August 27, 2021
I’ll start by stating the obvious: The collective trauma and grief that we have experienced over the last 18 months is profound – and ongoing. The effects of COVID-19 on our society overall are monumental in their scope and the implications for the education sector are just as colossal. As this school year starts, and most systems return to full-time in-person learning, we are currently attempting to modify an existing system to fit a reality that is entirely unlike anything that most of us have experienced in our lifetime. Leaders are carrying an enormous weight of responsibility on their shoulders every waking minute of the day, navigating an overwhelming amount of complexity and uncertainty while attempting to ensure school buildings are safe for students and staff. Many leaders and staff members have shared with me that this school year is already much more difficult than last year, which feels unsurprising: We are attempting to renegotiate our entire way of doing in-person learning while our bodies are simultaneously carrying the weight of heightened anxiety that comes with living through continued collective trauma and ongoing grief.
Many of us in education have learned or studied how trauma impacts the development of a child. The ACE studies are often the most well-cited; for those unfamiliar, these studies demonstrate that adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) are linked to higher rates of physical and mental health problems. As the CDC notes, the greater the number of ACEs a child has experienced, the higher the likelihood of subsequent challenges such as addiction, maternal and child health problems, involvement in sex trafficking, heart disease, depression, cancer, and suicide1.
Healthy relationships in safe environments are ultimately what prevent ACEs from occurring in the first place. And, importantly, ongoing healthy relationships are key for students who have already experienced ACEs to be able to process through these events in a way that minimizes the likelihood of negative outcomes. As the CDC itself states, “Creating and sustaining safe, stable, nurturing relationships and environments for all children and families can prevent ACEs and help all children reach their full potential.”
So if we know that healthy and safe environments with strong positive relationships are ultimately what allow kids to live whole and happy lives, the question becomes: How do we ensure our school environments, where students spend the majority of their waking hours, provide kids with that level of safety and security?
Turning to Adults: The Critical Importance of Understanding Trauma Research
If we care about building safe and healthy environments for students, we have to first look at the very people who are responsible for building that type of culture. The reality is that a dysregulated adult cannot regulate a child. Teachers, leaders, and other school staff across our country have always faced massive amounts of pressure and responsibility, most often with very little recognition and even less reward. But in this COVID era, they are also shouldering their own experiences of grief and wading through the heaviness of ongoing collective trauma while being asked to serve as the primary regulators for the kids in their care. When we add on the layer of systemic and interpersonal racism that continues to face people of color in this country, the weight of the difficulty is profound. Parents all over are facing the same challenges and have the same daunting task. But my focus is on our school staff right now, and we need to recognize the critical importance of regulation if we truly care about giving children in school what they need. Because if we don’t understand and address the massive mental health implications facing school staff currently, we will limit the amount of learning and development for students and risk even greater levels of burnout and attrition in the future.
It starts first with understanding: We are naïve to think we can simply move forward from the pain we have experienced over these last 18 months (and indeed are continuing to experience) without recognizing the impact it has had on our very being. A fundamental point of understanding is that trauma is stored in our bodies. In “The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma”, Dr. Bessel van der Kolk walks through a comprehensive study on the profound impact of trauma on the body. Essentially, when under perceived threat, our brains and our nervous system are quite intelligent in how they respond – and while that intelligence may serve useful in the moment, it also can create more sensitized stress response systems that are heightened in their reactivity even after the traumatic experience is over (which in this case, it’s unfortunately not).
A summary: The brain is constantly taking in signals from the outside world (through the thalamus), and these signals get sent to the amygdala (in the lower brain, where the recognition is unconscious) as well as the frontal lobes (which is where we ultimately consciously recognize the signal). The amygdala is the part of the brain that signals potential danger (the signal arrives to it before the frontal lobes), and it does so by alerting the hypothalamus and the brain stem, which triggers our autonomic nervous system into responding. The sympathetic nervous system (one of the branches of the autonomic nervous system), may activate in the face of this perceived threat (the “fight or flight” responses many have heard about) or in the face of extreme threat, the parasympathetic nervous system (the other branch of the autonomic nervous system) may cause shutdown (the “freeze” response).
The short version is that traumatic experience can often mean more active stress responses (both in the moment and also post-event, if we don’t process the trauma effectively). Being dysregulated essentially means that we are existing in one of those stress response states. For those working in education, you likely know what it feels like when you are in a dysregulated state – and the impact it can have on your ability to be attuned to a child (or a whole classroom’s) needs.
The idea is that we need to know why our body is responding in a certain way if we’re going to actually be able to self-soothe. And it all goes to the end goal: we have to understand how our bodies process traumatic experiences (and the impact it has on ongoing function) if we are going to be able to support students in their own learning and development.
But recognizing the impact is only part of the battle. Actually learning how to self-regulate in moments where our trauma responses have kicked in is incredibly challenging – but ultimately is the key to becoming better teachers, leaders, partners, friends, and people.
How Can We Approach Adult Self-Regulation?
While there is an abundance of fascinating and groundbreaking research out there on tools to heal from trauma (and self-regulation in the face of stress responses in general), a few, in particular, stand out to me: movement and connection. On the movement front, Dr. van der Kolk says that “dissociation is the essence of trauma.”2 And if dissociation – removal from oneself – is the essence of trauma, then reconnection with one’s self (both physically and psychologically) is a critical part of the healing process. Many recent breakthroughs in trauma research have helped to illuminate that interventions such as yoga, dance, somatic experiencing, healthy touch, and other types of movement can be incredibly helpful in supporting people to reduce sensitization and increase self-regulation.
Another one of the keys to building resiliency (as opposed to sensitization) is our level of connection with others. In “What Happened to You? Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing”, Dr. Bruce Perry notes that “The capacity to get back to “baseline” after a trauma is influenced by many factors, primarily your connectedness.”3 Indeed, how connected we are to others is also one of the most important preventative measures against post-traumatic stress disorders. Dr. van der Kolk names that “study after study shows that having a good support network constitutes the single most powerful protection against becoming traumatized. Safety and terror are incompatible.” 4
There are so many other interventions out there that are continuing to grow in popularity as well, including eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), somatic experiencing, neurofeedback, and more. More broadly, though, if tools like movement and connection are important methods we can utilize to self-regulate, the question becomes: How can we build school communities that provide adults opportunities to truly care for themselves in the ways that will lead to a more continuously regulated state? Neuroscience and psychology show us that we are naïve if we simply rely on once-a-year teacher appreciation days to care for our teaching staff – and while there is an enormous weight on every leader right now, we must push ourselves to consider how to approach this challenge given its critical importance to our overall mission. Some questions I’m wrestling with that I’m hoping you might consider as well:
- How can we educate ourselves and our staff about the neuroscience of trauma and self-regulation?
- How can we create space to discuss each individual’s needs and preferred self-regulation methods?
- How can we creatively restructure time in the day to ensure that adults have enough space to utilize self-regulation tools like exercise, meditation, yoga, therapy, or opportunities to connect with others?
There is no easy answer and no one-size-fits-all solution, particularly given that individuals all have varying needs and each school community is different in its culture, demographics, and mission. But we must wrestle with the issue, no matter how overwhelming it might feel. Because if adults in school buildings are themselves unable to self-regulate, they cannot serve as the steady force needed for students to feel safe – and without safety, no learning or development can occur. We owe it to our students – and ourselves – to face these questions so that we can be there for children in the ways they need.
How are you approaching this in our own buildings? What innovative approaches have you seen others try? Share your thoughts with us and our community!
If you’re interested in reading more about the neuroscience and psychology of trauma, here are some good resources:
- The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, by Bessel van der Kolk, M.D.
- What Happened To You? Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing, by Bruce D. Perry, M.D., Ph.D., and Oprah Winfrey
- The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological Foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, and Self-regulation, by Stephen W. Porges
- My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies by Resmaa Menakem
- Equity-Centered Trauma-Informed Education by Alex Shevrin Venet
- The CDC’s website on Adverse Childhood Experiences: https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/aces/index.html
1 “Preventing Adverse Childhood Experiences |Violence Prevention.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 6 Apr. 2021, www.cdc.gov/
2 van der Kolk, Bessel, M.D. The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. Penguin Books, 2015. Page 66.
3 Perry, Bruce D., M.D., Ph.D. and Oprah Winfrey. What Happened To You? Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing. Flatiron Books, 2021. Page 190.
4 van der Kolk 212