“I’m not exactly [sure] where to begin to explain the depth of knowledge [and] inspiration that’s come from having someone like Nathan, with the skill [and] passion for trauma informed practices at Lakewood. He [and] his influence on student [and] staff growth has not only been enlightening, but dramatic in a very short period of time, [and] through Zoom during a pandemic, no less! I didn’t even realize how much I had been searching for having the opportunity to be around someone who could not only share my passion, but teach me to be a better counselor. To watch that transcend with staff who had that passion, but just needed it ignited has been inspirational in a whole other way. It gives me a sense of being a part of something bigger than myself.”
– Nicole Hammerschmidt, School Counselor, Lakewood High School
The 2020-2021 school year has been one of unprecedented challenge. Online instruction isn’t just a camera instead of a classroom. An entire digital platform of attendance, instruction, assessment, grading, discipline and documentation had to be learned. Students struggled with access to computers, internet service, knowledge of the platform, passwords, logins and even a quiet place to learn. LBUSD has done a terrific job with this monumental task, but the work is never done.
Many students are emotionally burnt out. Isolated and saturated in stress, hopelessness can take hold of students quite easily. The hopeless student attends fewer and fewer classes, and his/her grades quickly plummet. And, we sometimes forget that educators are human too. They have families and children of their own struggling with online learning. If you could see and hear the volume of frustration from educators, you’d be astonished. But you don’t see or hear it because they are tireless and courageous professionals.
The past year has been traumatic. That’s not hyperbole. “Trauma” doesn’t necessarily mean what you think it means. Trauma is a term used to describe the internal, physiological recalibration of the brain’s stress response system. This can come from one big stressor, or an accumulation of many smaller stressors. Either way, the stress was too much for our body to handle.
Analogous to tearing a muscle by taking on too much of a physical load, the trauma has left us less capable of tolerating what we could before. The key ingredients to produce trauma are: lack of control, lack of escape, lack of predictability and lack of social-emotional support. Those seem to sum up nicely what most have endured over this past year.
So, what does a recalibrated stress response look like? It can manifest in many ways, but to put it most simply, it changes our stress threshold. When we’re calm, we have full access to the logical part of our brain. We can think abstractly, see the big picture and regulate our mood effectively. As our stress goes up, our thinking becomes more concrete and emotional, our judgment is impaired and our mood can get away from us. As the stressors continue, we are less and less like ourselves and say and do things we may not be proud of. We may go into rages, numb out and dissociate, display apathy or engage in an excess of unhealthy habits. A recalibrated, traumatized brain devolves into this more easily and quickly.
As a trauma-informed consultant, my focus has been on finding ways of mitigating the trauma most have endured. With recalibrated, more emotionally-charged brains, people aren’t going to be able to “logic” their way out of this. My role isn’t to have the right insights, explanations or therapeutic words to say. My job is to tap into the therapeutic power of relationships. Human beings are a social species. Our very survival, dating back to our hunter-gatherer ancestors, has always depended upon forming and maintaining relationships. We don’t have claws, armor, venom or camouflage; but we do have the ability to cooperate, empathize, share and support one another. Our brains are wired for connection, and when we don’t have enough of it, we’re physically and emotionally unhealthy.
The COVID-19 pandemic has presented such an insidious challenge because our health required a level of prescribed isolation. Since relationships are the foundation of what makes us human, we must be intentional in tapping into that foundation for healing.
We must be a community. We must be a village. We must be a family. That has been my approach at Lakewood High School this year. This process must be deliberate, yet organic. It is slow, paced, and methodical. Lakewood High School is a huge place with thousands of students and close to two-hundred staff, but there is a trickle-down structure of leadership.
I have focused my support on administration and counselors, helping them feel their worth and rejuvenating their spirits to pass on the support to their respective teams, onto the teachers, the students and the parents. I have made myself a resource to any and all staff members who need guidance and encouragement. Sometimes they just need to vent and be heard and validated, but usually they’re feeling overwhelmed and ineffective. I get it, because I often feel that way too. We need each other to remind us of our worth. I am reminded quite often.
With students returning to in-person instruction, I’m pleased to see a focus on their social-emotional well-being by staff. As a consultant, I am proud to guide the staff in implementing a mentoring program, utilizing my therapeutic skills to help staff build rapport with hard-to-reach students. Dozens of staff have volunteered to adopt mentees. I draw upon countless client success stories where the connection WAS the therapeutic intervention. It isn’t about having the right therapeutic words to say; it’s about providing a caring, compassionate presence. Also, when students return, I’ll have an entire classroom called The Wellness Center, dedicated to student AND staff social-emotional well-being.
The light at the end of the tunnel is finally in sight. In-person instruction is on the horizon. We all hope for a return to “normalcy,” but who knows if or when that will manifest. We aren’t through this yet. Countless families have suffered unimaginable pain and stress this past year. A trauma-informed, relational approach to healing will be needed now more than ever.
Save the Date for our virtual Social Hour event supporting our It’s About T.I.M.E. program!
Wednesday, May 5th, 5:30 pm
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.