resilience – noun – re-sil-ience – 1: the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress. 2: “bouncing back” from difficult experiences, often with profound personal growth.
The No. 1 task for getting ready to return to normal:
March 12 seems like a world away for most of us. That was the last day most children in the Fredericksburg area went to school, before the nationwide shutdown to contain the novel coronavirus upended what most of us knew as normal life.
As we all watch the news closely to learn what school re-openings will look like, there are some things we can do to put our community in a better position to help keep children safe and support their success when they do return to full-time classes.
These things don’t involve multiplication flash cards, tracing cursive letters or memorizing poetry. They don’t have anything to do with color-coded schedules.
One of the most important things we can do to help children now is to simply be aware of how childhood trauma affects the brain, to learn who is at risk for trauma, and to understand what is necessary to transition children out of what many psychologists call “survival brain” and into the more productive “learning brain.” These efforts will also ease the transition back to school and daycare.
The Rappahannock Area Community Services Board’s Prevention Services team has been working for years to build what is known as a “trauma-informed” community network in the Fredericksburg region. Through training seminars, agency-specific work, classes for K-12 students and other outreach efforts, RACSB is working to spread awareness of the mental health needs that children who have experienced trauma. For anyone who works with or lives with children, awareness of those needs can make the difference between getting nowhere and making progress.
Covid-19 as a source of trauma
Google the term “adverse childhood experiences,” commonly abbreviated as ACES, and you’ll learn that there are many things in a child’s life that can be a source of trauma, and not all of these risk factors are as dramatic as what we as adults may think of when we hear that word.
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought added sources of these risk factors.
One of the biggest is the closing of schools. Coverage of school closures during the pandemic has opened America’s eyes to all of the roles schools play in the lives of today’s children.
In addition to educating, schools feed children, provide access to a school nurse, social workers and various therapists. Perhaps most importantly, schools give kids a reliable structure for their days, and consistent exposure to caring, committed adults—one of the most powerful protective factors that a trauma-exposed child can have.
“If school or daycare was my sanctuary or safe place, and now I don’t get to go there, stress and cortisol builds up in my brain,” says RACSB Prevention Services Coordinator Michelle Wagaman.
That stress prompts a chemical reaction within the brain that takes it out of the state that many psychologists refer to as “learning brain,” and puts it into a mode known as “survival brain.” While “learning brain” is a calm state where creative thought and new ideas are accepted, “survival brain” requires black and white, hard facts and is not open to new information. It’s the fight, flight or freeze part of our brain.
“Children have to feel safe and connected before their brains are ready to learn,” says Wagaman. “With the current environment of uncertainty, we can unwillingly pass that stress to our children. There are things we can do to focus on relationships and feeling safe and secure now at home that will also be beneficial later in the year in the classroom when traditional school resumes.”
It takes a village
The more people there are in our community who understand the impact that trauma has on the brain and how to mitigate it, the more we can all help each other as we begin to resume our routines after the pandemic.
So while you’re perusing workbooks, mobile apps and other tools to help keep your child academically prepared, take some time to explore the resources we offer in these pages to build awareness of childhood trauma, its risk factors and the protective factors that can turn lives around.
This kind of learning will help our entire community build resilience. Resilience will help us not just to bounce back when life returns to normal, but to bounce forward into a better future where our community is better equipped to help those who are suffering.
We have to teach and model resilience. Here are some skills you can practice daily:
- Self-calming. Managing emotions is hard. Start using five deep breaths or counting to 10 to help your child calm down.
- Expressing feelings. When are able to recognize our different emotions and give names to them, we can work to tame those feelings.
- Offering choices. This helps build decision-making skills and teaches that every choice has a consequence (some good and some not).
- Mastering a skill. It takes time to learn and master new skills. In doing so, children learn competence, perseverance and commitment.
- Showing empathy. Think about being a child and the feelings of being small and powerless. Modeling this behavior and sensitivity will serve your family well during these tough times and beyond.
- Developing self-esteem. Our self-esteem begins with the messages we receive from our parents and caregivers. Celebrate successes, even small ones. Let children know that you love them for who they are and not what you want them to be.
The following movies and documentaries can help your family understand the effects of childhood trauma, and how they can be overcome.
- “Paper Tigers: One High School’s Unlikely Success Story” – Chronicles a year in the life of Lincoln High School in Walla Walla, Washington. Lincoln’s principal implements radical changes to the school’s approach to discipline. The film shows how students go from getting into fights and being on the cusp of dropping out to finding healing, support and academic promise.
- “Resilience: The Biology of Stress and the Science of Hope” – Delves into the science of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES) and a new movement to treat and prevent toxic stress.
- “Inside Out” – This Pixar animated film is a great family conversation-starter, and helps viewers of all ages think about how the various emotions they are born with—fear, anger, sadness, joy—govern their actions and reactions.
- “The Deepest Well” by Dr. Nadine Burke Harris, pediatrician and recently appointed California Surgeon General
- “The Boy Who was Raised as a Dog and Other Stories from a Child Psychiatrist’s Notebook” by Dr. Bruce Perry, psychiatrist and neuroscientist
- “The Whole Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind” by Dr. Daniel J. Siegel and Dr. Tina Payne Bryson
- “Dr. Melissa Sadin and Nathan Levy’s Teachers’ Guide to Trauma: 20 Things Kids with Trauma Wish Their Teachers Knew”
- “The Body Keeps Score” by Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk
- “The Most Magnificent Thing” by Ashley Spires
- “Chrysanthemum” by Kevin Henkes
- “The Girl Who Never Made Mistakes” by Gary Rubinstein and Mark Pett
- “I Am Enough” by Grace Byers
- “Ricky The Rock That Couldn’t Roll” by Jay Miletsky
- “Sticks” by Diane Alber
- “The Invisible Boy” by Trudy Ludwig
- “The Magic Hat Shop” by Sonja Wimmer
Register for a future training offered by RACSB. Options include:
- ACE Interface “Understanding Adverse Childhood Experiences and Building Self-Healing Communities”
- Community Resilience Initiative Course 1: Trauma-Informed
- Community Resilience Initiative Couse 2: Trauma-Supportive
- Mental Health First Aid
For more information on building resilience, visit rappahannockareacsb.org/resilience/
Stay tuned to the Fredericksburg Parent Facebook page and YouTube channel during the month of June for a video interview with RACSB about building resilience.