True Resilience

Monday, October 3rd, 2016
I recently came across an article in the NY times by Paul Seghal called “The Profound Emptiness of ‘Resilience” I must admit, if it wasn’t sent to me by my boss, I am not so sure I would have read it. Not because I would have never come across it, but because “The emptiness of resilience?” What could he mean? Why would you consider resilience “empty!” I noticed my pulse rising and my overall usually calm state a bit undone. I was visibly triggered by the title of this article… But why?
After some thought, it came to me — resiliency is very personal to me. You see, I spent nine years in foster care and in those nine years, I witnessed and endured things I wish no one would— especially not another child. But it was resiliency that brought me through and resiliency, for me, was never empty. It was powerful, multidimensional, obscure maybe, but never empty. Even with all of this in mind, I had a new job and a boss to respond to, so I continued to read on and eventually my intense and immediate defenses subsided and I began to see Paul’s point.
Paul was right, resiliency can be profoundly empty when it places “all the burden of success or failure on a person’s character.” For those of us who have experienced childhood adversity or know about the science of childhood trauma, we know that it is not a lack of character that determines whether a person succeeds or fails but what happened to them and what environments they were in during critical periods of development.
Resiliency can also be empty when it is seen as the ability to endure adversity silently and stoically. True resiliency is all about practicing skills, such as the ability to advocate for yourself. Paul mentioned that psychologist Peter Gray saw an increase in university students seeking help and apparently having emotional crises over, “problems of everyday life” as a sign of “declining student resilience.” Hmm. Perhaps he meant declining student emotional stamina? Or emotional strength? He couldn’t have meant declining student resilience, because the very act of reaching out for support, or speaking up about things that bother you, is an expression of resilience.
Allow me to explain: While in care, I often spoke up about living conditions that I just didn’t think were acceptable. Now some may say that I should have been grateful that someone took me in and provided me with food to eat and a bed to sleep in. I was grateful, but being grateful didn’t mean that I should have accepted the abusive name calling one foster mom provided, or the roach infested, unsanitary, living conditions another provided. Even as a kid in foster care, I knew my value and my worth and I absolutely wasn’t willing to accept anything less. So I spoke up about what bothered me and as a result, things changed. What this did, was provide me with a sense of control over my environment, which is absolutely key to building self sufficiency and avoiding intense traumatic responses. Since foster care, I have gone on to gain a Master’s degree and now am working for Echo, the organization of my dreams.
So is true resiliency just about self advocacy and other skills that you can teach to any child? Absolutely not; building resiliency is a process and its foundation is what Echo’s work is all about creating – a “protective and healing relationship with a loving caregiver.” You may have wondered where my strong sense of self worth came from, where I got the courage and the know how to speak up for myself. Well believe it or not, it came from my mother, my biological mother.
Although not exactly the safe, stable relationship Echo emphasizes (she battled with a drug addiction), my relationship with my mother was certainly one filled with love. She would always tell me that I could be anything I wanted to be in life, so long as I worked hard for it, and I believed her. We all need someone to believe in us, to make us feel special and loved. My mother provided that for me at a crucial stage of my development and it made all the difference. It is my honor to be a part of an organization that helps parents and those who work with children foster relationships and build skills that can combat trauma and develop true, lasting resiliency.



Healthy Rage and Trauma?

Thursday, September 1st, 2016

“The pain of rage is a normal and predictable response to perpetual experiences with degradation, devaluation, and domination. It is the build-up and culmination of emotions that have been blocked expression… There is a strong “relationship between voicelessness and rage. Unless rage is properly channeled, it can be all consuming, displaced, and destructive to self and others. Those who have rage are often enraged for good reasons.”

—Dr. Kenneth V. Hardy

“Healing the Hidden Wounds of Racial Trauma.”


STOP PRESS: Dr. Kenneth V. Hardy to speak at Echo’s 2017 conference!

And yet rage brings on a rush of cortisol and other chemicals that are ultimately harmful if they are not employed merely as a short-term boost to remove you from a present danger. Should we get angry and risk our long-term health? The Buddhists would say “no”.

But what about the anger we feel at the injustices we see on a daily basis? What about the anger that arises from experiencing trauma and the resulting “degradation, devaluation and domination”? What do we do with this anger and how can we safely channel it so that it does not harm our health?

One of our nonviolent heroes, Martin Luther King Jr., knew anger, the anger that rises up:

Yet, even after several days in solitary confinement in a dark and filthy jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama, King wrote his now famous letter where he talks from experience about channeling this rage into ‘nonviolent direct action’.

The RULER system developed at Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, helps not only children in the classroom understand and manage their emotions, but can also help us understand how to advocate for justice without becoming consumed with a rage that Buddha so wisely deflected.

In September 1962, as King sat on the podium at the Southern Christian Leadership Convention, a white member of the Nazi party jumped on stage and hit King several times in the face. As the young man was being dragged away by security guards, King calmly told those present:

At Echo, we too are interested in changing the system, and we invite you to join us for our upcoming trainings and events:

If you want to learn more about trauma and post-traumatic growth, please sign up for the Working With Childhood Trauma training on October 11.

If you want to learn more about racial trauma, please reserve March 15 &16, 2017 to attend our annual conference, which this year will focus on social and historical trauma.

Empathy Takes Practice

Tuesday, August 2nd, 2016

by Co-Executive Director, Diana Ayala

Every time I hear the word empathy outside of my work environment I begin to pay close attention to that conversation. Since when did empathy become a trend? More people are talking about it; more people are being trained on empathy. Even when I called my phone company, I noticed that their representative was ‘giving me empathy’.

Only empathy is not something that you ‘do’ to another person –  it’s the ability to stay present and connected to the other person, and the ability to stay connected with another human being takes practice…empathy takes practice.

I recently attended a training for a room full of school counselors. The Echo trainer gave out a handout on empathy and asked the participants to pair up with someone else. They were instructed to take three minutes to share a challenge they’ve had during the week and for the other person to practice empathy and empathic listening. As I shared my challenge with my partner, I noticed that she immediately wanted to give me advice. Although her intentions were to be helpful, she was struggling with empathy. She kept looking at the handout where we clearly say What Empathy is Not:

Fix it “What will help is…”

Advice “I think you should…”

Interrogate “How did it happen?”

Console “It wasn’t your fault.”

Sympathize “You poor thing, I feel awful for you.”

Commiserate “He did that to you? The jerk!”

One-up “You should hear what happened to…”

The three minutes were up and I noticed my partner’s relief that it was time to switch. She spent her three minutes sharing that her challenge was to come to a training where we would be discussing being “mushy”. She didn’t think it was necessary for anyone to bring their personal feelings to work. She had voiced her opinion on the manner and co-workers would tease her about how ‘tough’ she was, and although it was done in a playful manner she didn’t like it. She told me “Don’t get me wrong, I want to be able to be more ‘friendly’, but part of me thinks that it is not necessary to do that at work.”

As she was sharing her challenge all I could think of was, “Oh man! How in the world am I going to give this woman empathy…” (notice that all of a sudden, I start to think it is something I give rather than staying connected) “…and I have to be good because I work here!” So after some quick self-empathy for the situation I found myself in, I said:

“Wow, it sounds like you came to work feeling a bit nervous about today’s training, is that true?” 

“Yes,” she replied.

“It sounds like maybe you were worried that your co-workers would be talking about you during the training and maybe all you want is to feel accepted for who you are by your co-workers?”

She nodded her head with a ‘yes’ and our time was up.

When the trainers asked if anyone wanted to share back how the exercise went, she quickly raised her hand and she said:

“I felt empathy! In three minutes I was able to feel empathy from someone whom I just met!”

Of course I was relieved! But nonetheless, I was reminded of how difficult it can be to stay connected with another human being and why practice is so necessary. Why don’t you try if for yourself? How long can you listen to someone without wanting to advise, console or offer comparisons to make them feel better? Check out author Brené Brown’s very amusing take on the subject in this great video on empathy.

Do’s and Don’ts of a Trauma-Informed Compassionate Classroom

Thursday, June 30th, 2016

Classroom Kids

The summer break is upon us and right now parents and teachers are taking a much-deserved deep breath before jumping into the new school year. One of the programs Echo provides each summer is the salary-point Trauma- Informed Compassionate Classrooms training to help educators meet their professional development requirements and to give them the space to think about the classroom environment they would optimally like to create while not yet inundated with the day-to- day demands of the school year.

We were inspired by reading this article to create a short list of ‘Do’s and Don’ts of the Trauma-Informed, Compassionate Classroom’. We agree, that there is really only one ‘don’t’ and that is let’s not punish kids for behaviors that are trauma symptoms.

Here are a few ‘do’s’ to consider:

1) Create a safe space for all children to learn. What does that mean? Most school personnel don’t need much coaching about how to ensure physical safety but what about emotional safety?

2) Predictability: When children have been traumatized, they are on high alert, always expecting the next blow. Maybe they live with an unpredictable parent who buys them toys and hugs them one minute, and descends into an alcohol-fueled rage the next. Writing up the day’s schedule on the board and preparing students for transitions (“We’re going to be clearing up in 5 minutes and then we are going to go to the sports field”) helps create predictability and thus a sense of safety.

3) Trustworthiness: You promised the class they would get free time after they completed an exercise, but then someone asked a question and you took the time to explain something that you realized you should have covered in the lesson. These understandable changes of plan might seem like small beans to us, but to a child who has been around adults who constantly break their promises it can confirm what is already a deep-seated suspicion – that adults are untrustworthy. If we can provide stability and trustworthiness it will allow a child to begin to change their perceptions about how safe the world is.

4) Control: Do you get upset when your carefully laid plans are upset or when a child wants to go in a direction you had not prepared for? Many of us who experienced high levels of control growing up felt disempowered, and as a result we have an understandable urge to remain in control all the time! This is magnified for a trauma survivor whose physical or emotional safety was compromised because they had no power to protect themself at the time of the trauma. How can we begin to empower our students and offer ‘power with’ rather than ‘power over’ strategies so that we don’t reinforce these harmful power dynamics?

5) Regulation: In many cases the behaviors that cause problems in classrooms (or at home) are a child’s best attempt to communicate something to you, the adult. How much they hurt, how confused they are, how scared, how overwhelmed. Or even how exuberant and full of energy they feel when our schedule is demanding that they sit quiet and concentrate. Sometimes children need calming down, sometimes they need energizing, and by paying attention to this we can keep the whole class in what is called “The Resiliency Zone” – the place where our higher brain is online and we can access learning and memory. Children who have experienced toxic stress or trauma are easily bumped out of this zone. As a teacher, it is good to have tools for keeping kids in the Resiliency Zone as well as methods to help kids deal with the big behaviors that come with getting stuck on hyperarousal (anger, fear, anxiety) or hypoarousal (checked out, numb).

This is an abbreviated list, but if you would like to learn more about Trauma- Informed, Compassionate Classrooms and the practical tools for creating safe, stable, nurturing environments for kids, please sign up for our 2-day training. And speaking of tools, if you need help remembering these important DOs and DON’Ts check out the great, visual guide  available for download on our Resource Page.

The ACEs You Don’t Know…Adverse Community Experiences

Tuesday, May 17th, 2016

Echo has recently expanded its focus to look at Adverse Community Experiences. What is that, you may ask. The Adverse

DeGruy Photo Childhood Experiences Study is now almost two decades old, and it has revolutionized the way we look at physical, mental and social problems. The take-away message is that adversity has long-lasting and sometimes devastating effects on later life, but as the science shows, a safe, stable nurturing relationship with a caring adult can help children heal and build resilience.

However, no individual, and no family, exists in a vacuum. What about the toxic stresses that weigh heavily on certain communities? How does poverty, racism, forced displacement, homelessness or community violence, for example, affect the health and wellbeing of communities and the individuals who live in them?

This is the question that we will be attempting to answer in our 2017 “Changing the Paradigm” conference. Dr. Joy Degruy, author of “Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome”, has agreed to be our keynote speaker. Stay tuned for more!

In the meantime, how are we incorporating this work into what we do at Echo?

Well, unsurprisingly, community trauma and community resilience have a lot to do with strong, connected relationships – the lack or the presence thereof. Often our individual or collective trauma gets in the way of creating those relationships – we have a history that inclines us to fear and mistrust. That fear and our attempts to cope with a scary situation may have at one time actually protected us, but now maybe they no longer serve us.

As psychologist, Darejan Javakhishvili, says in her work on displaced communities, without being able to get to the real persecutor (because they are dead, too powerful, or are in the country you fled), the ‘enemy’ is an empty frame of aggression, which freely floats around and tries to fit the first available object. The easier target is ‘the other’ – a different person or group – which results in intolerance towards different opinion, attitudes and mentality.

It takes consciousness and intent not to fall into the trap of creating enemy images. Trauma tends to polarize the mind, to group people as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, to live as if you are fighting your childhood oppressor in every person who holds a different opinion or thinks differently to you. We none of us are immune, including the proponents of trauma-informed nonviolent parenting! Diana Ayala, Co-Executive Director at Echo, has long argued that we need to try to understand the ‘dominant’ paradigm of parenting and have empathy for those who have such a hard time giving up punishment and rewards as a means of controlling behavior.


The Echo Team.