The critical role of educators in helping students heal
Educators have so much potential to offer children a different experience of relationships. Elementary teachers may have over a 1000 hours in a school year in Ontario to create connections with students. This is potentially 8000 hours of connection for students who remain in school from JK to Grade 8. What an opportunity!
Secondary school educators may not spend a whole school day with a student, but their ability to create safe relationships can make a powerful difference in a student’s experience of school and openness to new learning.
Children who don’t trust adults given a history of abuse and/or have experienced a lack of safety in their community or school from persistent derogatory messages about their race, culture, religion, gender expression or identity, socioeconomic status, disability will find it difficult to learn. Without teachers who can provide safety, these vulnerable students will fall further behind and inequities will be increased rather than reduced.
For those interested in how microaggression may be communicated intentionally or unintentionally,
Joel Portman, Tuyen Trisa Bui and Javier Ogaz and Dr Jesús Treviño, former Associate Provost for Multicultural Excellence provide a comprehensive list of behaviours and attitudes to encourage greater awareness of how we can compromise a felt sense of safety.
Although most educators understand the importance of relationships, they are less confident about how to create connections with students who can’t trust their intentions. DDP provides the “how” in creating relationships with students who don’t trust us.
This PACE infographic illustrates how students come to school with a backpack heavy with shame. They mis-read and mis-trust a teacher’s intentions and motivations often responding with aggression, avoidance or rejection. This makes it hard for a teacher to feel safe and persist in providing the opportunities for connection. With non-judgemental support from colleagues and administrators, a teacher can be helped to persist. A PACE-ful way of being can lighten that backpack and prepare the student for new learning.
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Polyvagal Theory: PACE as rehabilitation for the nervous system
Trauma alters our physiology and lives in our nervous systems. If we are lucky enough to have had enough safety in our lives, we tend to anticipate that people will be kind and helpful and we can collaborate and negotiate when relationships feel rocky or disconnected. We can stay socially engaged.
When we have learned to survive a world that is dangerous and we have not been comforted or enjoyed, then we learn to anticipate that interactions with others will hurt. Our physiology prepares us for danger and we mobilize through fight or flight reactions. Although adaptive and designed to ensure survival, neither of these responses are conducive to connection and learning.
Some students immobilize or freeze. Mobilization is no longer possible. They are experiencing life-threat. Students may dissociate, stare off into space, zone out, break eye-contact, become very quiet or sometimes very angry, although with no conscious awareness of their behaviour.
Stephen Porges’s polyvagal theory helps us understand that in order to help students stay socially engaged and be socially successful we have to change the underlying felt sense of safety. We cannot punish or provide incentives to students to make them “behave appropriately. Fight, flight and freeze behaviours are appropriate for their underlying sense of danger or life threat. Changing the underlying felt sense of safety will change behaviour.
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PACE is a way of being that allows us to stay in our social engagement system and send safety signals to our students’ nervous systems. When students have been hurt by relationships they so often see only danger signals and miss safety signals. When we are PACEful, we communicate that they can be close to us without fear, settling the nervous system and preparing them for new learning.
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How does trauma impact brain development and what does this mean for educators?
Persistent experiences of relational stress alters the trajectory of our brain’s development. When we have experienced abuse, or continue to expect harm from others, the areas of our brain that become strong are those areas that facilitate fight, flight and freeze. It is not easy to develop the bridges and highways that link to our pre-frontal cortex, the area of the brain that is essential for good self-regulation and executive function – essential ingredients for being a good student. Knowledge about brain development helps us understand that students are not “choosing” their behaviour and that we can’t consequence a child into growing the parts of their brains that will help them be successful students. That takes safety and time. Consequences may still be warranted once we have understood why a student is behaving in the way they are but they are not the way to grow the areas of the brain that are needed for learning and regulation.
info sheet text:
Blocked Care: what happens to our brains when children can’t take our support and how can we keep our brains from fight, flight or freeze.
Looking after individuals who persistently and creatively resist out attempts to help is exhausting and we may ourselves start to experience anger, depression, anxiety and the desire to give up. Blocked care (Baylin and Hughes 2012) is a physiological and psychological response to the rejection of our caretaking attempts. It is helpful to be aware of our own responses to working with children with trauma and what safeguards we can put in place to stay actively in our social engagement system.
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Books as Resources
Storytelling is a powerful way of communicating ideas and facilitating discussions. It is difficult to resist a powerful story. For many students they can discuss the feelings and experiences of a character in a story before they are ready to disclose their own thoughts and feelings. In our trauma informed classrooms, stories have been the catalyst for many incredible conversations.
Stories can have a huge power and not all children are ready for some of the themes. The use of books must also be embedded in the growing relationship with the educator. Recently the reading of Willy and the Wobbly House by Margot Sunderland highlighted for two of our students the anxiety they hold over the uncertainty of permanency in their homes. Strong relationships with staff and a large staff to student ratio meant that their distress was noticed and both students helped to understand their worries and to have those worries be co-regulated so they were not left alone with them.
In a larger classroom it will be easy to detect a large reaction to a particular theme but it may not be as easy to notice a child’s subtle reactions to a story. We urge educators to be mindful of how students may respond to certain themes or activities and to prepare and support accordingly.
Here are a few of our favorite books that we use in Belong. We continue to find others – some we use once and do activities to match, some are quite deep and need more attention and care.
Books with strong themes and messages:
Conversations with Jon
Jon Baylin is a psychologist and co-author of Brain Based Parenting….. He is a master of understanding the impact of trauma on the brain. In the following conversations he talks about the importance of whispering to the amygdala to settle children to learn and the role of teachers in developing the ability to stick with things that are hard.
Developmental trauma is a proposed diagnosis, first advocated by Bessel van der Kolk and
colleagues in 2005. When children are hurt by the relationships that are supposed to keep them
safe, their development becomes impaired in predictable ways in different developmental
domains and across the life-span.
View the Developmental Domains impacted by developmental trauma.
The study of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) has long identified the many physical, emotional, cognitive and social ramifications from toxic levels of stress that result from disruptions in the parent child relationship.
ACEs are organized into the following 10 potentially traumatizing experiences.
Abuse - Physical, Emotional and Sexual
Neglect – Physical, Emotional
Household dysfunction – a parent who has substance abuse problems, witnessing domestic
violence, an incarcerated family member, parents who have separated or divorced, death of a
An ACE score is the number of these experiences that you have had. The greater the ACE score, the more likely an individual is to experience pervasive and life-long mental and physical health challenges given the ongoing stress on the nervous system. You can identify your own or your students’ ACE scores by completing the
In our work we define trauma as any experience, real or perceived, where an individual
experiences fear for their life or safety, or experiences profound feelings of hopelessness,
helplessness, powerlessness. The study of the impact of ACES on an individual’s felt sense of
safety and the subsequent problems for development is prolific. We want also to highlight that
Inequities and microaggressions such as discrimination based on gender expression or identity,
race, culture, religion, disability, socio-economic status also profoundly affects our felt sense of
safety and can have long lasting implications for our well-being.
Importantly a relationship with even just one stable, caring adult mitigates the impact of ACES
How does DDP offer us a framework for trauma informed eduction
Many understand the importance of relationships for children at school but don’t know how to form those relationships when children reject any attempts at connection. Dyadic Developmental Practice provides a framework for “how” to provide the safety that children need to lean into relationships. Using what we know from the research on neurobiology, attachment theory and intersubjectivity DDP helps us learn how to notice and co-regulate a student’s affect, have conversations that help that student understand themselves and others and begin to trust a new way of being in relationships.
Info sheet text:
PACE - freestyle
This is a freestyle explanation of PACE by a father who wanted to explain to his daughter’s teacher the need for a relational approach in helping her be more successful in school. His counsellor Taylor Nelson from Therapeutic Family Care in Cobourg Ontario had been working with him to help him understand how trauma was creating such challenges in trusting adults, how to respond and parent with PACE and also helped him advocate for her needs in school. in a school meeting he spontaneously started rapping. This is his powerful interpretation of what his child needed.