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.

22 years later, her group “Dealin’ with the Healin'” had 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 “normally” 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.

Trauma-Informed Police: 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 usa.gov/elected-officials.

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 collateralrepairproject.org. 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 starr.org/certifications.

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 https://www.facebook.com/about/crisisresponse.
  • Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Prevention Twitter Alerts: The CDC’s Center for Preparedness and Response provides crisis or emergency updates at https://twitter.com/CDCemergency/alerts.
  • Federal Emergency Management Agency(FEMA) Twitter Alerts:FEMA provides support to citizens and first responders before, during and after emergencies at https://twitter.com/fema/alerts.

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.

References:

Social media and disasters
https://www.samhsa.gov/find-help/disaster-distress-helpline/social-media

The role of social media in disaster psychiatry
https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-aftermath-trauma/201409/the-role-social-media-in-disaster-psychiatry

Community resilience as a metaphor, theory, set of capacities, and strategy for disaster readiness
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18157631

Emergent use of social media: a new age of opportunity for disaster resilience
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21466029

Online social media in crisis events
https://er.educause.edu/articles/2008/8/online-social-media-in-crisis-events

Resilience-based reflections for disaster recovery:
https://starr.org/training/tlc/blog/resilience-based-reflections-disaster-recovery

Trauma informed considerations & strategies: Helping kids manage distressing events and news: https://starr.org/training/tlc/blog/trauma-informed-considerations-strategies-helping-kids-manage-distressing-events

Trauma from TV, radio, and social media: https://starr.org/training/tlc/focus/trauma-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 jean.west@sjsd.k12.mo.us. 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.

Resources:

5 Things You Can Do Today to Turn PTSD into Post-Traumatic Growth: https://psychcentral.com/blog/5-things-you-can-do-today-to-turn-ptsd-into-post-traumatic-growth/?fbclid=IwAR2hZQxZf3uzFB_XTBu9qPp2II2xCvt22c533F9AV3JE3C9zaMR5VZ0Epcc

You’ve Heard of Post-Traumatic Stress, but What About Post-Traumatic Growth? https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/youve-heard-of-post-traumatic-stress-but-what-about-post-traumatic-growth

After Parkland, How Grief Can Become Posttraumatic Growth for Student Activists
https://abcnews.go.com/Health/parkland-grief-posttraumatic-growth-student-activists/story?id=53329388

Trauma Informed Considerations & Strategies: Helping Kids Manage Distressing Events & News: https://starr.org/training/tlc/blog/trauma-informed-considerations-strategies-helping-kids-manage-distressing-events

Resilience-based Reflections for Disaster Recovery: https://starr.org/training/tlc/blog/resilience-based-reflections-disaster-recovery#

Finding a Safe Place: Supporting Safety, Self-Regulation, and Sensory-Based Interventions: https://starr.org/training/tlc/blog/finding-safe-place-supporting-safety-self-regulation-and-sensory-based

Boundaries and Identity in Trauma Healing: https://starr.org/training/tlc/blog/boundaries-and-identity-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:

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

Avoidance
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: http://observer.com/2017/06/neuroscience-mindfulness-brain-when-you-meditate-development/

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: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17576282

children

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.

Routine
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 handlewithcarewv.org or handlewithcaremi.org. You can also view a news piece on HWC in the Harlem School District here.

Calming Corners

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.

A calming 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. The use of calming 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.

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.

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”.

List of items you might want to include in your calming corner:

  • 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
  • Worksheets from TLC’s “One-Minute Interventions” and “Mind Body Skills for Emotional Regulation” workbooks.

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.

Focus on Behavior Management Systems

There are a wide variety of behavior 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.

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.

Skillet

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 https://www.nctsn.org/resources/family-trauma-assessment-tips-clinicians.
  • 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. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=06FUN9vH21k
  • 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. http://csefel.vanderbilt.edu/resources/strategies.html.
  • 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.

Bust Worry & Anxiety with Expressive Arts Activities

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). 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.

  • 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 great ways 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. 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 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

REFERENCES

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

RESOURCE LIST

WEBSITES:

BOOKS:

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 http://www.cw.bc.ca/library/pdf/pamphlets/Mighty%20Moe1.pdf

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.

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