This article comes from our Spring 2019 Newsletter. Click here to view the full issue!
“Mr. Nathan, look at my new shoes!” “Mr. Nathan, watch how hard I can hit the tetherball!” “Mr. Nathan, are we going to drum today?” Stepping foot on any of my three It’s About T.I.M.E. schools (Addams Elementary, Poly Academy of Leaders and Achievers, Educare Preschool) makes me feel like a celebrity. I’m greeted by dozens of amazing children with whom I already have such a special bond, and maybe a hundred more whom I vaguely recognize, but don’t really know, even though they seem to know me. I endure hundreds of high five’s every day, even during flu season, because it’s worth it.
Worth what? What’s happening here? Children, school-wide, are feeling seen, heard and… valued. They know that they matter to me. There is a mutual joy to see and be with one another. This process of creating a community of joy is very much intentional. One component of helping a school become trauma-informed is to model the therapeutic power of relationships, and create a school environment where children feel cared for and adults find joy in caring.
According to Dr. Bruce Perry of The ChildTrauma Academy; “Research on the most effective treatments to help child trauma victims might be accurately summed up in this way: what works best is anything that increases the quality and number of relationships in the child’s life.” At these schools, it’s not just me who’s doing the caring. Teachers and administrators school-wide are buying into the notion that by being present, patient, and kind with all children, especially the most challenging and hurting children, healing is taking place. Creating a trauma-informed culture takes T.I.M.E. (pun intended) and patience. Being trauma informed means the adults understand the children, realizing that behavior is actually communication, that trauma creates impaired windows of tolerance resulting in behavior beyond the child’s control, and that relationships are the greatest buffer to stress and actually expand windows of tolerance. The caring adults in the hurting children’s lives are able see past the quick-fix.
The quick fix (or traditional discipline) is like cranking up the heat of an oven to cook a cake faster. It’ll cook much faster on the outside, while the inside remains unchanged. Seeing the forest through the trees can be exhausting and defeating at times for us caring adults. But it warms my heart to see the patience, perseverance, and love from the staff at these schools.
Nowhere has this process of patience and unconditional love paid off more than in a particular 5th grade classroom at Addams elementary. Blessed with three extremely difficult, and of course, traumatized students, this young, practically fresh-out-of-college teacher has demonstrated the therapeutic power of unconditional love. These three students have struggled at Addams for years; their behaviors and attitudes getting worse and worse, reflecting the pain and fear in their lives. With love, kindness, acceptance, and structure being so foreign in their lives, they attempt to cope by taking power and control, while subconsciously creating what is most familiar to them…chaos. Through it all, month after month, this teacher stayed the course, seeing their behaviors and attitudes as merely symptoms of the real problem, while continuing to love them unconditionally. Does she let them walk all over her? Of course not! But her limits, guidance, and discipline are always done with love and understanding. True discipline is not coerced compliance. It’s in fact the opposite. True discipline is about discipleship, creating a relationship where one wants to please out of love and respect, not fear. Praise, encouragement, acceptance, special time together during lunch, special handshakes, drum circles, and handwritten notes reading, “I’m so sorry you’re hurting right now. I’m always here for you” is what created a discipleship with these three students.
I wish there was a way to explain the progress I see in these students in print form, but it just cannot be fully captured. There is no adjective to describe a child’s face who is finally experiencing what a loving adult can be like. “Lighting-up” is probably the best I can do. The best part of this trauma-informed work is that the feelings are mutual. The teacher’s face lights-up when these students finally show the confidence to lead a classroom activity. And my face lights-up when I hear, “Mr. Nathan, Mr. Nathan” from across the blacktop as these three students run toward me, hands extended, ready for our special handshakes.
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.