Educator Insights breakdown theory and research to give teacher practical advice and strategies. In his book, The Body Keeps Score, Dr. Van Der Kolk, one of the leading researchers in the area of psychological trauma, uses recent scientific advances to show how trauma literally reshapes both body and brain. Click on the picture below to check the book out on Amazon.com. Keep reading for a summary of chapter 5 of the book.
Educator Insights #5: Body-Brain Connections
In this chapter, Dr. Van Der Kolk explores the impact of trauma on the body. He begins with the writings of the Charles Darwin, from one his lesser known books, the Expression of Emotions.
“Behaviours to avoid and escape from danger have clearly evolved to render each organism competitive in terms of survival. But inappropriately prolonged escape or avoidance behaviour would put the animal at a disadvantage in that successful species preservation demands reproduction, which in turn, depends upon feeding, shelter and mating activities all of which are reciprocals of avoidance and escape”
Dr. Van Der Kolk further explains Darwin’s observations:
“In other words, if an organism is stuck in survival mode, its energies are focused on fighting off unseen enemies, which leave no room for nurture, care and love. For us humans, it means that as long as the mind is defending itself against invisible assaults, our closest bonds are threatened, along with our ability to imagine, plan, learn, and pay attention to other people’s needs”
Educator Insights: This description of ‘survival mode’ is seen most clearly in traumatised children with attachment difficulties. Attachment is defined as a reciprocal process by which an emotional connection develops between a baby and the primary caretaker. This connection influences the child’s physical, neurological, cognitive, and psychological development. It becomes the foundation for the development of basic trust or mistrust, and shapes how the child will relate to the world, learn and form relationships throughout life. This affectionate tie begins prenatally and continues primarily during the first 36-months of life. As we know, infants are helpless and defenseless and rely entirely upon the willingness and/or ability of their caretakers to meet their basic needs. The language of babies is their behavior. Their cries signal the caretaker that a need must be met. When caretakers meet their needs time and time again, a bond is established between the infant and the caretaker and the basis of trust has been established. In addition, this cycle promotes the development of cause and effect thinking which is the basis of all problem solving.
For other children, however, their needs are not met or are attended to sporadically. Their cries of hunger, fear, or discomfort from a wet diaper are unanswered. They lie alone, afraid, or in pain as their bellies burn with hunger. These infants do not know what to expect so their cries are transformed into howls of rage that are eventually internalized. They discover that their needs will not be consistently met so they learn to trust no one to remain safe. And how capable is an infant of keeping himself/herself safe? Emotional and behavioral regulation is learned in the caretaker’s arms. When babies cry, caretakers soothe them through rocking, singing, touching, and loving eye gaze. This helps infants to self-soothe and cope with strong emotions such as rage. Babies who are not held or comforted when they are distressed do not learn to cope with strong emotions. For this reason, many children with Reactive Attachment Disorder have difficulty regulating their emotions and therefore their behavior.
Children with Reactive Attachment Disorder appear to be “bad” or “spoiled”, but in truth they are deeply hurt, afraid, and lonely. These children are resilient survivors. As babies, they have survived horrific events that would have traumatized the majority of adults. They continue to use the strategies that enabled them to cope with these traumatic events, however; these strategies are no longer effective. Children with Reactive Attachment Disorder require educators who are “loving leaders”. They need tight structure and firm limit setting that is provided by an empathetic adult who models “supercharged” expectations for their learning. In order for children with Reactive Attachment Disorder to learn in school and grow into responsible adults with consciences, it is vital that all those who interact with them work as a collaborative team. Children who do not feel safe in school will take it out on their parents though aggressive acts of violence or passive acts of resistance. In other cases, children will run away from home, abuse drugs, and/or adoptions will disrupt. Thus, educators play an important role in the healing of children with Reactive Attachment Disorder.
Ivan Pavlov and the Instinct of Purpose
We are introduced next to Pavlov and his experiments with his dogs. In addition to discoveries about the ‘classical conditioning’, Pavlov made other discoveries about the reaction of the dogs in situations of extreme stress. One such observation related to the ‘paradoxical’ and ‘ultra-paradoxical’ inhibition response.
“Pavlov noted that not all his dogs reacted...the same way..each type reacted differently to stress...some..suffered from ‘paradoxical inhibition’, in which such stimuli, like soft sounds produced extreme responses, while they barely reacted to sounds that upset most other dogs. We see similar reactions in traumatized people: a woman who was beaten up by her boyfriend the night before may become enraged with me for being five minutes late for our appointment, while she may have barely reacted to her boyfriend’s brutality….one other reaction, which he called the ‘ultraparadoxical’ stage, in which animals showed positive responses to negative stimuli, like loud sounds or starvation, something that reminds me of war correspondents who suffer from having witnessed friends’ deaths, but who cannot wait to go back into the combat done, because it is the only thing that makes them feel alive.”
Educator Insights: As a classroom teacher, I have often witnessed children who seemed to take a great amount of delight in creating chaos or being disruptive. It felt deliberate at times - like they were taunting other students and the teacher. Having witnessed this first hand, it was hard for me to authentically find another way to think of such behaviour. A framework I found useful to make sense of such behaviour was the ‘Duluth Wheel of Power and Control’. The model was initially developed as a tool to educate women so as to prevent domestic violence. The wheel describes the various behaviours used in domestically violent and abusive relationships, including coercion and threats, minimizing, denying and blaming and using intimidation. Using this model, I came to realise that several of the traumatised children - especially those exposed to physical abuse - seemed to have learnt such patterns of interactions from their experiences of abuse. In environments like the classroom, where they are constantly hypervigilant and feeling unsafe, such learnt behaviours seemed to give them a sense of power and control that helped them feel safe. An ‘ultraparadoxical’ reaction to re-enactments of potentially distressing events.
Click here to see the ‘Duluth Wheel of Power and Control’.
The Neural Love Code
We are introduced to the seminal work of Stephen Porges, from the University of Maryland. Dr. Porges’ Polyvagal theory that explains the links between our nervous system, the fight-flight-freeze stress response and our social relationships. Dr. Van Der Kolk explains the significance of this theory in our understanding of trauma, human suffering and the mechanisms of healing.
“If we look beyond the list of specific symptoms that entail formal psychiatric diagnoses, we find that all mental suffering involves either trouble in creating workable and satisfying relationships, or difficulties in regulating arousal...usually, it's a combination of both. The standard medical focus on trying to discover the right drug to treat a particular ‘disorder’ tends to distract us from grappling with how our problems interfere with our functioning as members of our tribe”
Watch this video for a quick explanation of Stephen Porges Polyvagal Theory
“Steve Porges helped me realise that natural state of mammals is to be some what on guard. However, in order to feel emotionally close to another human being, our defensive system must temporarily shut down. In order to play, mate and nurture our young, the brain needs to turn off its natural vigilance…many traumatised individuals are too hypervigilant to enjoy the ordinary pleasures that life has to offer, while others are too numb to absorb new experiences..it is especially challenging for traumatised people to discern when they are actually safe and to be able to activate their defenses when they are in danger..this require having experiences that can restore the sense of safety..”
Click here to read a resource from the Australian Childhood Foundation about the Polyvagal Theory.
Educator Insights: Optimal learning is a driven by curiosity, which leads to exploration, discovery, practice, and mastery. In turn, mastery leads to pleasure, satisfaction, and confidence to once again explore. The more a child experiences this cycle of wonder, the more she can create a lifelong excitement and love of learning. The cycle of wonder, however, can be stopped by fear.The fear response is deeply ingrained in the human brain. Under threat of any kind — hunger, thirst, pain, shame, confusion, or too much, too new or too fast — we respond in ways to keep us safe. Our minds will focus only on the information that is, at that moment, important for survival. Fear kills curiosity and inhibits exploration.
This is important for the first days of school because the brain tends to interpret novelty as threatening. In new and strange settings, a young child will be overwhelmed by more novelty and find little pleasure in "learning." Fortunately, there is another deeply ingrained feature of the human brain — curiosity. We are fascinated by and drawn to the unknown — to new things. Humans are explorers. When we are safe and the world around us is familiar, we crave novelty. When a child feels safe, curiosity lives. Yet when the world around us is strange and new, we crave familiarity. In new situations a child will be more easily overwhelmed, distressed, and frustrated. This child will be less capable of learning. The hungry child, the ill, tired, confused, or fearful child does not care about new things — they want familiar, comforting, and safe things.
In the first weeks of school, very young children are almost drowning in novelty. We can make these new experiences easier. We can do things to make the environment more predictable, structured, familiar, and, thereby, safe. It is the invisible yet powerful web of relationships in the classroom that creates an optimal learning environment. The most important learning "tool" is the teacher. And it is the teacher who creates the safe "home base" from which the child will explore.
A sense of safety comes from consistent, attentive, nurturing, and sensitive attention to each child's needs. Safety is created by predictability, and predictability is created by consistent behaviors. And the consistency that leads to predictability does not come from rigidity in the timing of activities it comes from the consistency of interaction from the teacher. If a schedule is consistent, but the teacher is not, there is no predictability for the child. Predictability in time means less to a young child than predictability in people.
How can a teacher provide this? Use your most powerful teaching tool, your personality. Your smile, your voice, and your touch make a child feel safe. Face-to-face, "on the floor time," and eye contact are essential in this process. Be predictable in your interactions with the child and not in the number of minutes spent in each activity. Be attuned to each child's overload point. Let children find some space and solitude when they seem to be overwhelmed. In these quiet moments the child can find pleasure in reviewing the discoveries of the day.
To learn more about helping traumatised students feel safe in your class, click here check our latest podcast episode with Dr. Dave Ziegler!
New Approaches to Treatment
If we understand that traumatised children get stuck in fight/flight or in chronic shut-down (or dissociation), how do we help them deactivate these defenses and reactions?
“One thing is certain: Yelling at someone who is already out of control can only lead to further dysregulation. Just as your dog cowers if you shout and wags his tail when you speak in a high singsong, we humans response to harsh voices with fear, anger, or shutdown and to playful tones by opening up and relaxing. We simply cannot help but respond to these indicators of safety or danger”
Finally, Dr. Van Der Kolk comments on the current state of education in light of such findings.
“Sadly, our educational system, as well as many of the methods that profess to treat trauma, tend to bypass this emotional-engagement system and focus instead on recruiting the cognitive capacities of the mind. Despite the well-documented effects of anger, fear, and anxiety on the ability to reason, many programs continue to ignore the need to engage the safety system of the brain before trying to promote new ways of thinking. The last things that should be cut from school schedules are chorus, physical education, recess and anything else involving movement, play, and joyful engagement. When children are oppositional, defensive, numbed out or enraged, it’s also important to recognize that such “bad behaviour” may repeat action patterns that were established to survive serious threats, even if they are intensely upsetting or off-putting”
Educator Insights: Here's how you can provide the safety and predictability that traumatised students need:
Keep the first few weeks of school simple: Repeat the schedule and rules many times. Once a child feels comfortable with the school day, flexibility and change can more easily be introduced.
Be predicable in your interactions with children. This is more important than the number of minutes spent in each activity.
Be attuned to each child's overload point: Let children find some space and solitude when they seem to be overwhelmed.
Find time during the day for quiet: Solitude allows the brain to "catch up" and process the new experiences of the day. This leads to better consolidation of new experience and better learning.
Keep the first challenges light and the praise heavy. Confidence and pleasure come from success. Let everyone succeed at something.
Emphasize the importance of good nutrition and proper bed rest. Children cannot learn when they are hungry or tired. Also, let parents know that their children are likely to be more irritable at home, will need more sleep, and will need some "decompression" time at home after school. Remind them that even pleasant experiences can be stressful.
Remember that you make all the difference. These first experiences with school can help reinforce a child's curiosity and love of learning. You create the emotional and social climate of safety that makes your classroom a place for optimal learning.
To learn about the Trauma Informed Positive Behaviour Support (TIPBS), visit www.tipbs.com and register your interest in our online course. The first 100 sign-ups can do the course for free. Click here to register your details.