This past August, I walked onto the campus of Long Beach’s Poly PAAL High School to train the teaching and administrative staff, beginning our two-year It’s About T.I.M.E. journey.
I always wonder how my curriculum will be received by other professionals. Will it be misunderstood as confrontational or preachy (not as intended); or as a new lens through which to view and understand children who have endured trauma or significant developmental stress (as intended)?
The welcome and warmth I received from the staff at PAAL was a pleasant surprise. They were kind, helpful, funny, and completely engaged throughout my entire presentation. They took furious notes, nodding their heads in approval at what I had to say. They asked a ton of questions, sharing deeply personal stories of their own lives, validating the material I spoke of. The trust and courage it takes to do that in a crowd is astounding.
It’s not common to feel a part of an established group after only a handful of hours, but that’s what happened. I realized PAAL is much more than a place of academic curriculum. It is a community.
I tend to view community as kinship, or a sense of belonging and togetherness. Community represents much more than geographical location, ethnicity, classification, or even like-mindedness. Community isn’t an entity. It’s a state of mind and belief in one’s heart that all humans have value; that no one life is worth more or less than any other. Every human life deserves to be viewed and treated with dignity, understanding, compassion, and love.
A foundation of It’s About T.I.M.E. is this conceptualization of community and the value of human relationships. Healing trauma doesn’t occur merely through the use of special techniques or magic therapeutic words. It must be experienced. Healing occurs when one feels valued, understood, cared for, and empowered. To ‘feel felt’ is when healing takes place. ‘It’s About T.I.M.E.’ builds community both within, as a state of mind, and between the individuals involved.
At the midyear mark of year one at PAAL, the goal of It’s About T.I.M.E. has been to highlight, validate, and build upon PAAL’s existing sense of community.
After assigning PAAL staff a book study over the summer and providing a 4-hour training on ChildTrauma Academy’s Neurosequential Model in Education, I had to be mindful and sensitive to the fact that no one wants to be told how to do their job. This especially applies to teachers, who are too frequently told that they must change how and what they teach. My integration into the PAAL community had to be slow and deliberate, only inserting myself when needed or invited. Before long, handshakes, high fives, hugs, laughing, and some serious consultation began to take hold between myself and the PAAL staff.
Building community with the student population requires a different level of patience, respect, and a trauma-informed lens. The students have always been respectful towards me, but the first few weeks were lacking in trust since I was an outsider…an adult male, whom I’m sure they viewed as an authority figure. I can only imagine what their collective experiences have been with adult male authority figures.
I was shocked to learn what the students thought my role on campus was. After helping regulate a 17-year-old girl, furious and hysterically crying because of an attendance issue, she explained to me how she now understands “I’m cool” and how she and her friends thought I was the new campus security guard, whom they were never going to respect or listen to. We both laughed, her through drying tears, and just like that, I became a member of her community.
Since then, card tricks, sensory tool-kits, shooting hoops, tossing a football, silly drawings, car-talk, and some serious talks about school, career, and life’s pain have grown my community of PAAL students. Handshakes, high fives, head-nods, smiles, and warm greetings are a daily occurrence between the students and myself. But most importantly, these exchanges also occur between the students and the rest of the school staff.
Feeling safe, valued, and cared for are the antidotes to the trauma, stress, hopelessness and emotional dysregulation that these students battle with; and they can only be achieved through community.
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.