As we enter into the holiday season, we start with Thanksgiving — a time where families and friends typically gather together to reflect upon and share what they are grateful for. This season looks very different than it has ever before. We are living through an ongoing global pandemic, the highlighting of racial injustices and a stressful presidential election. In the midst of all of this, how do we find our gratitude?
This November, The Guidance Center is launching a series called, “Thankful for You” where we will be featuring blog posts that focus on thankfulness and answer that very question. Today’s blog is from Nathan Swaringen, LCSW, Lead Developer of It’s About T.I.M.E. and Stevie McBride, LMFT, It’s About T.I.M.E. Consultant.
Let’s make no mistake about it, Covid-19 has been a tremendous challenge for us all; and for some, it has been tragic and even traumatizing. Many have lost loved ones or have themselves become very sick. Families are suffering financially, depressed and stressed beyond belief. Too many children are forced to live in dangerous and abusive homes, unable to escape the violence, at least during the days when they could have been at school. Virtual distance learning has been a nightmare for most. As trauma informed consultants, we’ve seen this since last March.
We have school-district employees learning health guidelines from the state and new computer software platforms for online learning, grading and attendance; administrators implementing these guidelines and programs with their staff; and teachers scrambling on the fly to re-learn how to teach in a whole new way, putting worries for their own health aside while they do their best to engage distracted, stressed and hurting students in the form of little black boxes on a screen.
The Neurosequential Model in Education (NME) informs us of the contagious nature of emotional states. Since humans are a social species, evolving a brain suited for forming and maintaining relationships through empathy, compassion, cooperation, and being able to read and tune into the emotional states of others, it makes sense that we tend to “take on” what those around us feel. If we’re all feeling stressed, we’re really dealing with two pandemics. Children and adults are struggling, but It’s About T.I.M.E. continues to offer support and steadying guidance to LBUSD schools every day.
But, this blog isn’t about how bad things are. Honestly, the above is an obligatory nod and validation to the real heroes in the education system before we share some silver linings to this storm called 2020. November is about giving thanks, and sometimes thankfulness is hard to find. At times, we have to strive to find the good in bad situations.
As clinicians first and always, this striving is part of our nature. Sifting through the anger, defiance, defensiveness, avoidance, apathy, and whatever other presenting symptoms brought into the therapist’s office to discover the beauty, innocence, and strength of every client is what we’re all about.
This part of our makeup (I hesitate to call it a skill) is applied to the students with whom we work as well.
What good could have possibly come from the Covid-19 educational environment? Surprisingly, a pattern is emerging. There is a trend of previously disruptive and emotionally dysregulated students who are actually thriving in the virtual environment. Pre-Covid, in the traditional classroom setting, these students could not go a day (more like an hour) without a slew of disruptive and at times, dangerous behaviors in school. Yelling out obscenities at the teacher, or challenging other students to fights during quiet instruction, flipping desks or throwing chairs during small group activities, outright defiance of adult authority, and fighting or running off campus or into other classrooms to hide during recess or lunch was the norm. Traditional discipline of rewards and consequences made things worse. Individualized regulatory efforts had temporary effectiveness, but required unrealistic efforts from adults. NOTHING was working to help these students in the classroom. Yet virtually, these types of students are doing pretty well. Why?
Again, NME has the explanation. Our ability to function intelligently, emotionally, and behaviorally depends upon our state of regulation; or how “stressed-out” our brain is.
We all have a window of tolerance for how much stress we can handle before we can’t think clearly, make poor choices, are more emotionally reactive, and engage in more impulsive behaviors aimed at subconsciously relieving our stress.
The difficulty for those who have come from developmental adversity and trauma, is that their brains have become conditioned to be more sensitive to and reactive to life’s everyday stressors. Their window of tolerance is much smaller. Since all brains develop as a combination of genes and as a reflection of the environment they have experienced, the “present ends up being filtered through the past.” If an infant was severely burned in a house fire, even in adulthood, that brain may trigger a panic attack or inappropriate emotional outburst at the smell of birthday candles or burnt toast; even without any conscious memory of the trauma.
Knowing how the brain works helps us conceptualize these students who struggled so terribly in person, yet seem much more regulated and capable of success virtually. What is their proverbial “smoke” in school? And what about their home environment is “smoke-free”? Well, it turns out that the specific group of students we’re thinking about as examples have certain histories of adversity in common. They come from homes where their living situation and parental relationships are okay now, but during their first few years of life, were extremely chaotic, unpredictable, and downright unsafe. Their caregivers struggled with substance abuse, their own mental illness, or domestic violence.
Instead of developing a brain that detects the smell of smoke as life-threatening, they have developed a brain that reacts to other people as a potential threat to their very survival.
Again, this isn’t a conscious, logical appraisal, but a reflexive, adaptive response they have developed. The very act of being away from their caregiver, who is now safe, and around hundreds of other children (some of whom bully and/or provoke them) and dozens of other unfamiliar adults is enough to shift a brain into survival mode. The home environment insulates them from their triggers, allowing them to remain regulated, and thus, succeed.
So that’s well and good, but what about when these children have to inevitably return to in-person instruction? Should all dysregulated children be afforded the luxury of learning virtually, from home, forever? No, or course not. Even though the comfort of home is allowing them to succeed, they will eventually need to be able to function away from home. Luckily, yet another valuable insight of NME informs us of how to promote healing. Right now, these stress-sensitive children cannot tolerate too much of an environment away from a safe caregiver and in the company of too many strangers. But that doesn’t mean that accommodations cannot be made to meet this need while also dosing their stressed-out brains with experiences just a teeny-tiny bit outside of their comfort zones to build more and more tolerance.
It really is identical to the analogy of lifting weights or training for a marathon. If we can find ways of activating their stress response in ways that they can tolerate, they will get stronger and stronger. Armed with these insights, we may now be able to give these students the support they need. These interventions are feasible. Modified-shortened schedules, titrating caregiver’s presence on campus, allowing breaks to connect with caregiver, giving the student breaks from being around too many students for too long, and facilitating relationships with many caring adult staff who are just as safe and nurturing as the parent are all ingredients for healing.
We wouldn’t be so insensitive to claim that Covid-19 has been a blessing, but without these unique conditions, we know it would have been incredibly difficult to come to these conclusions through trial and error. These students were suffering, dangling by a thread towards expulsion, with loving adults throwing our hands in the air because nothing was working. Sometimes adversity and tragedy is where we find hope.
Hope is what we are thankful for. Hope for the community. Hope for the teachers and administrators who are giving 100% to make sure the youth are equipped with knowledge to move into their next stage of life. We embrace this hope and share it this Thanksgiving.
Nathan Swaringen, LCSW, has worked as a Clinical Therapist at The Guidance Center for more than 10 years. In this role, Swaringen helped guide children and families toward positive and productive futures through mental health treatment. In 2016, Swaringen developed and launched our trauma-informed pilot program based on ChildTrauma Academy’s Neurosequential Model in Education, called It’s About T.I.M.E. He is passionate about working with school staff to create nurturing environments where all students can thrive. Swaringen earned a Master of Social Work from University of Southern California, and Bachelor of Arts in Psychology from California State University, Fullerton.