I recently attended the Trauma Research Foundation’s Annual Trauma Conference, a three-day event jam-packed with research, workshops, and small group discussions, hosted virtually in response to the current COVID-19 crisis. This colloquium created space for people around the world to share their personal and professional experiences with trauma-work. One theme consistently discussed across a wide range of disciplines was the degree to which trauma affects a person’s neuroception, our subconscious system for detecting danger. Trauma can forever alter a person’s physiological response to social connections, ultimately creating a neural pathway in which connection with other people is perceived as a type of threat.
Considering that an estimated 67% of children currently living in the United States have lived through at least one adverse childhood experience, understanding the effects of trauma is critical for both parents and educators. Early childhood trauma affects how children think, feel, behave, and regulate biological systems. When a person, particularly a child, has faced trauma, they are more likely to experience dysregulation, even in objectively safe situations, because their ability to accurately perceive danger is distorted. In a school setting, poor self-regulation limits a child’s ability to focus, build relationships, manage stress, and work independently. This knowledge would be discouraging if I weren’t lucky enough to work for a school that created a program uniquely designed to help children recover from traumatic experiences. EPIC has given me the opportunity to meet and spend time with a community of people who recognize and respond to the effects of trauma.
EPIC’s program is designed to be therapeutic in nature, meaning that our students’ experience of healing is not limited by the scope of a traditional therapeutic model, in which a counselor works with their client one-to-one in a controlled environment. As a mental health counselor, I deeply believe in the power of a therapeutic relationship, but my past experience as an elementary school educator inspires my opinion that trauma-informed practices can (and should) extend beyond the confines of the traditional therapeutic model. Because trauma is a chronic disruption of connectedness, trauma recovery is most effective when a child is able to live and learn in an environment that consistently offers safety, predictability, and love.
At EPIC, one thing we see with many students who have experienced developmental or emotional trauma, or who have been marginalized because of structural injustices or stigma, is that these students have a history of getting both verbal and nonverbal cues that they don’t belong. Instead of feeling regulated and rewarded, they feel emotional pain. At EPIC, our staff is trained to give cues of safety through a process called co-regulation, helping our students develop their abilities to regulate their emotions.
All too often, children who are unable to self-regulate are met with punishment rather than calm, unconditional love and attention. Punishing a child when they’re dysregulated is both harmful and counterproductive. Trauma lives in the body, and this fact proves especially difficult for children (and adults) who have not yet developed the vocabulary to articulate what they’re feeling and why. A dysregulated child is not able to relate to or reason with others, which is why EPIC staff are careful to engage dysregulated behavior with a calm voice while simultaneously validating the student’s feelings.
To me, the truly progressive element of EPIC’s program is that co-regulation and social-emotional learning are embedded in every aspect of the student’s school day. For instance, imagine a child is sitting in their chair struggling to open a glue stick without success. Right at this moment, another student accidentally bumps the back of this child’s chair, prompting them to take the glue stick, throw it against the wall and scream, “That’s why I hate school!” Now we have one dysregulated child and a roomful of kids likely feeling anxious about their classmate’s unpredictable behavior. How does the teacher react? One (all too common) way to address this situation is to run over to the student, look down at them and say, “That’s no way to treat classroom materials. Now go pick it up!” The child might listen and follow directions, or they might start to cry. They also might pick up their chair and throw it across the room. How the child reacts depends on many psychosocial factors, but the message they will internalize is relatively universal: My feelings are not valid and my behavior is not acceptable. EPIC’s program is designed so that no child ever feels this type of shame and invalidation.
An EPIC teacher would immediately notice the child’s dysregulation and send a non-verbal signal of safety to the rest of the class by taking a deep breath and walking calmly and slowly over to the student who threw the glue. They would kneel down and, without entering the student’s personal space, they would quietly say, “I see that you might be feeling really angry. That’s okay, we all feel angry sometimes. I also see that your body is safely sitting in your chair and so I’m going to give you a minute to take some deep breaths, and when you’re ready, we can talk about what’s going on and how we can make it better.” What does the student internalize in this scenario? My teacher notices my feelings. My feelings are valid. My feelings are normal. I’m doing something great by keeping my body calm. I can take a deep breath to start feeling better. Once I feel better, my teacher will listen to me. I can work with other people to solve problems. I am loved.
At EPIC, we believe all behavior, no matter how maladaptive, is a function of need, and we work together to understand and address all our students’ needs without shaming or punishing them for their feelings. We do this all day, every day—so that our students feel validated all day, every day. That’s what it means to be therapeutic in nature.