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I Just Wanted to Come to School

“Beneath every behavior there is a feeling and beneath each feeling there is a need to connect.”

I remember my first year, first month, first week of teaching, 42 years ago. I set out as a new “special education teacher” preparing for my first teaching assignment. As it would go, myself and many talented teachers took a journey together with a new educational program for children hospitalized in long term setting. Children who came with all kinds of beautiful stories of resilience, tenacity, grit, and love to our “little school in the hospital”.

Little did I know the three years I spent with this program, I was being educated by some of the youngest mentors who help shape my passion to teach students who come from “hard places”. Here is one of the students and his story of overcoming life’s unexpected turn of events. Even though he did not suffer trauma as we know it, he adapted a disability by applying humor. Children I share with you are real, I have changed names for pupose of this platform.

Meet Charles, 8 years old and full of spunk, humor, and a way to adapt to his physical disability like no other child I have worked with. He LOVED school, as it was a break from the daily medical routines he endured. He was a great student, loved to read, wanted to help others, and shared many funny jokes with my class. Everyday was a fantastic day when Charles came to class, even with assistance by staff to get him out of his room, down the hall and on the elevator; “to be at his favorite place on earth”. One day, however, he was a bit late to school, not like him. I step out in the hallway to see if assistants were coming with him, no sight of him at all. I turn to go back to the classroom and hear the elevator doors open. Hoping to see his shiny face rolling towards me while being pushed by nursing assistant. I DID see his shiny face rolling down the hallway BUT NOT IN A WHEELCHAIR but ROLLING HIS BODY DOWN THE HALLWAY. Why, you ask, is this so special to me; Charles was born without arms or legs a result of mother on drugs during pregnancy.

Resilisence can surely define this child and his will to overcome what his disability had given him. With many supports from medical, cousenling, and school teams he had overcome the disability and adapted to how he become mobile on his own! During the class time with him, I was able to build upon his strengths, begin a relationship of empathy, compassion, and trust so he had a “go to person” for those rough days that came his way.

Beneath every behavior there is a feeling and once the feeling (s) are the focus, the behaviors become minor. Building positive, secure, and empathetic relationships with a child who experiences trauma or other related “life’s little curves” is an essential part of classroom plans.

Finally, I asked Charles why did he come to class without nursing assistant. His reply, with a huge grin I might add, “I wanted to come to school and no one was around to help me get here.” How did he navigate the elevator? His witt and charm with the right person getting on, assisted the button pushing chore!

RETHINKING BECOMES RESHAPING

During this time in our world and our own little space in the world, never have we been called upon to RETHINK AND RESHAPE our daily routines to navigate the ever changing horizon during the unprecedented pandemic known as COVID-19. Our daily lives have been impacted by this event in so many ways, from our “hanging out in social situations”, running to the local grocer, and attending school, just to name a few.

Attending school has become a different platform for different groups. School has become a place not just limited to the 4 walls of a building, instead students and teachers experience all sorts of platforms to share educational lessons. As I have began to journey down a new path of keyboards, techno language, and “distance learning platforms” I began to feel as a child would when they are immersed within a world of unknown and expect to follow the routine not familiar to them. Feelings of; confusion, frustration, anxiety, tiredness, and failure seem to creep into the way of learning new skills for teaching/learning. Can we imagine how this looks for the child who has been placed in the very environment that could present trauma filled situations on a daily basis?

As I am sure many teachers who work with students, who experience trauma, continue to hold those students near their hearts and have great concern as to how their mental/emotional health are holding up. Teachers are thinking; how is Johnny coping with the emotional abuse, physical abuse, etc. (not witnessed by others outside the home). Who, if any, are his “safe people and places” to go for support? Is the child able to retreat to a comfort zone for recharging their feelings? Has the child been able to work through not being able to see their teachers, etc. from school? How much longer will distance learning take the place of a classroom?

Let us not forget the teachers and staff and their emotional well being. What are teachers doing to seek self care during this pandemic? How are teachers wading through all sorts of resources, curriculum maps, and standards and remain focused; “I teach each and every child and am here for them during this time.”

As teachers we must rethink and reshape our teaching mindsets to navigate the new horizon of “school” and the children we so dearly love to see each day.

As we “RETHINK TO RESHAPE” our classroom model we also need to keep in mind the child that suffers immense trauma and how will we reach them. Their homes will look way different than a child’s home that is filled with love and care from their parents. A trauma filled home may contain very little technology for children to access their educational needs. Their parents may have a smart phone or tablet and yet NOT make it a priority for the child to gain educational resources. The family dynamics may lend itself to drugs/alcohol, domestic abuse, and other traumas that block the way for a child to learn.

How can we ensure those children gain educational resources? How will the educational presentations look for them? Do we modify and accommadate their needs or do we have the mindset “one curriculum fits all”?

The new school year is inching closer. How will you, the teacher create that special place to learn; either classroom or distance learning scenarios?

How will you “RETHINK TO RESHAPE” your classroom to ensure you reach every child who comes from so many diverse backgrounds and environments? How will you assist your students through the many pages of this story so they may meet success; school and emotional health?

When Spring Break Became a Long Break to Summer

For many of us who teach, Spring Break is a long awaited period for all to “recharge, re-visit, and reengage with those beyond the school community”. I was stoked about the break as I know my students were, it had been a long 9 week period for our kiddos working through many behavior issues. Spring Break allows for all to rest up for the last 9 weeks of school, which holds days of “end of year testing”. This period of the school year holds a great deal of stress for kiddos who have and still are experinencing trauma filled days.

Sooooo, as we are packing up and saying our goodbyes we couldn’t help to hear the latest pandemic (COVID-19) to hit the United States and how it is affecting persons and the environments about them. Students were concerned about becoming ill, who would care for them at home, and what if this event causes schools to close for a bit, how will we learn, who will be our safe person, what will be our safe place, and will I be OK.

Leaving my classroom (March 13; a Friday the 13th) with the whiteboards updated with March 23, 2020 (date we return) and Easter bunnies decor about the room, I couldn’t help to think, “will we be returning to a different looking school setting, will we be returning at all, and what will happen to our kiddos and their emotional care if the break extends beyond 1 week.” A week later a whole new school year began for the last 9 week period, enter new ways of teaching and yet a persisitant thought remained; “are our kiddos being cared for, emotionally and behaviorally at this time.”

The coming days; my brain had to process a whole new dialogue of educating children from technology standpoint and from a distant learning platform, as returning to the classroom was not possible for awhile. Not only did I have to process educational needs of the kiddos more importantly I was concerned for their emotional needs.

Armed with persistence and a desire to engage with my students, via technology, I delve into researching various technology platforms by which I could reach and teach my students, more importantly have a “face to face conversation” with each student. Creative lessons were designed and presented through video means. One factor stood out in all student contacts, “they were glad to see their teacher and their teacher was excited to see them.” Now that the school year has officially come to an end and distant learning has become the “new way to present content” I head towards the summer to not only rest but to learn how to engage students to learn and share their thoughts during the upcoming school year.

Persistance means continuing on even despite the “roadblocks that arise in one’s life.” Working with students who have experienced trauma and who require adults to be their “go to person” in stressful times is a priority for each teacher to address the emotional well being of their students before presenting academic content. A mindset of “building relationships first then academics second” must be a priority at this time and when returning to the classroom either remotely or in person. To put all emphasis on “reaching that academic standard” before addressing students’ feelings creates an environment of distrust, disconnect, and disengagement by the student.

How do you plan to connect with your students? How will their emotional and behavioral needs be met? How will you, their teacher, present academic content in light of the long break and the events your students may have experienced during this unique time in education?

How will persistance look for your classroom? The boulder in the way of your journey, so to speak, the boulder that stands in the way of your goals. Will you allow that boulder to crush your enthusiasm and creativity or will you turn the boulder into a seat, where you will sit and think of ways to “move forward”?

Share your thoughts…. I would love to read the creative thinking you each possess.

Childhood Trauma

Childhood trauma is an event that causes a child physical, emotional, spiritual, or psychological harm. The traumatic events have a long term impact on a child’s social, emotional, and behavioral health.

There is much discussion about how childhood trauma impacts brain develpment in young children. As the young brain is developing, in particular the frontal lobe; the section that controls inhibitions and judgement, does not function properly and as a result there will be difficulties with impulse control, emotional thinking, building healthy relationships. Current studies have shown how the impact of childhood trauma affects the adult (they become) in long term presidence of illnesses, stress induced medical issues, and shortening their life spans.

So what does this look like for the child in the classroom? What does this child look like to the teacher or other adults in the school setting? Let’s explore this scenario first with a child’s trauma implacted story followed by a trauma informed teacher’s response.

Meet Robert; age 11 who had been identified with significant emotional/behavioral issues and referred to my special education program (working with children with behavioral/emotional issues). He had significant difficulties controlling emotional charged “meltdowns”. The episodes would be mild to severe involved and durations of 10-60+ minutes. His overall goal was to disturb the learning environment as well as take control of teacher. He had put into play, behaviors that put him in position to be removed from the general education class. Once removed to my class we spent time deconstructing the situation and behaviors involved. What were the “triggers”, antecedents, and reinforcing reactions blocking this child’s path to adjusting and reinforcing new reactive behaviors? What was the adult’s stress responses to the behavior breakdowns and how did that look to the child?

Understanding the child and his responses to an adult’s request is often seen (by the child) as a threat to their being, “who they are”. Most often kids with trauma experiences usually respond in 1 of 3 ways; fight, flight, or freeze. In Robert’s case; fight/flight was his response to the given class assignment; perhaps due to anxiety of failing, or feeling there were emotional “triggers” set in play. So, with that in mind, I approach his serious emotional/behavioral breakdowns as a chance for him to share the reasons for his reactions. Armed with mental note taking I LISTEN to the story he shares in regards to directives given by adults. One story he shared was when his dad (who was the primary emotional abuser) would come home from drinking, he would often experience verbal abuse, physical abuse, and emotional abuse for hours on end. His mother was involved with drugs/alcohol as well as attempting to hold a part time job as a hotess at local resturant. The “toxic stress” he endured for hours and days on end “wired a new emotional response highway” in his brain and from that “highway” he would react. To help reset a new “highway for emotions” we spend a great deal of time building vital relationships which will allow the child to feel; safe, secure, trusting, and willing to take chances with “safe adults” (those he trusts with his emotions and stories). We discuss how adults interact with children facing toxic stress and prepare a plan to interact with teachers by feeling safe to “share their stories”.

By our third nine week period, Robert began to practice self-talk, being asked to leave class for a refocus with myself or school admin, and asking for coping behaviors when faced with the trauma environment in his home. He began to smile more, assist other students, and eager to share “good news” about himself, something he was unable to do. Although he left my program and moved to middle school, he attempted to practice our shared tools of coping, but his home life imploded to point parents split, home was lost, and Robert stopped attending school.As with so many of my students, Robert faces an uphill battle of self discovery and purpose as he navigates his world of trauma. For this reason, we as the adults in our children’s lives must develop the mindset of; “how can I help this child discover their life of being a child while being mindful this same child is affected by the ongoing adverse childhood expriences that create toxic stress in their young life.” How can we “pour good into a child’s life?”