Nathan Swaringen, LCSW, clinical therapist and developer and lead of It’s About T.I.M.E., traveled to Canada last week to attend and present at ChildTrauma Academy’s 3rd International Neurosequential Model Symposium. He shares his experiences in this week’s blog post.
In 2005, as a rookie clinician and MSW intern at The Guidance Center, I didn’t quite have my therapeutic “sea-legs” under me yet. I knew how to assess, diagnose, develop a treatment plan, and provide therapeutic intervention in a child and family mental health setting. But in hindsight, for me, a certain conceptualization was yet to be discovered.
Through amazing mentoring from several supervisors, I started to understand social, emotional, behavioral, and cognitive impairments as much more than diagnostic labels, but as attempts to cope with the un-copeable. I soon discovered Dr. Bruce Perry’s Neurosequential Model and read the most influential book of my life, The Boy Who was Raised as a Dog. I realized that understanding psychological trauma might be the most important piece of the mental health puzzle.
Over the course of the next decade, I provided therapy to hundreds of clients, practicing through a neurosequential lens. I loved my clinical work, specifically the children and families who entrusted their hearts to me, but direct practice has its limitations. The neurosequential model teaches the therapeutic healing power of loving, caring, patient relationships as the greatest predictor for resiliency of childhood adversity.
In 2016, I approached The Guidance Center’s CEO, Patricia Costales, LCSW, and pitched the idea of me transitioning from being a school-based therapist into a trauma-informed trainer and consultant, helping schools in Long Beach create a therapeutic web of many healing adults for every student instead of just one therapist for one client. Patricia and the rest of The Guidance Center leadership, along with the Long Beach Unified School District, supported the idea from the start.
Before I knew it, I was teleconferencing with the ChildTrauma Academy, becoming officially certified in their Neurosequential Model in Education (NME). The formal training reinforced the decade of clinical work I had conducted through a neurosequential lens. And just like that…”It’s About T.I.M.E.” was born.
Flash forward to late 2017, after more than a year and a half of successful trauma-informed school transformations, and ongoing communications with the Child Trauma Academy, I received an invitation to present at the 3rd International Neurosequential Model Symposium in Banff, Canada. I was honored, humbled, overwhelmed, and excited all at once. It took me about two nanoseconds to decide on a topic to present: Incorporating Experiential Play Therapy Concepts in NME.
I arrived at Calgary airport at 9:30pm, June 12th. After a quadruple take of my watch, personal cell, work cell, and airport clock, I remained baffled at how the sun was still shining outside. At the rental car counter, I was offered a car with navigation for a mere $18/day extra charge. “Oh no thanks. I’ll just use my cell phone’s GPS,” I responded without thinking, as I whipped out both phones, with “No Service” staring me in the face, suddenly realizing cellular signals are very mindful of international borders. The nice lady behind the counter handed me a paper map of Alberta, Canada.
I drove the two hours from Calgary to Banff on a combination of two-lane highways and small country roads, with road markers conveniently (*sarcasm*) placed every 50km. “I really hope I’m still on the right road,” I wondered to myself every 30 minutes. Luckily it wasn’t dark until about 11:00pm, but once the sun set, it was pitch black outside.
I reached Banff and checked into my hotel around midnight. I slept well and awoke eager to see what Banff looked like when not engulfed in utter darkness. I drew back the curtains of my hotel room to see that I was in a small valley, surrounded by breathtakingly (I actually let out an audible “Whoa!”) enormous snow-capped granite mountains and lush green pine forests.
I spent the next three days attending one session after another of neurosequential-related, trauma-informed policy, practice, and theory. I jotted note upon note of ideas for promoting, teaching, and implementing a neurosequential lens for healing trauma in schools and entire communities. I learned of trauma-informed policy and trauma-informed school programs throughout the world, soaking in their advice as to what made their programs successful.
I mingled with titans of the children’s mental health field. I picked the brain of Dr. Rick Gaskill, renowned researcher in the field of play therapy neurobiology. I sat down to dinner with Dr. Stuart Ablon, director of Think:Kids, as we chatted about his Collaborative Problem Solving Model.
And during a social gathering of presenters, I was approached by Dr. Bruce Perry, as he congratulated me on “It’s About T.I.M.E.” and the positive outcomes I’d had so far implementing the program in Long Beach. I thanked him for the tremendous influence he’d had on my professional development. It is a surreal moment when your academic hero chats with you as a colleague.
My hour-long, afternoon presentation followed a morning of tears for many of us. Saxophone legend, Jimmy Greene played for us a heart-wrenching tribute to his late daughter, Ana Grace. Projected on the screen was a child’s drawing of purple flowers, addressed to her daddy with love, drawn just days before she lost her life in her classroom at Sandyhook Elementary. How was I to follow this performance?
Somehow, I had the large audience, seated in a good-sized amphitheater, plenty engaged. I passionately conveyed how Experiential Play Therapy is neurosequential, offering theory, practice, and role-playing case examples illustrating the point. I started by emphasizing the value of play, not just as a means of healing trauma and mending attachment relationships, but as a developmental necessity for all children.
I helped the audience understand that play is not a means to “get the child to talk,” but rather that play is the child’s language; a language that the child will communicate at his or her own pace, not to be led or directed by the therapist. I conveyed the necessity of understanding the metaphorical representation present in the child’s play, reminding the audience that all play has meaning.
Many clinicians in the audience nodded their heads in agreement as I gave examples of such metaphors; for instance, when a child role plays nurturing by feeding the therapist, only to reveal that the “food” was actually poison. In other words, the child is communicating that their nurturing has been painful and unpredictable.
I validated the therapeutic power of play with neuroscience. I reminded the audience that healing trauma required the creation of new neural pathways in the brain in response to tolerable levels of predictable, moderate, and controlled stress; exactly what Experiential Play Therapy provides, as the child doses himself with tolerable levels of stress through trauma reenactment in the play. The neurosequential model tells us that healing must be regulating and relationally based. Again, this is exactly what the play provides. Experiential Play is a way of being with a child; deeply relational, giving meaning, value and respect to everything the child does.
I relayed success stories of how I had been able to integrate play in my trauma-informed work in Long Beach schools in brief interactions, and not merely within the confines of a play therapy room during a 1-on-1, fifty minute session. I described an interaction with a preschool-aged girl, who built a relationship with me via a ball.
How a child interacts with a ball can be a metaphor for how her attachment relationships have been. She gently gave me the ball, then ripped it away from me, tossing it aside. She did this several times over the course of 1-2 minutes. I voiced the ball, “Oh no, don’t take me away!” I had just met this girl, so I didn’t know her history at all until her teacher filled me in that she was a foster child, repeatedly “ripped away” from attachment figures. I think the audience could grasp the therapeutic value of metaphors in play.
I knew to include ideas about teens who may be “too-cool” to play. I assured the audience that we all have an inner child, and that I’d witnessed many big, scary-looking, too-cool teens play like toddlers when I bring out the toys. But, for those who aren’t into toys, I suggested card games, and group activities like hot potato or hangman.
The minutes flew by, and just like that…the session was over. I was the very last session of the three-day symposium. I quipped that ChildTrauma Academy saved the best for last.
I return home to continue to do what I love. Already full of passion, I now overflow with inspiration, validation, new knowledge and exciting ideas to help those cope with what most might consider un-copable.
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.