Years ago, I caught sight of boy’s fist flying into the stomach of a much, much smaller boy. Focused on that single hostile action, a mother-bear voice came bursting out of me from somewhere deep inside. My reaction can only be described as an innate response to serious threat. I was in charge, they were my students, and it was my job to keep them safe. In that moment, I was pushed into my brain stem.
If you’re a teacher, you’ve probably heard the term “brain stem” before. It’s often used to describe a child who cannot be reached because he or she is in a state of fight, flight, or on few, but painful occasions, in a state of total shut down. All of it connected to our innate struggle for survival. We are trained to give these students time, give them space, and let them cool off.
What happens when time to cool off is not enough? How do we help students begin to feel safe, learn, and move forward?
Before we can help, we must first understand.
After reading into a few powerful chapters of the book, “The Body Keeps the Score,” by Harvard Medical School trained psychologist, researcher, and one of the world’s foremost experts on traumatic stress, Bessel van der Kolk, I realized how much deeper the issue of behavior goes when working with children, especially when working with children with trauma.
I discovered that every human experience shapes the brain. The book helped me to better understand behavior, its root causes, its effects on humans, and then ultimately those affects out into our society.
The brain is a complicated organ to say the least, but we do not all have to be trained Harvard Medical School psychiatrist to help students in our classrooms get better and move on, even if it feels like we are only helping to move them one millimeter at a time.
Where do we begin to help our students? We begin with basic human needs.
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs
As a teacher of Second Language Learners and multilingual students, one basic piece of research we are trained understand is the importance of meeting basic human needs. It is first and foremost what needs to occur, in order to create an environment conducive to learning and language acquisition.
Meeting the basic needs of any learner must occur before they have any chance of acquiring a new language or recruiting any cognitive capacities of the mind. This is true for all learners, but especially critical for those who have experienced a trauma or significant ongoing stress.
Safety and Security
Safety and security are basic human needs. The goal of many SEL (social emotional learning) programs is to teach children healthy social skills through safety, connection, and problem-solving. These skills help foster the development of well functioning healthy human beings.
Every human needs to feel safe, in order to go on with other business. However, safety is hard to cultivate when children remain in a constant state of “fight or flight.” In this state, the stress hormone, cortisol, rises and continues to be produced, long after the threat is gone. Helping humans feel safe, especially those affected by trauma, is easier said than done. It can be physically and mentally exhausting.
Knowing why and how trauma shows up, gives us the power to make things better.
How does trauma show up in our classrooms?
For trauma-impacted individuals, “every new encounter or event is contaminated by the past… the world is experienced with a different nervous system.”
In addition to fighting the dysfunctions and consequences of trauma, academically, these young learners fall behind. And when they do, we then begin the long and arduous process of working tooth and nail to try and fix academic issues, when many times the problems lie much, much deeper.
How do we make things better?
We can begin by cultivating positive learning environments and letting students have recess… all of it.
Cultivating Positive Culture
The culture of an environment is crucial. According to research, if a child is raised in a loving, healthy environment, a place where their social emotional needs are met, the chances that they will recover from any single trauma are high. If they do not have the social emotional support where basic needs are met, they will not develop into healthy functional human beings. It’s that simple.
We have the power to create these healthy and supportive learning environments. Learning, for trauma-impacted individuals, has little hope outside of safe supportive environments. Rich and safe learning environments are beneficial for all students… those impacted by trauma and those who are not.
Movement, An Argument for Recess
According to psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk, the last things that should be cut from the lives of children are “physical education, recess, and anything else involving movement, play, and joyful engagement.”
Physical activity promotes healthy social human behavior. Humans need physical experiences to restore a visceral sense of control. Physical activity through play helps to create important social connections with others, it engages the safety system, and promotes the resetting of physiology for children affected by trauma. Simple rhythmic movements or gentle play create small safe places where the social engagement system can begin to reemerge. Physical activity also requires relaxation and breathing, showing students that it’s okay to let down their guard.
If you work with children, especially those with trauma, remember that every minute matters. Do not give up. We don’t need Harvard Medical School degrees or expensive SEL programs to understand basic human needs.
While we have them… treat them with grace and dignity. Give them respect, the kind that many times they are unaccustomed to experience. Give respect as a symbol of who you are, not as a reward to be seen only when they can produce it for you. Extend to them love, patience, and tolerance; start fresh every day; hold them to high standards; believe in them more than they believe in themselves; and do not take their bad behaviors personally. In children affected by trauma, behaviors are learned out of a need for surviving serious threats.
Teaching requires grit, love, and patience... it is not for the faint at heart. And when you add high-stakes testing to the mix, it is critical to remember that kids come first.
We really do have the power to make things better for our students, all of us. Creating positive learning spaces is where we can begin. It is a basic human ability to help keep other humans safe. It is a greater human ability to help them feel safe, valued, and loved enough to learn, grow, and move forward.
References & Resources:
The Body Keeps the Score, by Bessel van der Kolk
The Power of Positive Leadership, by Jon Gordon
Daring Classrooms, by Brené Brown (YouTube): Click here.
Scientific American, How You Feel What Another Body Feels: Click here.
Marina Rodriguez (@mrodz308) is a California native, dual language teacher, National Writing Project, Heart of Texas Writing Project Teacher Consultant, Kidblog Ambassador, and co-author of Two Writing Teachers.