School shootings are very much with us, and no matter how hard we try, we can’t get them out of our heads.
First and foremost, we remember the terrible number of children and teachers killed and injured in a total of 35 school shootings in the U.S. so far this year. But school shootings affect us all, especially the teachers and children who must go to school and child care every day and the families who worry about them. School shootings have demolished our sense of safety.
What can we do about this?
Although schools across the country hold drills on lockdown procedures, there is no good evidence that they work, and they often evoke anxiety and stress instead of serenity. More important is a supportive, nurturing school environment—something teachers constantly strive to create and which is even more essential now.
In the meantime, we have begun to wonder if there is any other way that early childhood educators and K-to-12 teachers can have an impact on this epidemic. Can we help to prevent future shootings? Can we somehow reach and influence the children who might turn into school shooters and divert them from this path? Can we point them in a different direction? If so, how?
The last item on this list jumps out at us: That is, it tells us that during the first five years of their lives, at a time when their brains were establishing crucial connections, these children were very likely living with chronic, prolonged neglect and/or physical, emotional, or sexual abuse; witnessing or being subjected to violence; or in the care of adults who had mental health problems, including depression and problems with substance abuse, who were incarcerated or otherwise absent, or who were experiencing poverty, food scarcity, and/or homelessness.
As a result, these children didn’t have a secure attachment to their primary caregiver. And if no caring adult was there to love, protect, and support them through these difficult events, they were living with high levels of toxic stress—which amounts to trauma. The more adverse childhood experiences in their lives, the higher their risk for social, emotional, and cognitive delays that could harm them for life.
How can we possibly fight ACEs?
To protect a child in a dangerous situation, the body immediately activates the stress system’s fight, flee, or freeze response and sends in the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline. Under normal circumstances, when the threat disappears the stress system returns to a calm, relaxed state.
But if a threat is too long-lasting or intensive and the child has no caring adult to help him or her deal with it, the stress system responds more often and for longer periods than is necessary. As a result, the developing brain is overloaded with toxic levels of cortisol that disrupt its functioning, and the child is constantly on high alert.
Under these circumstances, it’s no wonder that their teachers become angry and frustrated.
You can make a difference
But a teacher’s best response to their behavior is not to yell or use time-out or take away privileges or suspend the child. Rather it is essential for teachers to remain calm and compassionate and use their empathy, energy, and ingenuity to build a relationship with each child. Above all, they must not to take this behavior personally.
As trauma expert Barbara Sorrels tells us in Reaching and Teaching Children Exposed to Trauma,“Children who have been harmed in the context of relationship can only be healed in a relationship…. It is the ongoing, daily interactions with loving, emotionally responsive and caring adults…that bring about healing…. Because child care providers and teachers often spend more waking hours with a child than any other adult they are key players in the path to healing” (2015, 8-9).
How can teachers change their perspective?
The teachers’ point of view should not be “What’s wrong with this child?” but rather “What’s happened to this child?”
Instead of pushing the child away, says Sorrels, the teacher’s words and actions should convey that “We will love you through this unlovely behavior and help you to find new ways of behaving.”
Think of trauma-informed practice as best practice. The idea is to create a safe space where all children, especially those who’ve been traumatized, can learn to trust, where they feel respected, protected, and unconditionally accepted, where they believe they are valued, that they matter, that they are important to others, and that others will support them.
In addition to some of the tactics teachers are probably already using—such as having a predictable schedule with as few transitions as possible—here are some strategies Sorrels recommends to improve relationships with children with challenging behavior:
Offer choices throughout the day so that children feel that they have some control over their lives.
Teach children to ask for a compromise. This is a way for them to learn to express their needs and interests and regain their voice. Teachers can help them practice using role plays or puppets.
Help children to see conflict as a problem to be solved, not as an opportunity to fight.
Catch children being good by tuning into their interests and abilities. Talk less and listen more.
Try do-overs, i.e., ask the child to replace inappropriate behavior with appropriate behavior—but make sure to explain what appropriate behavior is. Again, puppets and role plays are useful.
To help a wound-up child to unwind, use slow, deliberate movement, quiet talk and singing, and gentle touch (but be sure to ask the child’s permission first). Talk about what both of you are feeling.
Do not try to restrain a child without the direction and supervision of an expert. This can be dangerous.
Such a calm, caring approach reassures children that it’s all right to have strong emotions and these uneasy feelings won’t hurt their relationship with their teacher. They may even learn to tolerate them.
As a bonus, this attitude keeps the teacher from triggering the child’s stress response and escalating the challenging behavior.
The most amazing thing is that, used with patience and perseverance, this response can slowly change the way young children behave. That is, by improving their ability to deal with the stress in their lives, teachers can prevent them from acquiring some of the behavioral history described by the Secret Service and even stop them from eventually becoming school shooters.
Covid 19 has shaken up all of us, adults and children alike. No one knows when life will return to n ormal, and this uncertainty makes the present even more stressful.
In addition to worrying about family, friends, and our own health, those of us who work in child care and schools continue to worry about whether we’re keeping everyone safe—whether we’re washing our hands and cleaning surfaces well enough, whether we’re staying far enough apart, whether everyone is wearing a mask.
For the children in our care, there is also a new normal:
For many, arrival and pick up take place outside (because parents and other caregivers aren’t allowed inside the building, although in some places they can enter the building but not the classrooms).
There can be no hugs (because children must keep their distance from their peers and adults).
Children can play only with the others in their group.
In many centers, everyone must wear a mask.
That is, the stress of living with Covid has undermined our physical and psychological safety and created a collective trauma.
The effects of stress
Stress that is mild, brief, or even tolerable isn’t harmful when we have someone to help us through it. But toxic stress—stress that is intense, frequent, and prolonged—is a different story. It produces abnormally high levels of the hormone cortisol, which activates our fight-flight-freeze response and shuts down our ability to think. Instead we just act.
Children in fight mode may become aggressive, kick, hit, bite, scream, or throw themselves on the floor.
In flight mode, they may hide under a table or blanket or run out of the room.
In freeze mode, which is the most common response in infants and toddlers, they may space out, daydream, or simply go to sleep.
When the stress response stays in high gear and the brain is flooded with cortisol for too long, it becomes easier to turn on and harder to turn off, creating a constant state of arousal that makes regulating emotion and managing stress very difficult.
Surprisingly, this is a time for us to develop resilience–to strengthen our capacity to control our emotions and prevent, tolerate, and overcome adversity by dealing with it. As we live through life’s ups and downs, our resilience grows, and Covid presents an opportunity to dig deeper into ourselves. What we discover enhances our knowledge, thinking, and self-management skills and enables us to better serve the children in our care.
How to Manage Stress and Build Resilience
Stick to a routine.
Limit your exposure to social media about Covid and balance negative accounts with positive ones.
Give yourself joy by doing something you usually don’t have time for.
Be creative—paint, cook, write poetry, dance, keep a journal.
Maintain and expand your social contacts and supports—talk about your feelings with people you trust and ask for help if you need it. The stronger your relationships, the better your resilience.
Keep track of your stress, identify the unhealthy ways you cope with it, and look for healthier ways that fit your personality, lifestyle, and interests.
Accept that change is part of living, and nurture a positive view of yourself and your life. Cultivate optimism and gratitude and let your negative thoughts float away. See yourself as resilient, not as a victim.
Set realistic goals and take steps to carry them out.
Toxic stress and children
Toxic stress related to Covid undermines children’s sense of safety and their ability to regulate their emotions and behavior. How they react to stress depends on their temperament, history, and their family’s culture, support system, and social and economic status. Whether their parents are essential workers, whether they live in an urban or rural area, whether they have siblings—and whether they’ve lost a loved one in the pandemic—all play a role in the way children respond.
Children exposed to toxic stress may have trouble sitting still, paying attention, following rules and directions, and managing transitions, and they may find it hard to communicate their needs in words. So it is no wonder if they lash out at any sign of a threat (whether real or imagined), suffer from separation anxiety, cling, cry, withdraw, become fussy, talk baby talk, or have toileting issues or temper tantrums. Even ordinary events, such as a new person in the room, an unexpected sound, a harsh tone of voice, or someone coming too close, may evoke challenging behavior.
Toxic stress also interferes with learning, making it harder for infants to learn to eat and sleep, for toddlers to learn to explore the world through play, and for preschoolers to learn to concentrate and make friends.
How can we meet children’s needs?
Our first responsibility is to help children feel physically and psychologically safe. If they feel safe at school or child care, they may feel that the rest of the world is safe as well. The best way to do this is to build relationships—let them know we’ll take care of them, keep them safe, and reassure them that they’ll be all right. As Dr. Bruce Perry tells us in The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog: And Other Stories from a Child Psychiatrist’s Notebook, the more healthy relationships that children have, the more likely it is that they will recover from stress or trauma and go on to thrive.
Our day-to-day social interactions lay the foundation for children’s attitudes, values, behavior patterns, and sense of self. As we care for them, we learn all about them, and they flourish because we’re treating them with respect and honesty, making them feel special and important, and giving them the sense they belong.
At the same time, the children are learning from our example. When we model appropriate reactions, convey trust in other adults, use socially acceptable interaction skills, and express emotions like anger, anxiety, fear, and helplessness, we demonstrate that it’s okay to have strong feelings—and that their own strong feelings won’t scare us away. We will be helping them build their own resilience, tolerate their own uneasy feelings, and create mechanisms that can protect them from being overwhelmed by their experience.
Building Relationships and Resilience 101
Greet children by name when they arrive.
Follow their lead in play.
Be an appreciative audience—listen to their ideas, stories, and worries. Let them tell you what they need, and acknowledge their feelings and concerns. Allow time to talk about their experiences over the past months. What have they learned?
Focus on what they can do and create opportunities for success.
Acknowledge their effort and show you believe in their ability to succeed.
Collaborate with them to find routines, strategies, and resources that best support them and meet their needs.
Recognize the value of their background and culture and what they bring to the group.
Share information about yourself and find something that you and the child have in common.
Post their work and ask them to bring photos and objects from home to share with their classmates.
Tell children you miss them on days when they’re absent.
Tell families about their child’s great day in front of the child.
Creating a safe environment
We can also help children feel safe by creating a trauma-informed environment—one that recognizes the impact of toxic stress and trauma, strives to make everyone feel safe, supported, and connected, and enables children to develop their full emotional, social, and intellectual potential.
Although it’s tempting to jump in whenever there’s a problem, it’s better to hold off; children need discomfort in order to work through their difficulties and develop resilience. When we ask questions that bounce the problem back to them and talk about mistakes—both theirs and ours—we teach problem solving and send the message that mistakes help them learn.
In these days when people still don’t often get together—and if they do they may be physically distant and wearing masks—social and emotional learning is more valuable than ever. Children need chances to see and practice social skills, so it’s a good idea to teach and model them proactively, focusing on their strengths and feelings and how their actions affect others. When we share control and provide lots of choice, play, dramatic play, and opportunities to share decision making, we enable children to explore the new normal.
Changing our approach to discipline: A paradigm shift
Perhaps the most important change we can make is in our own attitudes. Instead of asking ourselves, “What’s wrong with this child?” we can ask “What has happened to this child?”
Likewise, we can give children attention when they’re behaving appropriately, tell them what to do, not what not to do, and eliminate no, stop, don’t, and why from our vocabulary–because goal-oriented language helps them understand what they ought to be doing and avoids hidden messages. It’s even useful to recognize their close approximations of positive behavior.
When Challenging Behavior Occurs
Show that you care unconditionally.
Separate the child from the behavior.
Recognize and eliminate whatever triggers the challenging behavior.
Don’t take things personally.
Focus on the positive.
Respect personal space.
Remember that the work we do each day, in whatever way we serve children and families, is vital, noble, and appreciated. We can’t change children’s lives, but we can make a difference during the hours they spend with us.
We know: We’ve already written about the immigrant children separated from their parents at the U.S.-Mexican border. But in the avalanche of news we live with on a daily basis, these children aren’t making headlines any more, and it’s altogether too easy to forget about them. So here’s an update, and a short summary: For most of them, the situation isn’t getting better.
The Trump administration is no longer separating children from their parents when they cross the border into the U.S. illegally.
Instead, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) is putting the whole family—including very young children—into detention together.
At the moment, a legal settlement bans officials from detaining children longer than 20 days, but the administration is trying to overturn that ruling and keep them in shelters until their asylum claims are settled one way or the other. That is, indefinitely.
This would mean building more and bigger mass shelters—and endangering more and more children, who suffer serious and long-lasting harm from being institutionalized, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.
The administration also wants to halt inspections at these shelters (several of which already face abuse charges) and make it significantly harder for children to be released to the custody of family members and friends.
In the meantime
Over 500 children who were taken from their parents earlier in the year still have no idea of when—or whether—they’ll see them again. Some parents have been declared “ineligible” for reunification, and 300 plus have been deported. No one knows where they are.
Non-profit organizations have shouldered the job of locating and matching them with their offspring, but the work is grueling and time consuming, especially since the administration insists that reunification take place in the family’s home country, where there is often no phone service and people speak neither English nor Spanish.
Then parents must decide whether to bring their children home and relinquish their hopes of asylum, or to let their children stay in the U.S. and pursue asylum alone.
This is a no-win situation. No matter what happens next, children are experiencing extreme fear and toxic stress, and their future is likely to include developmental delays, PTSD, and other mental and physical health challenges.
Living with trauma
You may be seeing some of these children–or others who’ve lived through traumatic events–in your classroom. If so, be aware that they and their families will require extra sensitive attention and security.
If you’ve already encountered children with these experiences, how have you managed? Have you been able to help them? If so, what have you done and what works?
Last summer the Trump government quietly started separating children and families at the U.S.–Mexico border and this spring accelerated family separation with its “zero tolerance” policy for entering the U.S. illegally. Now faced with a court order to reunify these families, it has declared more than 900 parents “ineligible” for reunification and deported at least 463 others whose children remain in the U.S. with no known way to rejoin their families.
Although 2500-plus families may eventually be successfully reunited, more than half of them are still under threat of deportation and may have to choose whether to take their children or leave them behind. In the meantime, all of them are struggling to deal with this newest trauma on top of the violence and poverty they came to the U.S. to escape.
The science is clear
The effects of this separation will be lasting.
The ability to handle a threatening or frightening situation is critical to survival, and when a threat looms, the brain instantly readies us to deal with it. The steroid hormone cortisol and other stress hormones flood in, automatically putting us into freeze, fight, or flee mode.
Once the threat recedes, the stress levels in children with well-functioning stress systems return to normal. But forcible separation from a parent is no normal stressor, especially for young children whose brains are still developing. It delivers a totally different degree of trauma, one that produces toxic stress with a disproportionate punch.
It can alter their brain structure and stunt their cognitive development, and it can “shape the child’s body and brain to anticipate danger and prepare for the worst,” says Dylan Gee, who researches the impact of early-life trauma on the developing brain at Yale University.
In addition, such separation disrupts attachment—the safe, stable, caring relationship with a primary caregiver that is so essential to a child’s sense of self, safety, and trust, hence to healthy functioning. Many children may wonder what’s wrong with them or what they’ve done wrong that caused their parents to abandon them, points out Brenda Jones Harden, a professor of child development at the University of Maryland.
Usually, a parent’s presence can reduce a child’s level of cortisol. Hugging, snuggling, and kissing have a calming effect because they induce the release of oxytocin and buffer the stress response. But when there’s forced separation, there’s no parent present, and in the government shelters where children are housed (even the so-called “tender age” shelters for young children), no one is allowed to touch, hold, or pick them up, including their siblings.
What are the effects?
The greater the stress and the longer it lasts, the greater the risk to the child. Without appropriate intervention—so unaffordable and so hard to access in Spanish—the problems of forcible separation can last a lifetime. Here are some of them:
Heightened risk of mental health difficulties (posttraumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression, ADHD, and behavior problems like anger, aggression, and withdrawal)
A lifelong risk for heart, pulmonary, and liver disease, even cancer
Hypervigilance, where the child is very reactive to the environment and can’t sit still or concentrate, which impairs learning
Delayed development of executive functions including self-regulation and impulse control
Atrophied cognitive functions such as memory and communication
Most important, provide consistent, sensitive, responsive care. Children who’ve experienced trauma need to be physically and psychologically close, even when they display inappropriate behavior. “The underlying message we want them to hear is that we will love them through their unlovely behavior. Rather than abandon them, we will hang in there with them and help them find new ways of behaving.” [Sorrels, p. 132]
Recognize the signs and symptoms of trauma
Maintain regular eating and sleeping routines
Show physical affection
Show patience if a child cries excessively, regresses, develops severe separation anxiety, or shows difficulty with self-regulation. All of these are natural responses to childhood trauma
Plan plenty of play and exercise to help metabolize stress hormones
Listen and provide honest age-appropriate information. You can say, “I don’t know the answer, but I’ll let you know when I do.”
Identify trauma reminders that may lead to trauma responses and teach the child coping strategies
What do you think?
Have you had any experience with children who’ve endured trauma or toxic stress? What tactics worked best for them?