By Ariel Wrye, Lead Trainer for Education Programs
As teachers and students throughout the city begin to count down the days to the summer vacation, we at Echo Parenting & Education are wrapping up the first year of the Whole School Project at Sally Ride Elementary School in South LA. This project is about working with parents, staff, and students to create a trauma-informed, nonviolent school community. I had the honor and the challenge to lead the work with the school staff.
When we talk about school climate or trauma-informed practices in education, one of the most common pitfalls is to think about students and to forget about the adults or, worse, to approach the adults as if they are the problem. Yet if we’re going to ask staff to offer trauma-informed support to students, then we need to offer the same kind of support to them.
Keep in mind that the last couple decades have not been kind to teachers. Most work incredibly long hours for nominal pay out of a desire to contribute to the wellbeing of others and to the world, yet still bearing the brunt of intense pressure to perform, as well as significant public scrutiny and criticism. We knew that recognizing the teachers’ good intentions, intense challenges, and basic needs was crucial for the success of the project. Thus in this first year, our central task has been attuning to teachers’ needs.
One of the first challenges arose after teaching about trauma and brain development. When I shifted to classroom applications and invited teachers to share some of their best practices for creating safety for students, I was met with long silences and shuffling of papers. We had hoped to build on what teachers were already doing, yet realized that the years of repressing teachers’ ideas had had an impact on their confidence. Without a safe enough space to gather that information we were hard-pressed to even begin the conversation.
So we slowed things down, built more safety, and set about to find people who were willing to talk to us individually and in smaller groups to get a clearer picture of what would work best with this group.
Perhaps the most effective approach has been helping teachers connect with their own experiences as a way to build connection to the students and families they were feeling most frustrated about. Many teachers realized this year that they had been living and functioning with their brains in a near constant state of alarm.
So as we wrap the first year, what has changed? I’ve heard more and more teachers say, “Before I would get really frustrated and get mad at kids, but now I’m thinking… they’re just kids. Their brains aren’t finished developing yet,” or “I used to think they were just acting out. Now I’m seeing that a lot of it has to do with trauma.”
Teachers also talked about having more tools to support kids when they get flooded. One teacher described a recent moment when a child was about to “lose it.” As he started screaming and throwing things, her understanding of regulation and the survival brain helped her to think of a way to help this student to “motor out” his fight response. She offered him a pogo stick. It completely deescalated a situation that previously could have gotten out of control.
Teachers are also building a practice of reflecting on their reactions to students. After a session in which we were looking at what might be underneath reactions to a student’s behavior, a teacher stopped me in the stairwell. She told me, “Something clicked for me today. You said, if we have a really strong reaction, or if whatever a child is doing really gets to me, most likely it’s bringing up something in me, and it’s more about us. Well, I’ve been thinking about this a lot, and the more I look at the stuff I get mad at kids about, the more I think it’s all about us. It’s about whether I’m rested or how stressed out I am… it’s not about them at all.”
When asked to describe some of the most significant changes this year, one teacher talked about a shift in her approach to a parent whose child was coming late. Every day Freddy would arrive in the middle of morning meeting or later, and had a hard time integrating into the class. His teacher noted that previously she might have just asked the parent, “Why aren’t you bringing him on time?” or “Do you realize he’s been late every day this week?”
This time, instead of confronting his mom, she took the time to find out what was going on. Apparently, Freddy’s mom was working two jobs, one of which was the night shift. After getting home every night at 3 or 4 am, she was struggling to get her kids to school at all. Freddy’s teacher started to feel more empathy. Then she proceeded to share why she was worried about Freddy being late, information about their morning routines, and the impact coming in late was having on Freddy. She then asked if there was anything she could do to help. In this way an interaction that could have been confrontational and disconnecting became a point of connection and support for both the mother and teacher.
We say nonviolent child-raising is about an uncompromising vision of what it means to love children well. However, we can’t love children well and respond compassionately if we don’t understand that many children, almost 46%, have experienced childhood trauma and are attending school and trying to learn while operating from the survival (fight, flight, freeze) part of their brains.
At its core, our work at Echo is about facilitating shifts, from judgment to compassion, power-over to power-with, disconnection to connection. It’s complicated. It involves a fundamental paradigm shift, but it also requires us to develop fluency with a range of complex skills, including the ability to respond to each others’ behavior in ways that run counter to deeply entrenched patterns that many of us have spent our whole lives developing. It’s definitely not about a quick fix, and Echo is certainly not finished – but we are confidently making progress on a very long road.