recognize the prevalence of trauma and seek to find ways to help parents understand this as well. Our district is working in collaboration with our local Rotary clubs who have given us a generous grant to help transform our classrooms and also help teach our parents about trauma and its impact. We will have started monthly “Make it /Take It Nights”, where once a month a dinner is served, with a short lesson on trauma and resilience being taught by myself or a school counselor or social worker. A “project” such as a glitter jars are made by each parent and child attending that they are allowed to keep with a bright instruction card given to them as well. The night finishes with a movement activity such as yoga, stretching, or exercise to emphasize the importance of movement on emotional state. Each lesson also emphasizes trauma-informed techniques being used in that school’s classrooms to help all students, but especially helpful for those who have experienced trauma. It is important for parents to understand that interventions used to help students who have experienced trauma will help all students. Step number one is to help staff, students, and parents understand we have many students impacted by trauma and we are working hard to make our schools places of safety, healing, and wellness. This in turn helps children’s brains be ready to learn!

How can parents and the community help heal trauma in schools?

Through relationships! What are we doing in our classrooms to help students recover? Mental health support is important, but the greatest healing comes from a safe, positive, consistent relationship in a child’s life. That can be mom, dad, coach, religious leader, teacher, etc… Schools have such an incredible opportunity to make these connections as children spend a good portion of their day with us. The following are some more trauma-informed specific interventions, some of which include parenting activities to promote further understanding:

  • Morning Greetings: Fist bumps, handshakes, or hugs, whichever the student chooses as they enter the classroom. This helps the teacher give students a one-on-one message how happy they are that the student is there, as well as helping that teacher gauge the state of the student. If a child who normally gives an enthusiastic fist bump lightly taps the teacher’s hand and gives them a forlorn smile the teacher knows right away something is off that day. This is critical information the teacher can follow up with, making sure everything is okay with the student. Giving choices is also important for survivors of trauma, as a sense of helplessness is one of the main themes of trauma that individuals often struggle with.
  • Morning Meetings: Meet with your students as a group first thing to check in on their evening or weekend and how they are doing. You can give them a few minutes to write in a journal with an opportunity to share as they wish, or you can have students share “good things” that have happened. This would be a great activity to invite parents to once a month. Sometimes when a parent experiences this type of sharing it can be a complete eye-opener to the power of community, and how healing it is to share emotionally when we need to.
  • Comfort Corners: A “Safe Zone” within the classroom students can go to if they begin to get overwhelmed with emotions. This is never used as a punishment but is used to help students develop self-regulation. A great way to get parents involved in and understanding this intervention is to invite them to the grand opening. Each year, teachers in our district have a “grand opening” of their comfort corners where they explain to their new students the purpose of the corner and have every student try it out. Parents could be invited to the class, who has made them “calming gifts” for those who come, such as lavender scented rice in a pretty bag with a bow. Anxiety reducing snacks could be served such as dark chocolate, pumpkin seeds, yogurt with chamomile, or green tea to drink. Having a student explain to the parents why their corner helps them is always a plus.

What resources on trauma are available for parents?

Free handouts can be downloaded from Starr on what parents need to know about the signs and symptoms of trauma and what they can do to help. Most parents are very receptive to information they feel will truly help their children. I have worked with many parents who have disclosed to me that they also had significant trauma as a child and did not feel like they ever healed from it. I am able to point them to resources to help them as well, and share with them how this can impact their parenting. These resources can be a great help to them and their child.

We must seek to resist re-traumatizing. Sharing with parents our “trauma-informed lens” can help them begin to shift their thinking as well. For example, re-framing behavior as fear-based instead of deliberate disobedience when talking to them about their student who is struggling. The language we use with our students and parents is incredibly important.

Parents can benefit greatly from understanding why we believe in having trauma-informed classrooms and schools. Inviting them to see what we do and explaining why we do it promotes community with them as well. It is important to remember some of the parents we work with had a very negative school experience and don’t see school as a safe place. The more we can help change these beliefs the more we all will benefit from their increased understanding, and the safer schools will be for students, staff, and parents.

De-Escalation Tips for All

Trauma affects us all. Whether it comes from our own experiences, or we feel the impact vicariously, chances are that negative interactions we have had in the past could have been resolved differently had all parties involved been trauma-informed. For most of us, this may be misdirected energy in a classroom, a conversation in a clinical setting, or even simply witnessing someone you love become withdrawn, distant, or suddenly defiant. What about more dangerous situations?

How many of us are put in life-threatening positions on a daily basis? More importantly, how many of us are prepared to act in safe way?

Starr Certified Trainer Jenny Sloan recently had the opportunity to discuss and identify solutions to these very issues when she was approached by a local police department.

jenny sloan headshot
Jenny Sloan

“It happened a bit by chance. I’m an associate clinical director for juvenile justice, and I was introduced to a detective from the department,” recalled Sloan. “What he learned about my trauma-informed training struck a chord with him, and mentioned how his staff could benefit, given their daily dealings with subjects who may be violent or resistant in the field. While I hadn’t worked with a police force in the past, we train regularly on how to use verbal de-escalation and non-violent approaches to help co-regulate people in crisis. Perhaps we could apply those materials, as well as education on the brain-body connection in general to help these officers.”

As expected, the universal application of a trauma-informed lens became apparent.

What we must remember when working with escalated populations:

  • When confronted with a person who is activated or in crisis we might perceive them as a threat or having some sort of motivation to hurt people, when really it might be that they need help controlling and regulating themselves. Oftentimes, if we don’t apply a trauma-informed lens we can mistake crisis for aggression, and that informs our response in a very different way. If we think someone’s going to hurt us, we’re going to get defensive and aggressive. What they really need is to be approached in an empathetic way and met where they’re at to help them calm down. And of course: safety first. No one ever wants to use force if it’s not necessary. When we can understand where a person’s coming from, we have a much better chance of not having to escalate to that point.
  • It starts with the brain! When a person in crisis, the executive part of the brain that rationalized and makes decisions goes offline. It usually does all the complex organization of thought, emotion, and action, but if a person is in trauma, that part of the brain is not accessible. If you’re trying to rationalize with someone and it’s not working, it may not be that they’re being defensive or not wanting to cooperate with you. It could be that they’re still activated and that part of the brain is not plugged in. Rather than an escalating situation, one must focus on getting them back online—helping them feel safe before things get out of control.
  • Above all! Trauma is not an excuse, but rather one avenue to understand why someone acts the way they do in any situation. Keeping this at the forefront of our minds is critical to care in any setting.

The above tips are offered through a lens of general advice for de-escalating any behavior, and should not be considered resources to replace actual law-enforcement training.

House Oversight Committee Addresses Childhood Trauma

On July 11, 2019, several witnesses and committee members shared their personal stories at the Federal Committee on Oversight and Reform Hearing—and it was incredibly powerful. Chairman Elijah Cummings (D-IL) set the tone early in the hearing by recalling his own childhood experience of being in special education from kindergarten to sixth grade, and being told he would “never be able to read or write.” Still, he “ended up a Phi Beta Kappa and a lawyer.” Again, powerful.

The hearing was organized into a formulaic two-panel structure—there was testimony from survivors followed by statements from experts—but personal experiences relayed by witnesses (including the “experts”) and the Members of Congress blurred the lines of traditional roles. As I watched the hearing, I noticed the committee member’s reactions, and it gave me great hope. Those with the power to enact sweeping reform are beginning to understand the issue of toxic stress and trauma and the impact it has on the entire population and the future health outcomes of not only us an individuals, but the generations that follow.

As a social worker and certified trainer for Starr Commonwealth, a network of over 300 trauma-informed experts around the country and world, I know the current system is categorically failing our children. Current research from the CDC indicates more than 60 percent of American adults have, as children, experienced at least one Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE), and almost a quarter of adults have experienced three or more ACEs.1

I also know it is a macro issue of national consequence. We need to talk about the impact trauma and toxic stress are having on our nation’s health. We need to create a paradigm shift, increase our commitment (and belief in our ability) to change, and educate others on the current data and evidence-based practices that are available – through partners like Starr, the Alliance for Strong Families and Communities, and so many more.

Why are trauma-informed practices so important at the primary prevention level? Because an hour of therapy is not an effective solution. We need to consistently engage children to teach them self-regulation skills, emotional regulation, and a positive sense-of-self. The hallmarks of trauma can be erased over time through healthy/positive relationships and the creation of safe spaces in schools and communities. As Dr. Christina Bethell shared in her testimony, “The science of ACEs and resilience shine a light on the importance of the moment-by-moment relational experiences of children to their healthy brain, body, and socioemotional development, not only of our children, but our entire population.”

This is what Starr has been passionate about since its beginning and why our shared focus on healing trauma is so valuable. Working together, we can create positive environments where children flourish.

You have the power to ensure our elected officials are driven to heal. You can contact your local, state, and federal representatives through the portal at

1Merrick MT, Ford DC, Ports KA, Guinn AS. (2018). Prevalence of Adverse Childhood Experiences From the 2011-2014 Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System in 23 States. JAMA Pediatrics, 172(11), 1038-1044.

Beryl Cheal’s SuperGirls: Building Resilience in Refugees

Any trauma-informed practitioner should know that “stressed brains can’t learn.” While this important adage resonates in any setting, the stress referred to can vary wildly. For Beryl Cheal’s SuperGirls, the stresses of war, genocide, and displacement weigh heavy and present additional obstacles for them to overcome. Cheal is tasked with not only providing trauma-informed care, a testing task no matter the geolocation, she must also overcome translation issues, clashes of culture, and a lack of effective educational structure. The early success of the program, which was established in 2017 through the Collateral Repair Project in Amman, Jordan, is a testament to a career which was built upon, and gained momentum through, Cheal’s trust in the limitless success possible for all children.

“I found, early on, the key to success was listening to kids, caring about [them], and helping them find ways to belong,” says Cheal, who began her career as a teacher in Southern California and Washington. Her first international service to children came through the American Friends Service Committee, an organization who challenged her with the task of directing a kindergarten system for 1500 Palestinian refugees in Gaza. Many opportunities and stops across the globe thereafter, Cheal has built an approach to care that not only will be recognizable by those familiar with the Mission of Starr, but directly influenced by its Certified Trauma Practitioner curriculum.

“[My work in Gaza and through the Red Cross and Peace Corps allowed me to work with] kids who had gone through really difficult experiences, and that all made me realize that teachers tend not to know what to do about trauma,” recalls Cheal. This inspired her to seek out resources to solve that dilemma, ultimately leading her to Making It Better, by Barbara Oehlberg, a Starr certified trainer and Cheal’s first introduction to Starr Commonwealth. Oehlberg’s thorough and thoughtful descriptions of understanding trauma, as well as ideas for strategies to implement, and her own personal research paved the way for Cheal’s storied career dedicated to healing trauma in a variety of settings, including post-9/11 New York, natural disaster-torn Philippine islands, post-Apartheid South Africa, as well as several refugee settings. As for Starr, it wasn’t until the aforementioned SuperGirls program that Cheal took the leap into its many courses on trauma-informed care.

Cheal’s initial task was to help the CRP establish SuperGirls, a leadership program for girls 6-12 years old, the majority being refugees from regions of war such as Iraq and Syria. Through games, storytelling, and play, the SuperGirls are overcoming trauma and building resilience. In this structured and safe setting, the girls are learning communication skills, mind body awareness, self-confidence, and independence—all while having fun. “We know that kids who have experienced trauma can’t focus well, as they have been rewired to simply survive,” explains Cheal. “By playing games with specific rulesets, we can have fun while making sure we play the game the right way. We also have the opportunity to celebrate their culture by introducing games that originated in this part of the world.” The results of this initiative were immediate, as CRP Executive Director Amanda Lane can attest.

“Since 2006, CRP has been working deeply with Amman’s refugee community and offering up a number of community-based psycho-social support activities, but the SuperGirls program Beryl designed for CRP is by far our most impactful trauma-sensitive educational program to date,” says Lane. “Beryl’s love and enthusiasm for her work is infectious, and she has helped our staff to make real strides in integrating a trauma-informed approach throughout our programming.” While she was quick to find success at CRP, Cheal’s plans for 2019 take important next steps for the SuperGirls program. In addition, she’ll be utilizing a fresh sets of skills thanks for Starr’s online training.

“In between stays in Amman, I found [Starr’s] programming, thanks to my familiarity with Oehlberg’s book,” recalls Cheal. “I began with Trauma-Informed Resilient Schools, which I thought was great, and it inspired me to adapt the curriculum for [Collateral Repair Project’s] community center. I then received a note from CRP asking for me to help them become a more trauma-informed center. Naturally, I said ‘well, of course!’ So we added a youth program [for 2019], and I realized I could benefit greatly from the full Certified Trauma Practitioner course.” And while she’s a teacher by trade, Cheal was challenged by her sister, a Ph.D. LMHC (Licensed Mental Health Counselor), to learn more about how psychology can help her program grow. “So, I signed up for the clinical track instead of the educational track, and I’m really glad I did. Sure, some of the terminology was a bit of a struggle for someone who hadn’t come from a clinical background, but Starr’s courses taught me a great deal, while also reinforcing what I had found to be true about trauma-informed care throughout my career. The experts [at Starr] are validating my work, and that’s really cool.” It’s that work, which has been fundamental in reestablishing the proper communal norms to take the next step for the SuperGirls program.

While the SuperGirls program has been focused on youth empowerment, the transformation of parent interactions with Cheal and other volunteers has provided an additional proof-point for the CRP’s work. “The concept of trust is critical in this part of the world—I can’t emphasize it enough. Confidence is not always easy for refugees who have experienced so much fear, deceit, treachery, and discrimination to develop trust in strangers. Parents who hadn’t brought their kids to schooling of any kind are now insisting on giving their daughters opportunities ‘within the walls’ of the CRP.” The task challenge for Cheal in 2019 is taking the inter-generational healing and community building that has happened within the SuperGirls program, and begin to apply it to formal education.

A great number of SuperGirls have had no schooling whatsoever. In addition, cultural norms have meant that parents are not actively involved in schooling. Cheal is set to change these truths. In September, she will be traveling back to Amman to start a school readiness program under the SuperGirls umbrella. While the goals will be to introduce literacy and numeracy, the approach will remain the same: trauma-informed learning through play and games. To ensure the momentum of community-building that she has already helped make possible, she also plans on involving the parents in the educational process. “They don’t realize the saying we have here that parents are a child’s first teacher. For those who we’ve built trust with, we still find them leaving their kids at the door and going to do something else while the kids interact. We’ll be intentional about getting parents more involved [moving forward].”

To learn more about the Collateral Repair Project, visit their website at The critical work being done by CRP and Beryl Cheal is made possible, in part, due to Cheal’s status as a Certified Trauma Practitioner through Starr Commonwealth. If you are interested in how a trauma-informed certification can help you make an even greater impact in your field, visit

All photos courtesy of the Collateral Repair Project.

A Day-in-the-Life of a Trauma-Informed School

When my colleagues and I started talking about how to incorporate trauma-informed practices into our classrooms, we searched for other programs to visit and observe. It became apparent very quickly that, although many schools offered some trauma-informed strategies, few had fully implemented the practices. Our building, as well as our district, has spent the last three years giving our staff professional development and implementing trauma-informed practices in all settings of our school day. The school that I teach at recently became the first school in the United States to be accredited as a Trauma-Informed School by Starr Commonwealth. I want to give you a day-in-the-life look of a trauma-informed school and classroom. Even though you may not physically be in our classrooms, I hope that this walk through gives you an idea of our day and some ideas to integrate into your own school.

Our school days begins with an individual greeting for each student, whether a high-five, a handshake, a hug, or verbal welcome to the day. We know that trauma does not always mean a one time event and that some students experience long term trauma due to poverty or other day to day situations. By greeting our students, we want to remind them that we are happy to see them and we offer a safe space for learning. All of our students receive a free breakfast and many teachers use this time to do a check-in with students who may be struggling or look like they need some additional time for connection.

Let’s take a look around the classroom. Each classroom has a “calm down” space or “quiet corner”. This space looks different in each classroom and varies along grade levels as well. In our kindergarten classrooms, you may see a small tent with a carpet inside and a box of calm down items. An upper elementary classroom may have a beanbag and some netting overhead along with a box of calm down tools. Students utilize these areas as needed throughout the school day. The calm down kits contain visual reminder cards of calm down strategies, fidgets, sand timers, thinking putty, and squeeze balls. Many classrooms also have alternative seating such as standing desks, collaborative groupings, stools, etc. Some things you won’t see in our classrooms are color charts or time out areas; we have found those procedures do not align with our trauma-informed training and often alienate students.

As the day goes on, curriculum instruction is intermingled with social emotional learning. Time is spent building relationships with both peers and adults. Each classroom begins the school year with at least one restorative circle a day. Restorative circles build community in the classroom, allow for the work of restorative practice to happen, and continue to happen regularly throughout the school year. Some of the circles are community building and some of the circles are problem solving or solution seeking. These circles build resiliency skills in our students and we have seen the same verbiage in the circle overflow into less structured settings such as lunch and recess.

Throughout the day, some of our students may visit the sensory room, designed with the help of our district occupational therapist. We also have brain gym activities in the hallway for a quick brain break and return to class for those who need that type of sensory input. In the classroom, brain breaks are done frequently to give the students an opportunity to get up and move and refocus on the academic portion of the day.

All of our students receive lunch and each grade level spends recess together. We have partnered with Playworks to help teach our students how to play and to incorporate problem-solving strategies during play and in other settings. Some of our older students are peer mentors for our younger students and can be seen proudly leading a game on the playground.

As the day winds down, teachers say goodbye to their students in a way very similar to their morning greeting. Teachers may also do a second restorative circle if they feel it would benefit the class as the school day ends. Students can also be found doing a checkout with their teacher to touch base about their day and discuss goals for the next day of learning.

We’ve learned that trauma-informed practices aren’t just something you do but, instead, a mindset shift of the way we interact with our students. Students come to us with a story and a history that may have included trauma. We have found trauma-informed strategies are effective and have changed the culture of our school. Thank you for visiting today, I hope you are able to take away an idea to use in your own school.

The Positive Power of Play

Learning can be a real struggle for students who have experienced trauma. Starr Commonwealth can provide the training, tools and resources you need to become trauma-informed and resilience-focused so you can set your students up for success. Our courses were designed with YOU in mind – teachers, school administrators and staff, psychologists, social workers and counselors.

It’s been a long, difficult year for staff and students in the program where I serve as a Behavior Interventionist.  High staff turnover has led to a lack of consistency and predictability, undermining the felt sense of safety of our students and promoting premature burnout of our remaining staff from the increased workload.  Needless to say, we were all heading into the last week before Spring Break on fumes.  Volatile emotions and behaviors of students combined with low frustration tolerance of teachers is a recipe for disaster.  As a program striving to become more trauma responsive, we know this. Many of our students don’t respond with the excitement that is typical of their peers before breaks.  For our students, with some exceptions, a break from school means lack of structure, absence of an adult who is in a state to adequately provide for them physically and emotionally, no break from home or community turbulence or violence, and nothing, in particular, to look forward to. For these reasons, we know that behaviors escalate before breaks and that we have a responsibility to respond proactively.  But how, when we haven’t had adequate support and time to discharge some of our own stress, could we do anything but react?

One teacher had the audacity to suggest that we have a staff vs. student kickball game on the day before Spring Break began – a day that is known historically for: increased outbursts and physical aggression from students and increased anxiety for teachers as they rush to meet final deadlines.  Not only did our director support the idea, but she mandated that all staff participate.  It was okay if we couldn’t physically play, but we all had to be present in the gym for the duration of the game.

Friday was gameday, and as I entered our building I felt something different, but not foreign – a buzz of light-hearted excitement.  Students were volunteering to help set up and staff were walking around in a variety of athletic wear, complete with mouth guards and eye block.  We had accumulated ample food for concessions and students and staff worked to prepare hotdogs and nachos in our family living center.

At 12:30 pm, everyone headed to the gym.  Rules were explained, captains were named, and the game began.  In that 2-hour period, between the game, the food, and the music, miraculous things occurred.  There was spontaneous dancing and laughter.  Students were helping and encouraging other students, students witnessed staff having fun, staff and students appreciated and enjoyed each other outside their typical roles, and students witnessed staff try and sometimes fail at something without having meltdowns.  But there were also miraculous things that didn’t occur. There was no physical aggression, there were no outbursts, there were no major arguments – and the ones that did occur were short and required no adult intervention.  Most interestingly, there were no refusals to get on the bus when it was time to go home.

As I reflected on the success of the day, the lingering smiles on the faces of students and staff, and the camaraderie among staff that hadn’t been present for a while, I realized what we had done.  We had created a safe, supportive environment for everyone and had activated our social engagement systems through physical movement and play.  In the most stressful of times, we had inadvertently fostered resilience in our students and each other.  Walking down the hall to the buses, the calm was palpable.  Students and staff alike had regulated their stress response through play by experiencing mutual joy, shared communication, and attunement.  I couldn’t imagine a more perfect way to send everyone their separate ways for a week. We all should play a little more.

Additional Resources(s):

The Power of Play: A Pediatric Role in Enhancing Development in Young Children

The Helper’s Charge to Recharge: Doing and Becoming Our Best

Recently a teenage client asked me a question that threw me, unexpectedly. (Over the years, I’ve amassed a considerable anthology of examples on what makes them famous for this gift, so it’s not an easy thing to do these days!)

I attended an engaging group session on characteristics of community and racial trauma, after which the group’s therapist allotted time for a “Q and A” between her adolescent clients and me, their guest. One member asked me, “How do you deal with trauma?”

I started to summarize the vast nature of trauma, and the equally vast approaches to treating it – then asked him for an example of the type of trauma he was referring to. He repeated his question, “No – how do you deal with trauma?”

“How do I?” I asked, taken aback.

“Yes,” he replied. “You hear about other people’s trauma every day, so how do you deal with it?”

I was struck by the sophistication of his question, especially when I realized what he was really asking. He wasn’t asking me about my trauma, or how I’m impacted by other people’s trauma. He was asking me about my resilience! I paused to evaluate why I felt so caught off guard, and was reminded: As helpers, this is something we don’t discuss often enough.

I started listing some of my self-care practices: yoga, meditation, playing in an ensemble, spending time with loved ones and reflective consulting with supervisors. (Heads nodded as they recognized some of these as the very techniques they’re encouraged to adopt.) I summed up by echoing their therapist’s message on the universal requirement for dealing with trauma: “Just like you, I don’t do it alone.”

[Re]charging toward resilience.   

The helper bears significant weight in leading this complicated, and often painful, journey with clients. Sensory-based interventions assist us with helping clients access, activate, integrate and heal their body, mind and spirit – and the therapeutic relationship navigates this path, as we work to know our client’s trauma as they know it. The interventions offered through Starr Commonwealth (Zero to Three: Trauma Interventions, SITCAP®, Mind Body Skills, Expressive Arts Therapy, etc.) provide the tools to treat the psychophysiology of child trauma with activities that are:

  • relationship-based and experiential
  • adaptive to myriad stages of child development
  • inherently designed to foster empathic attunement within the therapeutic relationship

The attunement we establish with the client can put us closer in touch with our own vulnerability, as we become proximate to theirs – while also providing the opportunity to connect with our own resiliency, as we help them build theirs. In doing so, we charge toward the horizon of resiliency, as our clients reclaim their power from a place of wholeness.

What charges the charge?

We know that self-care is essential to maintaining health and wellness, and defending against the perils of secondary traumatic stress and vicarious trauma. Part of maintaining personal well-being includes solitary space to reflect. Whether on our yoga mat, steeped in a hot bath, sprawled on the masseuse’s table, napping, walking, running or cycling to achieve that meditative hum in perpetual motion, physical care is essential to a healthy mind, body and spirit. But how much of our self care are we doing alone?

A barrage of solitary self-care routines do not make a complete self-care practice.

Without relationship, connection and support in spaces where reflective processing occurs, our self-care practices leave us… alone. Staying healthy, staving off symptoms of secondary traumatic stress and avoiding compassion fatigue are all critical aims, of course. But, the act of being reflective within a relationship is critical, whether through individual or group supervision/consultation. Our dear friend, Dr. Jeree Pawl, PhD, offers us a wise navigational compass toward the parallel process, in The Platinum Rule:

Do unto others as you would have others do unto others.

We draw upon on the tenets of Polyvagal and Attachment Theories to provide sensory-based, integrated approaches to healing the individual and interpersonal wounds of trauma. We engage the fields of the brain and nervous systems to help our clients heal and achieve resiliency – and how we restore our own depleted systems informs our capacity to do so. As helpers, it’s our charge to sustain and advance this capacity. We require a space where we’re held with what we hold, seen with what we see, and can be shown what has not yet been revealed while reflecting on our own. Maintaining a reflective practice in a relationship helps elevate our ability to hold that crucial space for clients through the parallel process. Thinking about self-care as a means of advancing our efficacy as helpers prompts us to consider it as a key to simultaneously putting ourselves and our clients first. When we take better care of us, we take better care of them.

Pawl, J. H., & St John, M. (1998). How You Are Is as Important as What You Do… in Making a Positive Difference for Infants, Toddlers and Their Families. Zero to Three, 734 15th Street, NW, Suite 1000, Washington, DC 20005-1013

Three Benefits of Social Media in Times of Crisis

Traumatic events that are in the form of natural disasters, such as wildfires, hurricanes, earthquakes or flooding, and human created disasters related to disease outbreak, terrorism, gun violence and other occurrences of mass violence, can have an immense impact on mental health and vulnerability to traumatic stress. (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration-SAMHSA, 2019)

The use of social media can be a valuable tool in these times of crisis for survivors, first responders, affected communities and beyond. This blog post highlights three ways social media can play a beneficial role before, during and after times of tragedy and trauma.

1. Broadcasting critical information: Social media’s communication platforms can provide announcements to help with preparation for impending events and provide warning, response, recovery and educational updates. A benefit of using social media for providing and receiving information is that the content can be communicated in real time and  broadcasted to a broad audience quickly and easily. Social media is often used as the fastest way to inform others, such as family and loved ones, about safety status, needing help or relaying critical messages and updates. This can help decrease fear and worry, as well as empower affected individuals, communities and the public with a feeling of control amidst a situation that is often chaotic and overwhelming.

2. Promoting resiliency: An important factor that creates and strengthens resiliency and the ability to recover and come back from distressing events and experiences is connection to others. A sense of belonging and community can be facilitated through social media and let survivors and affected individuals know they are not alone, they have support and there is an outlet for coping. Social media can also be vital for sustaining ongoing connection in the aftermath of trauma and loss through our personal or group networks, creating digital spaces for sharing virtual memorials, memories, images and story telling.

3. Access to resources: Sites in the form of social media networks, blogs and websites offer a way to obtain and exchange information and resources in times of emergency, crisis, or disaster. Some examples of tools online include:

  • Facebook Crisis Response: With this response tool, you can mark yourself safe when an emergency takes place in your area, and those you are connected to on Facebook will be notified. You can also use this tool to find or give assistance and receive information during and after a crisis at
  • Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Prevention Twitter Alerts: The CDC’s Center for Preparedness and Response provides crisis or emergency updates at
  • Federal Emergency Management Agency(FEMA) Twitter Alerts:FEMA provides support to citizens and first responders before, during and after emergencies at

SAMHSA also recommends these social media resources:

A note of real caution with using social media, of course, is that misinformation can spread quickly and widely, so it is important to be mindful of where you obtain your information online. Another challenge of social media is individual opinion can be interpreted, reported or shared as fact. This confusion can cause additional uncertainty, heightened arousal and response in the face of critical situations. Filtering your social media exposure by using the tools suggested above can help navigate and manage these risks. It is also valuable to be aware of privacy, security and safety issues, such as disclosing personal or location information that could put you at risk on social media, especially in moments of crisis or great need. And finally, an important consideration that has been addressed in previous blogs and content is to mindfully manage and monitor social media exposure and content that can become a source of traumatization.

Social media can certainly be a lifeline in critical times, and I believe the benefits (and challenges) to bring assistance and resources to others prior, throughout and following an event are worth trauma practitioners becoming familiar with in our digitally connected world.


Social media and disasters

The role of social media in disaster psychiatry

Community resilience as a metaphor, theory, set of capacities, and strategy for disaster readiness

Emergent use of social media: a new age of opportunity for disaster resilience

Online social media in crisis events

Resilience-based reflections for disaster recovery:

Trauma informed considerations & strategies: Helping kids manage distressing events and news:

Trauma from TV, radio, and social media:

Community Collaboration: A Key to Success

When I first started working with Starr Commonwealth, I was focused on how it would help my individual students and clients, and there is no doubt in my mind it has and still is helping in an amazing way. The more familiar I became with trauma and its impact, the more I realized there was more to be done. Trauma impacts on an individual level, of course, but what about on a community, societal or intergenerational level? We have learned a tremendous amount about healing individuals and helping them build resilience, but what about the importance of healing communities and finding ways to help our communities thrive?

Agencies, communities and even whole states are working to become trauma informed. There are many examples out there such as TICB, Trauma Informed Community Building, a public housing revitalization effort in San Francisco, The Alaska Resilience Initiative and Trauma Informed Oregon, just to name a few. Where do we start? How do we reach out, and to whom?

One answer is community education and involvement. One of Maya Angelou’s most famous quotes is, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” It is very easy for us to make assumptions about why others do what they do and to even be, dare I say, “judgmental” at times, but this goes against some of the primary tenets of trauma informed care, collaboration and mutuality. These core beliefs stress that healing comes from the meaningful sharing of power.

We began to reach out to our community several years ago in different ways. First, we established a SITCAP® workgroup that community members were invited to, helping to promote an understanding of trauma and resilience. Second, we invited local social service agencies and mental health professionals, as well as other school professionals, to our annual training day.

Local collaboration has the power to take us even further on our journey to become trauma informed as a district and community. For the last couple of years, we have worked with our local downtown Rotary Club, a wonderful organization designed to serve their community. They have helped with supplies for classrooms to help students with self-regulation and funded additional training for teachers. This school year, we are fortunate to have them sponsor our Starr Certified Trauma Practitioner recertification day. They will be helping by providing funding for marketing, a meeting room, lunch and snacks, materials for hands-on sensory based activities and paying for participants CEU’s, just to name a few wonderful things. We are so excited that they are reaching out to help us further educate our school staff as well as community professionals!

How did this all start? Very simply! We came across the idea and asked. One of my favorite sayings is, “It never hurts to ask.” Each Rotary Club normally has a district grant that they write annually to help support positive opportunities within their community. One of my supervisors at the time knew about the opportunity and suggested we write a proposal. The first year we were turned down. However, that following summer the Rotary actually contacted me and asked me to write the proposal again for the upcoming year because they liked the idea and wanted to help. I rewrote the proposal, it was selected and awarded, and we are now on grant number three working together to help our community become trauma informed. Next school year, all three of our local Rotaries will combine funding for the first time ever on the same initiative to continue our efforts.

As you look to build resilience in the individuals you support, I encourage you to look at the big picture within your community. There is more work to be done than just on the individual or micro level. We can have a greater impact and help even more people when we get our communities involved, and yours might be just as wonderful and receptive as our local Rotary is! If you are in the Missouri area, consider coming to our Rotary sponsored recertification day on March 27thin St. Joseph, MO. I will be presenting the Starr training, “Courageous Connections,” helping professionals become even better at reaching out and building effective, healing and life-changing connections with their clients or students. If you aren’t in our area, feel free to steal this idea and contact your local Rotary Club, or any other number of wonderful giving organizations that can further the impact of what you are doing; working to help others heal and thrive. For more information on our training day or this collaboration, please feel free to contact me at Reach out and change your world!

Trauma Informed Care in a School Setting

It sounds so easy: take care of the student’s needs before trying to educate them…

Practicing trauma informed care in a school setting is challenging. Some students have had years of being unsuccessful in school due to lifelong chronic stress and lack of support. It takes a lot of time, energy and manpower to build resiliency in these students.

Integration of trauma informed care into our schools has had many ups and downs. In the two years I have led this work in an elementary school and now in a middle school, I have had many fruitful discussions with staff who have voiced their criticism:

  • “All the Principal does is ‘talk’ to them and send them back to class.”
  • “He/She can’t do the work.”
  • “The kids don’t respect me.”
  • “There are no consequences for student behavior.”

One of the most challenging hurdles to overcome is convincing teachers that our traditional consequences for student behavior were not always logical consequences. At the same time, implementing a system of logical or natural consequences in a large school is difficult. In a school of over 1,000 students, 46 teachers and over 30 support staff, how do you ensure every employee has the proper mindset? We turned to Starr Commonwealth.

Starr brought their expertise and training to our district to provide every staff member with professional development around trauma informed care. Most of this training was providing the understanding of how trauma and chronic stress affects brain development. With this newfound knowledge, we first focused on our student system of support, which included our discipline process and our tier 2 and tier 3 support.

Once those systems were built through a trauma informed lens, we began focusing on how to increase teacher capacity to:

  • Build relationships with the students.
  • Be curious about the behavior.
  • Understand that student behavior is not personal.
  • Understand that being trauma informed does not mean letting students “get away” with unacceptable behavior.

The students used to be removed from the class so someone could reset them. However, in order to keep the students in the classrooms, the teachers were now the ones who needed to build relationships with the students. For so long, social workers, counselors, behavior specialists and administrators dealt with students who were not ready to learn, both academically and behaviorally. We turned that around by allowing the teachers to reset students while support staff watched their classrooms, requiring “circles” in the classroom to build relationships and community as well as strengthening teacher tier 1 behavior strategies while insisting on effective tier 1 instruction.

Our tier 2 and tier 3 strategies also needed developing. We created a system allowing teachers to refer students to our SST (Student Support Team) when they are still struggling in the classroom. The system of support is based on the Circle of Courage®, which is a model of positive youth development based on the universal principle that to be emotionally healthy, all youth need a sense of belonging, mastery, independence and generosity. The first step with this team is to review the student referral, behavior, attendance and grades. From this review, the team determines which part of the circle needs repair. The SST discusses the student behavior and suggests strategies for teachers and support staff based on student need. After two four-week cycles of interventions, the student is moved to tier 3 and a cohesive behavior plan for those students is written.

Practicing trauma informed care is more than just not suspending students, or not taking them out of class; it is increasing teacher capacity to build resiliency in our students. To have a trauma informed classroom is the opposite of letting students get away with bad behavior – it is about providing them with the tools and reflection time to correct their behavior and regulate their mind and body. It is about providing routines, predictability and structure in their world that is often built on chaos and unpredictability. It is about providing them love and support in a world that can be full of criticism and hopelessness. It is about providing them a safe and comfortable environment that they can rely on. The more we expect of our students, the more they will thrive. Structure and high expectations builds the self-worth and confidence that many students with chronic stress desperately desire and need.

For some students, school may be the only setting in which they have a voice. Early on we must let our students know that in school we have high expectations – and a safe, predictable, orderly environment.

Post-Traumatic Growth & Resiliency Factors for Children and Adolescents

An overwhelming amount of distressing news and traumatic events are reported everyday in the media and online: natural and human-made disasters, mass shootings and interpersonal violence taking place in communities, schools, families and throughout our country and world.

Many are familiar with term Post-Traumatic Stress (PTS) or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which can have a real and lasting impact on individuals who have directly or indirectly experienced a traumatic event. However, the concept of Post-Traumatic Growth (PTG) is also very much real, but not as well known. Often PTG happens more than PTS/PTSD, and has strong long-term, positive effects for survivors of trauma. Research and stories of PTG reveal that traumatic experiences and crisis often inspire and result in profound emotional, spiritual and inner growth. PTG facilitates a new awareness, understanding and meaning that cannot only strengthen a survivor’s management of traumatic stress, but activate thriving and increased psychological success that greatly benefits the self and often helps others.

As a trauma practitioner, seeing an increase in PTG-related stories coming through my news feed recently is encouraging, as it brings important attention to how trauma can be transformed into deep strength, resolve and positive action in the lives and communities of survivors.

Here are a few strategies that we can utilize to promote PTG in children, adolescents and families exposed to trauma:

  • The Power of Relationships– Youth who have been exposed to a traumatic event or loss can benefit tremendously when they experience consistent, loving and involved adults (i.e. parents & caregivers, teachers, coaches, therapists, community group leaders, etc.) in their lives. Showing our mindful attention, calm presence and enduring compassion through the connection of relationship, healthy boundaries, engagement in activities or community involvement can help kids have a safe and sound place to feel accepted, valued and cared for.
  • Create a Safe Environment – In addition to making sure a youth’s physical safety and needs are secure, creating a safe environment also involves supporting children and adolescents emotionally and psychologically. This can include establishing an environment that provides a sense of predictability, validation and support that the youth can depend and rely on, especially in times of extreme change, uncertainty or distress in their lives, or experiences out of their control.
  • Activate Sensory Based Interventions– Initiating hands on and sensory focused interventions that connect and engage youth with activities such as but not limited to: mindfulness, breath work, physical activity and creative expression can enhance coping and create safeguarding from toxic stress, an important foundation for promoting PTG.

As trauma practitioners working with youth and families, we can actively create and contribute to meaningful opportunities that support post-traumatic growth and resiliency factors in not just our agencies, schools, communities and programs, but also the world we live in together.


5 Things You Can Do Today to Turn PTSD into Post-Traumatic Growth:

You’ve Heard of Post-Traumatic Stress, but What About Post-Traumatic Growth?

After Parkland, How Grief Can Become Posttraumatic Growth for Student Activists

Trauma Informed Considerations & Strategies: Helping Kids Manage Distressing Events & News:

Resilience-based Reflections for Disaster Recovery:

Finding a Safe Place: Supporting Safety, Self-Regulation, and Sensory-Based Interventions:

Boundaries and Identity in Trauma Healing:

Toxic Stress

Although some stress is normal and even healthy, toxic stress is not. Children who have experienced a trauma often feel helpless and hopeless and live in a constant state of worry and fear. This toxic stress negatively influences every aspect of the child’s development. Some of the most common experiences among children living with toxic stress include:

Always anticipating something bad to happen, feeling jumpy and nervous, distorted perception of others’ non-verbal body language and facial cues.

Shuts down easily when negative situations arise, uses food, alcohol, drugs or other addictive behaviors to numb out.

Negative cognition
Inaccurate beliefs about oneself, others and the work around them.

Emotional distress
Depressed, anxious, feelings of helplessness and hopelessness.

Health problems and somatic complaints
Stomachaches, headaches, physical health problems such as obesity and hypertension.

Difficulty with relationships
Withdraws, blames and pushes other away, does not feel worthy of love.

The online course, Healing the Experience of Trauma, was developed for practitioners to use with children who are living in a constant state of toxic stress. Instead of asking a child what happened, it focuses on their lives now. The course consists of video segments of a live presentation by Dr. Caelan Soma. $199 includes CEs.

The new “Healing the Experience of Trauma” program by Dr. Caelan Soma, includes a manual for the clinician, with step-by-step instructions to move through 9 sessions with a child, adolescent or group and one journal. Move back and forth between the themes of trauma and introduce them to feelings of connection, resilience and strength. Buy it now for $75!

The Most Important Factor in Your School Day is YOU

Lessons are aligned, supplies are ready and schedules are set, but of all the preparations you make each day, the most important factor in your school environment is YOU. Your attitude, energy level and ability to connect, notice and give feedback to students is what matters most, especially for children who have experienced trauma.

Mirror neurons are believed to be one of the major neuroscience discoveries of recent years. Mirror neurons are brain cells that “fire” both when a person is in action and when a person observes someone else engaged in the same action. What does this mean for us as educators? It means that students will mirror our actions, attitudes and feelings.

The frame of mind and body you bring to school will set the tone for the day. Checking your own brain/body state often will also help you avoid getting stuck in a conflict cycle that leads to damaged relationships and disruption of learning. Modeling positive emotions and self-regulation will create a climate where everyone feels safe and ready to learn.

Mirror neurons are the brain cells that make emotions contagious. Checking your own mind/body state often will help those around you remain calm and promote a feeling of safety that allows learning to take place.

For more ideas on how mirror neurons affect our interactions with kids and how to help our students, check out our Mind Body Skills workbook and the Mind Body Skills online course.

Consequences and Trauma Informed Care

Consequences provide an opportunity to learn and grow from our mistakes. They give us a chance to problem solve, model, teach, and practice ways to do better next time.

The most effective consequences are natural consequences – events that occur naturally. For example:

  • A student doesn’t do their work – they get a bad grade,
  • A student pushes someone down – they don’t want to play with them anymore,
  • A student breaks a computer – now the class doesn’t have one.

We often “rescue” these young people, and “solve” their problems, not allowing natural consequences to happen. Class meetings are a good way to help students realize the true consequences of their behavior and hold them accountable. It can give them a chance to learn valuable problem solving strategies, like:

  • Get help solving a problem – “How can I get my work done?”
  • Repair a relationship – “How can I earn back your trust so you’ll play with me?”
  • Fix a mistake they made – “I need to help pay for the computer’s repair.”

We may be able to help students work through their natural consequences. For example, if a student is not getting their work done, we can break down their assignment into smaller parts or get them a tutor. If a student keeps pushing students on the playground, we may need to help them with their social skills development. If a child breaks the computer, we may need to teach how to use it carefully.

Logical consequences do not occur naturally, we create them. As a result, they are limited by our imagination and intent. Remember, our intent must always be to HELP, not to HURT. The best logical consequences are developed WITH the student:

  • “What ideas do you have about how to get your work done? Could you do it after school? During lunch/recess?”
  • “What can you do to help ___ feel better now that you’ve pushed him down? Do you need to write him an apology? Eat lunch with him and me today?”
  • “How can we get the computer fixed?  Could you pick up the room every day to earn some money to get it fixed?”

To learn more trauma informed, resilience focused strategies to use in your school or classroom, sign up for one of our online courses. Or you can earn your Certified Trauma Practitioner-Education Certification by signing up for eCertification. eCertification consists of 5 online courses and 1 exam. Each course provides CEs and takes about 6 hours to complete.

Reference: Partners in Empowerment, (Tate, Copas, Wasmund)

The Power of Mindfulness in the Classroom

Notice your body. Lengthen your spine by sitting tall and straight. Feel your feet planted on the floor. Focus on your belly and imagine a balloon in that space. Breathe in slowly and deeply through your nostrils, imagining the balloon inflating, getting bigger, larger. Hold. Then slowly exhale through your mouth, imagining the balloon deflating. Practice this a few more times. Notice how you are feeling in the present moment. 

You have just controlled your heart rate, decreased your blood pressure, reduced stress chemicals in your brain, improved your emotional regulation and executive functioning, developed your physical awareness, increased your ability to focus and given yourself an experience of calm. You have just practiced mindfulness. It took less than a minute, and cost nothing.

Imagine if every teacher across the country started tests this way. Consider what could happen if we practiced breathing with kids in moments of conflict instead of sending them to detention. What impact could this have on a child’s ability to focus, regulate emotion and build resilience? What impact could mindfulness practice have on a teacher’s stress level, job satisfaction and ability to connect with students? We tell kids to focus. Why don’t we teach kids how to focus? Why don’t we teach mindfulness to kids?

“She can’t sit still.”
“He’s so emotional, he can’t cope.”
“He’s impulsive, and can’t control himself.”

I have heard these phrases time and again as teachers seek intervention support for their kids. While brain breaks help discharge activation, 1:1 interventions build connection. While behavior plans and screening for ADD and trauma may give us insight, we still need to teach kids the self-regulation techniques they need to be successful.

So, what is mindfulness and how can it help schools? Mindfulness is paying attention to what is happening in the present moment, without judgement. When we practice mindfulness, we rest our awareness on body sensations, emotions, thoughts, senses and environment.It does not always look like sitting still and quiet. We can practice mindfulness with movement, listening, eating, walking – the possibilities for present moment awareness are endless.

When people practice mindfulness in calm times, they are building neuropathways for coping when things get difficult. In the same way we train our muscles to get stronger, mindfulness trains our brains to manage impulses, emotions and sensations. Instead of punishing behavior, mindfulness teaches a strategy for finding focus.

The goal of mindfulness is not to stop emotion or thought: it is to notice and name emotions. When feelings are labeled, we are not at their mercy. Pretty powerful, considering that research shows when we identify emotion, thought and sensation it decreases responses in the amygdala, the area of the brain that detects fear and sets off a series of biological actions (Lieberman, 2007). When we have trained our brains in this way, we automatically reintegrate the cognitive brain to respond in situations rather than default to the fight, flight or freeze functions of the primitive, sensory brain.

Research shows that mindfulness changes the human brain. After eight weeks of regular mindfulness practice, brain volume increases in two areas: the hippocampus, which is responsible for learning, storage of memories, spatial orientation and regulation of emotions, and the Tempo parietal junction, which is responsible for empathy and compassion. One area where brain volume decreased was the amygdala, the structure responsible for triggering the fight-or-flight responses.

I have seen the impact of consistent practice on kids and teachers first hand. Lucy (pseudonym), a first grader, was struggling to stay in her seat and complete any tasks. Academically, Lucy was impacted by her inability to pay attention. Her teacher was considering having her go back to Kindergarten. We decided to implement a morning mindfulness break. Soon Lucy was able to identify when her body felt wiggly, and then she would choose a practice to, “help the wiggles calm down.” A few months later, Lucy’s teacher reported that Lucy was consistently demonstrating she was at grade level academically, and was having more success with completing tasks. The teacher also noticed that when Lucy was losing focus, she closed her eyes at her seat and put her hand on her belly to feel her breath. The teacher asked Lucy to teach the whole class how to practice mindfulness. Before they took a test that week, some of the kids had requested to practice again. The teacher noticed her own stress level had reduced as they added mindfulness to their school day. This is the power of mindfulness practice.

So, what do we have to lose by adding a moment of awareness to each day?

Zapeleta, Kristyna. June 26, 2017

Neuroscience of Mindfulness: What Happens to Your Brain When you Meditate

Observer.Retrieved from:

Lieberman MD, Eisenberger NI, Crockette MJ, Tom SM, Pfiefer JH, Way BM. May 18, 2007

Putting feelings into words: affect labeling disrupts amygdala activity in response to affective stimuli 

Psychological Science 421-8.Retrieved from:


Be Proactive

Now that the school year has begun, start setting your students up for success! Here are some proactive strategies you can implement immediately:

Get to Know Your Students
Get to know your students FOR REAL, and help them get to know each other. Find out about each students’ history. Create an inclusive learning environment where every student feels like an important member.

Greet Students
Position yourself at the door (or wherever makes sense for greeting students) at the start of every class period. Greet ALL students by name (learn and use nicknames or other names if preferred by the student). Give genuine, positive encouragement often.

Provide Options
Utilize brain breaks and/or differentiate instruction every 15-20 minutes. Provide 2-3 options for assignments, projects and tests. Proactively introduce options for students when they “need a moment” and teach them how to self-select what works for them. Whenever possible, give choices.

Utilize an established structure and follow a routine. Notify students when there is going to be a change. Check-in with students frequently.

Universal Needs
Teach and prioritize values instead of rules and compliance. Foster the universal needs of belonging, mastery, independence, and generosity. Recognize and celebrate acts of kindness and generosity.

To learn more about these proactive strategies and others to use in your school or classroom, sign up for our Trauma Practitioner Certification-Education. This online certification was designed for YOU – school administrators, counselors, social workers and teachers. You will learn how to create a trauma informed, resilient focused environment that will help set your students up for success!

School to Community – Handle with Care

Looking through my email I saw “Handle with Care” in the subject line along with a student’s name. I became nervous, anxious, and then concerned for the student, thinking, “this has begun… it is a reality now.” It was the first time a name had come to me since we began Handle with Care (HWC), a limited pilot process through our police department and school district. I couldn’t believe that this system was already working! I walked down to check on the student and advise the teacher to handle that student with care.

It is not something that we created, but something many believed was needed in our community. HWC is an initiative started in Northern Illinois based off of the direction of West Virginia and Michigan.

The Handle with Care Model is: If a law enforcement officer encounters a child during a call, that child’s name and three words, “Handle with Care,” are forwarded to the school before the school bell rings the next day. The school implements individual, class and whole school trauma-sensitive curricula so that traumatized children are handled with care. If a child needs more intervention, on-site trauma-focused mental healthcare is available at the school.

In our community, if there is a significant incident that may cause trauma for a student, the officer alerts our School Resource Officer, who sends the name to the respective school. It does not come with details, as confidentiality must be first and foremost, but with this initiative, it isn’t what is in the details of the event that are the focus: it is how we treat, approach, and work with the student who has been through something with law enforcement that could be stressful. Now the appropriate staff members in our school know and can use a trauma informed lens when working with the student.

The opportunity to implement this program presented itself after I attended Starr’s trauma informed, resilience focused trainings to become a Certified Trauma Practitioner. After completing my certification, I was invited to be on a committee that not only looks at trauma in education, but in the community. The Winnebago County Health Department in Northern Illinois has started a Trauma Informed Community group, which is comprised of multiple sub committees, including: Handle with Care, a Trauma Informed Film Series, Training for Businesses and Organizations, and a Public Awareness Campaign.

We are continuing to work with police to implement this program further. We know we are on the right track, in part because of the knowledge gained from the Starr trainings. This initiative reinforces our trauma informed school process that we are in the second year of implementing.

The Handle with Care Program can happen anywhere and with anyone who wishes to have a trauma informed community and school connectedness with the police and families. Although this is only a pilot program for us at this time, our goal is to continue and grow to help students at every school in our county and beyond. We believe we can transform, heal and help students thrive by creating a safe place and working together as a school and community. Learn how to start to implement this initiative by visiting or You can also view a news piece on HWC in the Harlem School District here.

Calming Corner

A calming corner (also known as a calm down corner or comfort corner) is a small, designated space located within a classroom. The purpose of a calming corner is to help support self-regulation while keeping students in the classroom if they need a break from instruction time or a group activity. When students experience stress or trauma at home or are overwhelmed in school, their nervous systems respond. Some students become extremely activated while others shutdown. Activation comes in reactions such as inattention, difficulty sitting still and hyperactivity. Shut down looks like daydreaming, falling asleep in class or not responding to others bids to connect. With both activation and shut-down, cognition is impaired and learning is difficult. Calming corners can help with both. When activated, a calming corner provides an opportunity for students to reset or re-regulate and when shut down, a calming corner provides opportunity for engagement.

What are the benefits of a calming corner in the classroom?

The use of calm down corners can transform the culture of the classroom because calming corners are not consequence-based but rather used as an opportunity, driven by a student’s choice to feel better. Calming corners are private enough to allow the student to maintain dignity, however, they should be within eyesight of the educator so the student maintains a feeling of safety. 

  1. Improved emotional regulation: Calm down corners provide students with a safe space to regulate their emotions and manage stress, leading to increased emotional well-being and reduced anxiety.

  2. Enhanced focus and productivity: When students are able to manage their emotions and reduce stress, they are better able to focus and engage in learning activities, leading to improved academic performance.

  3. Promoting mindfulness and self-reflection: By taking a moment to pause and reflect in a calm down corner, students are able to develop mindfulness skills and increase their self-awareness, leading to greater emotional intelligence.

  4. Encouraging social-emotional learning: Calm down corners can serve as an opportunity for students to learn about and practice coping strategies, and can help to foster a supportive and inclusive classroom environment.

Calming corners are for all!

Dr. Caelan Soma describes the use of a calming corner. Click here to learn more.

Teachers should introduce calming corners in their classrooms as safe places. They are not for students who are “in trouble,” but rather for all students in the classroom. Invite all students to “try out” the calming corner when it is implemented. At first, the calming corner will be a novelty and every student will want to try it out. This is normal. As time goes on, only the students who really need to use it will ask to do so. If there is more than one student who wants to use the calming corner, the use of timers is helpful. Typically, after 5 minutes in the calming corner, students are ready to join the rest of the class.

A calming corner can be a safe place for students to do peer lead restorative circles or to just process through issues. Classrooms can create calming corner passes or a simple signal individualized by each student to alert the teacher that student needs to process or calm down.

What does a calming corner in the classroom look like?

For school-age children, a small nook or space set apart from the rest of the room that offers privacy is perfect. Provide seating with beanbags, pillows, a small table and chairs. Some teachers use a tapestry or some sort of “roof” to cover the calming corner space. Peaceful lighting and colors are a bonus. And, post the purpose of the calming corner. As children enter middle school and high school – a small area with a desk, beanbag or comfortable chair will do the trick. Some like to call these areas “chill-out corners”.

Calming Corner Ideas

  • Worksheets from TLC’s “One-Minute Interventions” and “Mind Body Skills for Emotional Regulation” workbooks
  • Different kinds of timers
  • Squishy “stress” ball
  • Small bottles of water
  • Glitter ball or glitter jar
  • Emotional feelings sheet to help identify and record emotions
  • Mirror to help identify emotions
  • Blank paper, pens, and crayons, markers,, write a letter, or to reflect on strategies used in the peace corner
  • Hoberman breathing sphere
  • Soft, small blanket or even a weighted blanket for sensory reasons
  • Soft rug
  • Relaxation CD and player
  • Headphones
  • Books, magazines
  • Low partitions/dividers for privacy
  • Tapestry for “roof”
  • Visual calming strategies

Focus on Sensory Rooms

Sensory rooms are therapeutic spaces that provide students with personalized sensory inputs to meet their individual needs. These rooms are not just for students with impairments, however, but for ALL children. Using a variety of tools, sensory-based activities are developed for each child based upon their need to calm, focus, or become more engaged and prepared to learn and interact with others. Each strategy that is designed for a child is referred to as their “sensory diet.”

A sensory room is not just a room filled with toys and equipment – there is a plan and purpose for each tool that is selected. For example, students are interviewed about their symptoms and reactions so the professional (e.g. occupational therapist, behavior interventionist, student advocate, or educator) can understand if the student needs help calming or exciting their system. Behaviors also help the professional understand what the student needs most, with the ultimate goal of increasing the self-awareness of the child and helping them articulate their needs.

There are various categories of sensory input available: vestibular, proprioception, tactile, auditory, visual, and oral-motor. In some rooms, there are color-coded options for sensory input. According to each student’s sensory diet, they can select a few activities from the specific colors or categories that best meet their needs. Students then engage in the activities prescribed to them and, once completed, check in with the professional to see if they are ready to return to their classroom. If they determine they need more sensory input, they select another activity. In most cases, however, students are ready to return to the classroom after they have engaged in the activities specific to their individualized sensory diet.

Sensory rooms do not need expensive equipment to be beneficial. For example, a rocker or swing, weighted materials, a mini trampoline, and/or some tactile objects are enough to provide the necessary sensory input. The rooms, however, should have light covers or bubble tubes since classroom lighting is often over-stimulating for students.

If a school does not have a room available, there are options to put rockers, weighted materials, and other sensory equipment in the classroom to offer support. Some schools even create “brain trails” throughout their hallways, providing pictures on the walls or cues on the ground for students to engage in activities such as yoga moves, deep breathing, cross crawls, and wall pushes.

If you would like to learn more about strategies to use in your school or classroom, please consider taking the online course Courageous Classrooms.

Bringing to Life Self-Care: Who Are Your Co-Therapists?

Anyone who works with people who have experienced trauma knows that trauma can take a toll on the human heart, for both the victims of trauma and those that assist with the healing of trauma. For those of us who assist in the various capacities of helping with the healing of trauma, we, too, need support on this journey. Earlier this year, as I was preparing for a training, I thought about what constitutes a well-resourced therapist. In our work, we are invariably supporting clients with the mobilization of inner and outer resources. This work made me question, how do therapists mobilize their own resources?

While there are so many ways we may resource ourselves as helpers, one way of resourcing that I have used over the years is identifying what I refer to as my own “co-therapist” or “co-trainer”. While I believe our co-therapists or co-trainers can be as many and varied as there are helpers, I have found eight co-therapists that are particularly useful for my own journey with others. These eight include Compassion, Creativity, Love, Inspiration, Risk, Curiosity, Imagination, and Presence.

The Process of Creating Co-Therapists

Step 1 – Identification: The first step is to identify what kind of co-therapist would be most useful to you, as you assist others on their journey. Simply brainstorm and give permission to write whatever ideas come to you. Next, intentionally hang out with these ideas in your work in the coming week and notice which ones you are most drawn to. Then, select the ones you feel are most needed and begin to deepen your work with each of them.

Additional Co-Therapists to Consider: Intention, Kindness, Forgiveness, Ordinary, Mindfulness, Aliveness, Open Heartedness, Wholeheartedness, Accountability, Beauty, Attention, Challenge, Risk, Astuteness, etc.

Step 2 – Deepening: Deepening the work can be done in many ways, though collaging and personifying the co-therapist is what I will share here. When completing this activity, I use small 4” x 6” canvases, paint each canvas with colors that are pleasing to me, and then proceeded to collage each one with the theme of the co-therapist. Once finished, I sit with each and allow them to speak to me by personifying them. (Personification is giving an inanimate object human qualities.) This deepening/embodying process has the potential to bring the energy of each co-therapist to life, and assist you in your day-to-day work with your clients.

Step 3 – Intention: As with any resourcing we do for ourselves or those we work with, there is an essential element of using intention to ensure the successful integration of the resource. It can be a lovely process of creating a collage on canvas of “Kindness”, however, we then need to take a moment at the beginning of each day to take out the canvas and intentionally invite it into our space, and perhaps place it in a location that we see throughout the day.

A Co-Therapist Comes to Life

I will leave you with an example of one of my co-therapists/co-trainers who have assisted me over the years – Curiosity. I am so grateful to Curiosity for his years of loyalty, his reliability, and his power in assisting me when I truly felt lost or overwhelmed. He can be one of our greatest allies in our work with trauma and the arts, so we can move away from interpretation and show up in a more curious state – a state where we can see the world from our client’s point of view.

What does my Curiosity look like?

CURIOSITY has enormous cat like eyes that change colors, along with ears like forest elves. If you pay attention and lean in, Curiosity will show you how he takes his time, ever-so-slowly making his way to you… pausing, lingering, noticing even the slightest, smallest detail – a deeper breath, a shifting glance… tilting his head in wonder. You will come away from an encounter with Curiosity sensing his authentic act of truly wanting to know you… the who, what, why and how of you. And you will come to know yourself a little deeper after a visit with Curiosity.

Happy, blessed summer to each of you, and may you, too, pay attention to how Curiosity assists you with deepening your own knowing of yourself and others.


Skillet the Therapy Dog

*Student identifying info has been changed to maintain confidentiality.

It’s 7:45 on a Tuesday morning. The call that comes over my walkie talkie is not unfamiliar. “Skillet is needed on the bus. Skillet is needed on the bus.” Skillet, a tall, lanky golden doodle/labradoodle mix (Skillet’s staff photo above) is already on his feet before I take his leash and tell him that Sean needs his help. Sean is a middle school student with autism whose anxiety and overstimulation manifest as self-injury, verbal aggression and physical aggression. Bus rides can be so difficult that he wears a safety harness to and from school.

When Skillet and I get on the bus, I can tell it’s been a rough morning. Sean is lying under the seats. He has removed his shoes and socks and thrown them at his teacher and bus driver who’ve been trying to help him transition into the building. Sean is completely dysregulated and in full survival mode; He’s alternating between spitting, yelling obscenities and biting himself.

Skillet pokes his big, goofy head under the seat next to Sean’s face, and so begins the de-escalation routine that they have established. Skillet licks Sean on the cheek until Sean reconnects and becomes aware of Skillet’s presence. Sean begins to laugh and then says excitedly, “Skillet the dog!” He reaches up to hug and pet Skillet. I suggest that Sean might be better able to pet him if he sits in the seat. Sean gets off the floor, into the seat, and Skillet hops up to sit beside him. In a matter of moments, Sean is spontaneously asking for his shoes and socks, apologizing for his behavior and saying he’s ready for breakfast. We have learned that when Sean becomes highly dysregulated, Skillet can usually calm him by activating his social engagement system in a way that other staff members can’t.

I’ve worked in this therapeutic public school program serving students ages 5-22 for the past 17 years, and the past five have been with Skillet. His presence adds a level of playfulness and calm that we hadn’t experienced before and that is uniquely canine; he often changes the mood in an entire room just by entering. When we first introduced Skillet as our program’s therapy dog, we knew the benefits to expect: increased social interaction, increased self-esteem, a calming presence, an added tool for emotion regulation, etc. What surprised us was that Skillet would make his own constant bids for connection and engagement with students. He would form unique relationships with certain students and that in times of crisis, he would become their go-to staff member. It was a little over a year after he started with us that we realized Skillet was more than an extra tool in our tool box: he was a member of our team.

I received a call from a teacher asking if I could bring Skillet down to her room for a visit ASAP. Jacob had been on edge all morning. Now, he had stopped responding verbally and was sitting in his seat, staring straight ahead and kicking the table methodically with increasing force. He wasn’t responding to her attempts at de-escalation, and we knew this indicated a meltdown was imminent. When Skillet and I entered the room, eight students were seated around two tables. Skillet went around the tables greeting each child, and the students responded with pats or giggles. Skillet came to Jacob, who just stared straight ahead and continued kicking. I watched as Skillet finished greeting the other students, and then circled back around to Jacob, laid at his feet and let out a big sigh as if to say, “No worries – I got this.” I watched incredulously as Jacob put his head down and began to pet Skillet, lightly at first, and then gradually more enthusiastically. Skillet and I stayed for about 10 minutes. When we left, Jacob was back on task, engaging with others, and he made it through the remainder of the day successfully. Jacob was one whose private logic told him that adults were not to be trusted. When triggered, he went into a survival response that took hours to regulate. Skillet had been able to help him feel a sense of safety, unconditional love and acceptance that he couldn’t receive from any other staff at that moment.

Skillet therapy dogTherapy dogs create opportunities for growth and healing for some students that wouldn’t be accessible otherwise. As Starr Commonwealth adds Baloo (left, at 7 weeks old), the therapy dog, to their team, Skillet and I are cheering! We can’t wait to hear of the connections he makes and the lives he impacts.

Reaching the Caregiver

I have been thinking about ACEs lately. Not the 4-of-a-kind, win-big-in-poker aces, but those pesky Adverse Childhood Experiences ACEs. As the opioid epidemic in our communities brings death and misery to our families, we have amassed resources in response. Adult recovery agencies and hospitals provide medical withdrawal and ongoing support for recovery. Law enforcement, hospital emergency departments and recovery services create coordinated plans for immediate outreach to overdose victims. Naloxone has been distributed far and wide to reverse the effects of overdose. Slowly, the number of deaths by caused by opioids in our area are stabilizing and even receding.

But what about the children? One parental overdose can cause a cavalcade of problems for children. The pivotal 1990’s CDC-Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experiences study showed strong correlations between childhood trauma and development of risk factors for disease throughout life. Children presented for assessment at our outpatient mental health clinic tell their stories of ACEs: a parent using drugs brings chaos and abuse into the family, spirals out of control into overdose, jail or death and the children and their caregivers are left to pick up the pieces. Treatment needs to include caregivers as well as the children affected by such loss and trauma. Here are some important issues to consider when working with families affected by the opioid epidemic:

  • Assessment for trauma is a family affair. The effects of trauma reverberate throughout the family. Just when children are most vulnerable and need the most support of extended family, their caregivers may find themselves depleted of the ability to regulate and promote emotional safety. When children are the identified client, we need to explore deeper than the child’s behaviors to assess for the adults’ functioning and trauma reactions as well. The National Child Traumatic Stress Network has a helpful tip sheet on family trauma assessment at
  • Psychoeducation about trauma is needed for all family members. Normalizing trauma reactions can relieve the worries shared by children and their caregivers. Adults worry that there is something really wrong with children when they act out in aggression, tantrums and defiance. Giving them a trauma informed lens that asks the question “What has happened to you?” moves the focus from pathology to compassion. I teach children and their adults about their amazing brains and the role of the amygdala in keeping them alive. An easy and engaging description of how trauma affects the brain and behavior comes from Dr. Daniel Siegel – The Brain in the Palm of Your Hand. This YouTube video offers a great explanation of this model.
  • Everybody needs self-regulation! Play activities that help families recognize their feelings, stop their bodies and get calmed down are essential in helping families move into well-being. These skills may not come naturally to families. I engage young children with a scripted story Tucker Turtle Takes Time to Tuck and Think that tells the tale of a turtle that feels angry and out of control sometimes. A calm down area in the home – a retreat with a soft pillow, a special blanket, Tucker Turtle poster, coloring materials – can promote self-regulation for all family members. The Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning has many free resources, including Tucker Turtle’s story and feeling face cards.
  • Reach the Amygdala to increase feelings of safety. Continued trauma places our systems on high alert, leading to difficult behaviors of hyper-vigilance. Caregivers need to understand that safety is more than providing housing, food, and clothing. The amygdala needs to recognize safety on a sensory level. Explore the sights, sound, smells and touches of safety with both the children and adults in the family. Recalling times of safety using a guided meditation is a great first start. Be creative in developing new experiences of safety for children. One foster mother I know helped each foster child chose their “Magic Spray” from the fragrances aisle of the drug store. She would spritz them as they shared happy moments of snuggling and attachment. Later, when the child was struggling with emotions, the child could use the “Magic Spray” to calm themselves. What a powerful use of a sensory intervention to promote peace!

The addiction and recovery issues facing our nation will not be solved easily. But there is great hope! Early intervention for youth experiencing such adverse childhood experiences as abuse, neglect, parental drug addiction, incarceration and death can move children from victim to survivor to thriver. We need to include their adult caregivers in treatment to ensure they get there!

Early Childhood Experiences

Positive early childhood experiences are essential for later success in school, the workplace, and the community. Services for children who have experienced Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) or those living in chronic toxic stress, including poverty, have been shown to positively impact outcomes across developmental domains of health, language and communication, cognitive development, and social/emotional development.

Families also benefit from intervention by learning to understand their children’s behavior and emotions. Benefits to society include reducing economic burden through a decreased need for mental and physical health services, adjudication, teenage pregnancy and substance abuse. The lifetime cost of non-fatal child maltreatment is over $200,000 per victim.

If you work with children who have encountered ACEs and want to help, the Healing the Experience of Trauma online course is for you! Instead of asking a child what happened, it focuses on their lives now. Learn the process of moving traumatized youth between themes of trauma and feelings of connection, resilience and strength. $199 includes CEs – REGISTER NOW!

Structured Sensory Interventions for Children, Adults and Parents

The experience of trauma is often difficult to communicate through words, and is more easily described through sensory-based interventions. Sensory-based interventions are non-language activities like drawing, imagery and other forms of expressive art that help children convey the way they now see themselves, others and the world around them as a result of their trauma experiences. Since traumatic memories are stored through the senses, the use of sensory-based interventions provide children with an opportunity to give their experiences a visual identity.

The Structured Sensory Interventions for Traumatized Children, Adolescents and Parents (SITCAP®) intervention process brings a child’s memories of the trauma to life in a safe, contained context so they can be regulated, reordered, and reframed in ways that support a resilience response to future stressful, overwhelming, and terrifying experiences. These activities actively involve children in new experiences in order for them to build new connections.

If you would like to learn more about our SITCAP® intervention programs, consider taking Children of Trauma or Structured Sensory Interventions online courses. These two courses lay the foundation for all our SITCAP® programs. Or take new online course, Healing the Experience of Trauma, which meets the child where they are now. Click to see all of our online course offerings.

The Training that Changed Everything

I am an elementary principal who works in the “kid business” and every year I meet so many students.They are so diverse in every sense of the word – some are topping the growth charts, some are barely making the growth chart, some have blonde hair, red hair, brown hair, black hair…you get the picture. Previously, my school had the goal of “…using academic curriculum to ensure that all learners meet the standards.” We have so many resources as leaders in education – more books than we have time to read, more professional development opportunities than we can fit into our busy schedules, guest speakers for motivation, guest speakers for grading, guest speakers who taught us older teachers to stop wearing our cell phones in a pouch on our belts or kids would never relate to us! I really wondered – what more I could do to make a difference in the lives of my students?

It was not until the summer of 2017 that my life changed forever as an educational leader.  I took time to attend The National Institute for Trauma and Loss in Children Childhood Trauma Practitioners Conference.  After listening to Dr. Caelan Soma, Derek Allen and Kathy Hart, I realized this was the training I had been missing during my 18-year career in education.  I was like a sponge during the 3-day training. I would write until my hand cramped and then I would type until my wrists hurt and so on. I met with my colleagues at the end of each training session and we shared our notes, thoughts and ideas with a level of excitement we have never felt before. We discussed how everyone in our entire district needed to be trained to work with children who have experienced trauma.  We decided we would meet with our district leaders, share our experiences and determine what was going to change in our buildings during the 2017-2018 school year. We knew we were on to something great! We implemented the practices we learned, we studied the books, our notes and designed comfort corners. We required that every teacher in our 2 respective buildings listen to our presentations for working with students of trauma. We required every classroom to have a comfort corner and to use it as designed, never as a punishment. After all, what is comforting about being forced into a comfort corner?  We asked teachers to model the use of the comfort corner when needed.  I had one teacher that calls her corner, “Australia”.  She told her class, “I’m in need of a break, you need to be problem solvers for the next 2 minutes while I go to Australia.” She went and sat in the bean bag chair with the animals by her side and netting hanging from the ceiling. One child started to approach her and she said, “Nope, I’m in Australia and I still have a minute left…be a problem solver!”

Fast forward to May of 2018, our 2 pilot schools who have implemented the information we learned from our TLC training and trained our staff members on the best practices of working with students of trauma. We have seen an overall reduction of 45% in discipline referrals during this entire school year. We now look at children through a different “lens”, we respond to children differently, we ask ourselves, “What has happened to this child?” instead of “What is wrong with this child?”

Ultimately, our children have not changed.They still come to us in all shapes, sizes, hair and skin color, and with various family income levels. The one thing that has changed is our response to children.  We are building relationships and a safe learning environment, and we are making social/emotional learning our top priorities – and it’s working.  While we have yet to receive our National standardized test results back,  I can only imagine the scores will rise. I feel this because of the social and emotional gains I have seen. Students are taking “time-ins” in their classrooms rather than being sent to the office for “time-outs,” they are learning to self-regulate, and they are feeling cared for rather than alienated. I challenge you to take time to look at your students through a trauma-informed lens and to build new, caring relationships with them, because from my firsthand experience, you will reap the benefits for many years to come.

The Body Holds the Truth

After 17 years of facilitating grief and trauma recovery, I recently experienced something that led me to a completely new understanding of the importance of the work we do at TLC and the programs we have developed and refined. As well as being a trauma counselor, I am also the author of the TLC/STARR Adults in Trauma program. Along the way, I have become aware of my own grief and trauma experiences. Addressing them has been instrumental in my work as a witness to others’ experiences in a therapeutic setting. Little did I know that trauma was residing just below the surface of my awareness.

In December of 2017, I found myself in a particular pose at a yoga class that unexpectedly threw me back into the memories of a trauma about which I had only been vaguely aware. Suddenly, the power of hidden trauma became very real to me. You may be familiar with The Body Keeps the Score by Dr. Bessell van der Kolk. Well, my body had kept the score. The yoga pose released a visual image and the emotions associated, immediately and dramatically.  Given her training and experience, the owner of this yoga studio was able to understand what was happening, reframe the experience in a manner I could understand, and helped return me to a relative sense of safety and control.

The best I can determine is the event that was triggered, and allowed to release, happened when I was about 7 years old. Since then, I have managed to gather a rather eclectic, unconventional team to help me address and move on from this childhood experience with which I am still in the process. At 68 years old with this experience finally revealed, I am energized to continue the flow of information regarding therapeutic practices that are available to adults who have experienced traumatic events in their childhood.

While children are the focus at TLC/STARR, there are many children of trauma who have grown up to become adults in trauma, not realizing that the traumatic events they experienced may still be present and active within their body. They are handling life well, mostly, until one day something triggers a strange and scary physical and/or emotional reaction seemingly out of context with current events. If they come to us seeking help, how do we assist them?

  • Do we help understand and assure that basic needs have been met, if necessary?
  • Do we endeavor to teach what trauma is, the effects, reactions, while normalizing it all?
  • Do we seek to offer the possibility of some action to be taken by the person, regardless of how small, that can lead to a sense of safety and control?
  • Do we focus on the many possibilities that could be at play and that may not fit neatly into a DSM V diagnosis?
  • Can we share assessment results in a manner that bolsters safety and empowers?

While we may start with a few inquiries, our priority is creating a human connection through our gaze, our voice, our words, maybe our proximity, discovering that our humanness, our caring, and our witness is enough, initially.

When I first wrote Adults in Trauma, I had no clear notion of the true reason behind the writing – that my own experience was guiding me – or the potential effect on future generations. Through the research conducted by Dr. Rachal Yehuda in epigenetics, Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, Dr. Peter Levine, our colleague Dr. Caelan Soma, and many others, I began to understand differently that unaddressed traumatic childhood experiences can have a profound effect on future generations, not only behaviorally and emotionally, but in ways that the field of epigenetics is beginning to reveal. Our focus at TLC/STARR is to educate, support, teach, and assist children and adults in understanding and moving beyond the impact of traumatic events experienced and into a place of thriving. The hope in our work lies not only in mitigating the potential long-term effects of trauma, but also for future generations in ways we may have not imagined before.

Using Anxiety Art to Bust Worry & Toxic Stress

Benefits of Anxiety Art

Anxiety Art is a powerful strategy for building resilience in kids. Today, anxiety is one of the most prevalent children’s mental health issues with the average age of onset for anxiety disorders being 6 years of age (Merikangas et al., 2010). Anxiety consists of many specific disorders including panic, OCD, specific phobias, PTSD, and social, separation, and generalized anxiety. When dealing with trauma we are often dealing with symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, which is an anxiety disorder. Our treatment plans will likely, at some point, need to address issues of anxiety.

Regardless of type of anxiety disorder, what matters in treatment is the process that happens, not so much the content of the worry. Whether the child is having worries about tripping in front of her class, seeing spiders, or needs to check the locks on the house six times before leaving, the mechanism at work is the same. The child is avoiding situations that: bring up feelings of uncomfortableness and uncertainty; is looking for reassurance; parents reassure and reassure again; it is not enough; and worries spiral out of control. We need to intervene to address the process, which is to empower the child to take charge of these worries. No one can do it for them.

There are many resources available to clinicians and families who are supporting children with anxiety (see resource list below this blog). One of the first steps in dealing with anxiety is externalizing the issue and relabeling anxiety (Chansky, 2004; Clark & Garland, 2009; Peters, 2013; and Wilson & Lyons, 2013). This is where anxiety art comes into play. Everything from taming your worry dragons, to squishing your worry bugs, to standing up to your worry monsters, are identified as ways to help children take charge of their fears and worries that are often interfering with their day to day life (Image 1).

image 1 - worry bugs, image 2 - suzie the dragon warrior, image 3 - 7-year-old detective

For years I have been working with children, their families, and anxiety. Early on in my work, a 10-year-old girl taught me about being a warrior rather than a worrier (Image 2). This is such a great idea and one that is now in book form (Peters, 2013). In keeping with this theme, we will explore further how warriors can be supported with the arts. The following section highlights a range of expressive arts-based interventions that can be combined with a comprehensive treatment approach to dealing with anxiety in children.

Become the Experts – Detectives

Families are invited to rally against the worry by becoming experts in the tricks of worry. If we embody the detective we are not judging the child, but rather we are all on the same team supporting the child as cheerleaders believing in the power he/she has in standing up to the worries. We are all detectives, meaning we are curious; we are looking for signs of strength; for times when the child outsmarts worry; and we are looking for what makes worry become smaller or the child become more powerful. This gives the child the felt experience that he/she is not alone in what can seem like a very overwhelming world (Image 3).

Show Me the Worry

As with any presenting issue, it is important to know how the child experiences the issue from their personal point of view. This is no different than inviting children to show us the hurt, the sadness, the trauma. We invite the child to make us witness to the experience. We can then begin to see and understand from their point of view how they live with anxiety day to day. We don’t need to label anxiety art. We simply need an outlet for children to answer our questions:

  • What does worry look like? Feel like? How big is it compared to you? (Image 4)
  • How do you think your mom and dad see you and worry?
  • How do mom and dad see their child and worry?

image 4 - the 9-year-old picture of the worry monster who says "worries are my sunshine"

Once we have the images, we can be curious about stories that may go with the image and/or characters. We can enact the story by cutting out the characters, use puppets, or dress up. We can further bring them to life by giving voices to the characters.

Stories have the potential to lead us further into the inner world of the child and their life with anxiety. Through this process we may discover unique resources that this child could utilize in their treatment process.

Facing the Avoider

Whatever kinds of anxiety children are dealing with, the Avoider will inevitably be part of the work. The Avoider is worry’s best ally. It shows up in so many different ways, but its job is to do one thing – avoid feeling discomfort and uncertainty.

Children can also show us the Avoider. What does it look like? How do they work together? What tricks do they have up their sleeve? Create a story about worry and the Avoider. What kind of outcome do you want for this story?

Taming Tricky Thoughts

Comic strips are effective anxiety art choices for kids to capture tricky thoughts and to find ways to talk back to these thoughts. Images 5 – 7 show only three of ten images created by a 15-year-old boy who used his story about worry to walk through therapeutic steps needed to conquer his fears and the tricky thoughts that created the worries.

image 5, image 6, image 7

Body Chillers for Jitters

There are many videos available for children and parents to watch to help them deal with the various aspects of anxiety. “Belly Breathe” by Sesame Street is a catchy video and song and a fun way for kids to learn the art of belly breathing.

Creating their own movement sequence can also be an empowering way for children to work with their own imagination, energy, and inner knowing to create meaningful ways to calm themselves and remember their resources. The 10-year-old girl who painted the wooden box below (Image 8), identified four phrases to help her with severe performance anxiety. Her four phrases were: Be Brave, Trust Myself, You Know How to Do This, and You Can Do This. She then created a dance/movement sequence to go with each phrase to help her remember these powerful words. She would practice her sequence on the days when she would perform.

image 8, image 9

Strength Training: Building Brave Muscles (AKA Resources)

The best way to conquer worry is to build brave muscles. Kids don’t tend to know just how brave they are and how important being brave is to worry-busting. The only way to deal with worries and fears is to FACE them—and that doesn’t necessarily require anxiety art. The following are some ideas about how kids and families can build their brave muscles.

Play List for Warriors

Create two play lists. The first play list consists of music that calms and soothes when time outs are needed and soothing the body and mind is a priority. Sometimes warriors need a little more energy to muster up their bravery to face what they don’t want to face. Create a second play list when warriors are needing extra energy to motivate them to be brave. Work with them to identify songs that inspire, give energy, and lyrics that help them believe in their brave.

Brave Jars

Each time someone in the family sees an act of bravery they can add a stone into the jar with a word on it.

Power Figures vs. Worry Dolls

Worry dolls are commonly known and used to help kids with worries. The idea, from the Guatemalan legend, is that children tell a worry doll their worry at night and put the doll under the pillow, and the worry doll magically takes it away. What I have found even more powerful has been to create power figures. The invitation is for children to think about creating a figure that represents their power and/or strength to face their worry. For example, one child created a set of five figures (Image 9), each one represents either a part of herself (her courage, her inspiration and her wise self) or someone else who helps her develop brave muscles (her mother and her dog).

Image 10 was created by a 10-year-old boy who created Gandalf, the wizard, to remind him that he is not alone and that he too has strong inner powers to stand up to his fears. The imagination truly has no limits.

Anti-Anxiety Power Props

Sunglasses, hats, capes, and wands. Every warrior needs special combat props and each child will be different in terms of what makes sense to them. They can make a special tool box or tool belt to use to deal with a variety of worries, fears, and tricks.

Wands can be especially decked out with gadgets and powers that only a child’s mind could conjure up to help them with their unique situation (Image 11). Special glasses can be used when warriors are needing to practice looking more at the positive sides to things or when they are needing “learning to be grateful” glasses to assist them.

Whatever anxiety art modality is used, we must embed the intervention in an overall comprehensive treatment plan. There is no limit to the imagination, in particular, when we tap into the minds of children and teens, who inherently know their own strengths, but need support with creating space for those strengths and resources to emerge. It is then that children can truly embody the warrior within.

image 10, image 11


Chansky, T. (2004). Freeing your child from anxiety. New York, NY: Broadway Books.

Clark, S. & Garland, J. (2009). Kid’s guide to taming worry dragons.

Peters, D. (2013). From worrier to warrior: A guide to conquering your fears. Tucson, AZ: Great Potential Press.

Wilson, R. & Lyons, L. (2013). Anxious kids anxious parents: 7 ways to stop the worry cycle and raise courageous & independent children. Deerfield Beach, FL: Health Communications, Inc.

Merikangas, K., Hep, J., Burstein, M., Swanson, S., Avenevoli, S., Cui, L., Benejet, C…Swendsen, J. (2010). Lifetime prevalence of mental disorders in U.S. adolescents: results from the National Comorbidity Survey Replication–Adolescent Supplement (NCS-A). Journal of American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. 49(10): 980-989. doi: 10.1016/j.jaac.2010.05.017

Walkup, J. T., Albano, A. M., Piacentini, J., Birmaher, B., Compton, S. N., Sherrill, J. T., Kendall, P. C. (2008). Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Sertraline, or a Combination in Childhood Anxiety. The New England Journal of Medicine, 359(26), 2753–2766. doi:10.1056/NEJMoa080463




Anxious Kids, Anxious Parents: 7 Ways to Stop the Worry Cycle and Raise Courageous & Independent Children by Reid Wilson & Lynn Lyons (2013)

Don’t Feed the Worry Bug by Andi Green

Freeing Your Child From Anxiety by Tamar Chansky (2004)

From Worrier to Warrior: A Guide to Conquering Your Fears by Daniel Peters (2013)

Mighty Moe: An Anxiety Workbook for Children

When My Worries Get Too Big: A Relaxation Book for Children who Live With Anxiety (2006) by Kari Dunn Buron | FSRC
This book presents ways for young children with anxiety to recognize when they are losing control and constructive ways to deal with it.

Kid’s Guide to Taming Worry Dragons (2009) by Sandra L. Clark and Jane E. Garland | FSRC
This pocket-sized book provides an overview of taming worry dragons (types of worries, how they affect your body and thoughts, when they come around) as well as a summary of tools for “trapping & taming” worry dragons. Space is available for kids to add their own ideas.

Tools for Taming and Trapping Worry Dragons: Children’s Workbook (2008) by Sandra L. Clark and Jane E. Garland | FSRC
Workbook accompanying Taming Worry Dragons that helps children learn to handle anxiety and distress. These activities help children aged 8-12 years understand anxiety and teach them specific strategies for coping.

What to Do When You Worry Too Much: A Kid’s Guide to Overcoming Anxiety (2006) by Dawn Huebner & Bonnie Matthews | FSRC
This illustrated book guides children and parents through the cognitive-behavioral techniques most often used in the treatment of anxiety. Concepts and strategies are introduced through metaphors and illustrations, which make them easy to understand.

Strength-Based Versus Deficit-Based Thinking

Being strength-based suggests that the way we interact and respond to children is rooted in the way we view them. As practitioners focused on promoting resilience in at risk children, we must maintain a positive focus even when children are difficult for us to understand. When children exhibit challenging behaviors, deficit mindsets are more prevalent. Below are some easy ways to reframe our thinking to a more strength-based perspective.

Deficit-Based Thinking

  • What’s wrong with her?
  • He’s just a bad kid.
  • Look at her behavior.
  • He doesn’t even want my help.
  • Punishment will get her attention.
  • Give him an inch; he’ll take a mile.
  • He can’t be trusted.
  • We are in charge.
Strength-Based Thinking

  • What’s right with her?
  • There is no such thing as a bad kid.
  • I wonder what is making her act that way?
  • He’s afraid that he will get hurt again.
  • Caring people will get her attention.
  • If we give him a chance, he could go far!
  • He needs a positive adult that he can trust.
  • Let’s see what she needs to feel better.

Oppositional Defiant Disorder or Trauma?

Children with a history of traumatic experiences exhibit greater oppositional defiant behaviors than children without exposure to trauma. This is most likely the result of the negative physiological impact trauma has on core regulatory systems, compromising a child’s ability to regulate and process sensory inputs. Changes in the body’s critical stress response system prevent the modulation of sensory deregulation, making the child incapable of self-regulating their emotions and behavior. The experience of trauma increases vulnerability to stressors, even mild stressors that healthy individuals are able to handle. For example, simple problem solving becomes difficult, causing anger and confusion in a child that simply “does not know what to do” about a situation, ultimately resulting in rage, aggression and other oppositional defiant-like disorders.

Under stress, traumatized children’s analytical capacities are limited and behaviorally react with confusion, withdrawal and/or rage. Rather than making a gradual shift from right brain hemisphere dominance (feeling and sensory) to dominance of the left hemisphere (language, reasoning, problem solving) resulting in an integration of neural communication between hemispheres, they react only from their “sensory” or right brain often lacking the “thought” or planning before action is taken.

Interestingly, many of the symptoms and reactions present in Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD) are parallel to the symptoms and reactions in children post-trauma. More than 800,000 children are exposed to trauma annually from abuse and neglect alone. Twenty percent of those children are observed to have dramatic changes in behavior consistent with ODD following a traumatic event. It would be beneficial to develop guidelines helping pediatricians and other early childhood professionals routinely screen for the presence of trauma-related symptoms and impairments even in very young children. This would prevent the mislabeling of ODD in later years. As one of the top diagnoses given to children today, it is certainly important to understand both the etiology and intervention options proposed for ODD. When ODD is viewed from a biological and trauma-informed perspective, compassion from parents, caregivers, and teachers often follows.

Do you have any questions about what has happened or anything anyone has said?