Halfway through the fourth year of It’s About T.I.M.E., it is important to remind ourselves that change takes time (pun intended). Healing brains, wired for survival rather than educational and social-emotional success, require patterned and repetitive experiences of safety, empathy, nurturing and understanding to help the healing process. During this process, the skills of frustration tolerance, flexibility and problem solving are slowly acquired. This applies to both children and adults.
The awareness and practice of trauma-informed education continues to grow, but it’s more of a rising tide than a crashing wave. It’s easy to get bogged down in negativity and frustration with the inevitable resistance of any new global paradigm shift. It’s these instances of darkness, though, that amplify the light when positive change and inspiration reveals itself.
The Attachment & Trauma Network, Inc. hosted a Trauma Sensitives Schools conference in Atlanta, Georgia this past February 16-18, 2020. I was honored to be selected as a presenter, lecturing to mostly educators and a few clinicians about the therapeutic power of play in healing trauma. I invited the audience to see the students’ behaviors through a trauma lens, highlighting the simple, yet powerful play interactions any caring adult can provide to hundreds of children throughout a school day. Play therapy, in a clinical sense, is conducted by a trained mental health professional in a formal play therapy session; followed by an informed consent, a thorough psychosocial assessment, diagnosis and treatment plan.
This wasn’t the topic of the lecture. Instead, the emphasis was on the components of play therapy that are therapeutic between any adult and any child. Play therapy is much more than a list of metaphors to memorize in order to understand the child’s “language” of play. First and foremost, play therapy is “a way of being” with a child: noticing, reflecting, valuing and giving meaning to everything the child says and does. This concept is not limited to a play therapy session or a clinician. During my presentation, I gave examples of the hundreds of interactions I have with students every day like noticing their new shoes or how hard they hit the tetherball. I do this to give value and meaning to their experiences, interactions and words. High-fives, fist bumps, shooting hoops and racing across the blacktop communicates, “I see you. You matter!”
Forgetting to upload my PowerPoint to the conference website, I provided the audience with my email address, promising to personally send the slides to any who asked. Just now, as I’m typing this, I received the following message from a woman named Kelly, “Thank you so much for your life changing presentation this past weekend!! I feel so empowered and informed about how to help my students!! I cannot thank you enough!” No, thank you, Kelly.
Seeing the slowly rising tide in action in Long Beach is truly heart-warming. It’s not unusual to see teachers or even administrators at It’s About T.I.M.E. schools giving high-fives, hugs or even playing tetherball with their students. My favorite playful interaction might be between a 1st grade boy, who was a handful last year in kindergarten, but is doing much better this year, and another teacher. They endearingly and lovingly banter, referring to one another as “stinky cheese.” The adorable boy, who’s very fond of me as well, saw me and ran over and asked how to say “stinky cheese” in Spanish, being that the teacher was Latina. I rehearsed with him several times how to pronounce “queso apestoso.” I couldn’t contain my laughter as he tried his best to remember and repeat the translation. When the therapeutic power of play and compassion are at work, everyone benefits, everyone heals and he light shines on us all.
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
It’s About T.I.M.E. partners with new schools like Barton Elementary each year, with the goal of reaching every school within LBUSD. A new opportunity to support this program and LBUSD students and schools has officially launched. You can help teachers build and strengthen relationships with students individually, so they feel seen, heard and valued by joining the Monthly Giving Hope & Healing Club. To learn more, visit: tgclb.org/hope-healing