Kicking Off a Year of Growing Together in the Childhood-Trauma Learning Collaborative

By Dana Asby, CEI Director of Innovation and Research Support, and Haley Sirota, CEI Intern

On April 29th, the Childhood-Trauma Learning Collaborative (C-TLC) had its kick-off event, which highlighted the complexities behind the effects of trauma on child development and learning. Presenters who have worked with the Center for Educational Improvement to deliver high quality professional development opportunities for many years provided an overview of the effect of trauma in schools on both students and educators and introduced the most recent research about trauma and child development.

C-TLC Fellows, many of whom are principals or school psychologists and social workers, shared the unique challenges that trauma presents for their students. We brainstormed solutions to these challenges and found that many schools are already in the process of transforming policies and practices to better support students who have experienced trauma. Several fellows shared stories about traumatized children having difficulty paying attention, remaining in the regular classroom for the entire school day, or interacting with peers in a positive way. This led to a rich discussion of what schools are doing to alleviate these disruptions to learning. 

The Neuroscience of Trauma & Mindfulness

Our expert presenters helped C-TLC Fellows understand the effects of trauma on the mind and body and how trauma disrupts the developmental process. Dr. Hilary Hodgon explained how trauma can change areas of the brain important for executive functioning and emotional regulation and how that presents in the classroom as “disruptive behavior.” She emphasized that to best serve these students, we must shift away from a punitive mindset and instead ask ourselves, “What does this student need from us to be successful in the classroom?” We learned that neuroscience research has shown that using mindfulness practices such as yoga, body scans, and meditation can help calm the heightened negative emotions that arise when traumatized students are triggered by lowering cortisol and helping the overactive amygdala return to a neutral state.

Benefits of Mindfulness include:

  • Stress and anxiety reduction
  • Character development
  • Increased sense of calm
  • Increased happiness, self-awareness, and emotional regulation
  • Increased work performance and engagement
  • Improved impulse control
  • Better focus, concentration, and problem solving skills
  • Enhanced empathy and understanding of others, self, and environment
  • Increased compassion

Many schools shared that there are large numbers of students at their schools experiencing trauma due to poverty, abuse, neglect, and discrimination. Veteran educators noted that the number of children who have experienced adverse childhood experiences is much larger today than it was a few decades ago and that schools need more resources to address this epidemic.  Another epidemic we addressed was the opioid crisis and how it affects not only the parents and teens struggling with addiction, but the school community as a whole. Suzan Mullane shared her work with communities in rural West Virginia where pill mills led to widespread opioid addiction. Ms. Mullane explained how mindfulness practices like visualization exercises and directly teaching educators, students, and parents about cultivating compassion can help schools address the effects of trauma.

Practicing What We Preach

After sharing what the neuroscience research and personal experience has proven about the benefits of using mindfulness to address the impacts of trauma on our staff, students, and communities, we led the Fellows in some mindfulness practices that they could bring back to their schools. Dr. Christine Mason, CEI’s Executive Director, shared some exercises in her Heart Beaming book, which Fellows took home. She talked about the importance of breathwork as a foundation for a mindfulness practice and showed Fellows how to become more aware of their breath and how it can calm both physiological and psychological discord by trying the “Riding the Wind breathwork activity. This exercise works on breath and lung capacity and also on focus, visualization, and compassion for others.

Riding the Wind:

  • Sit comfortably in your seat or on the floor.
  • Breathe deeply 2-3 times.
  • Now cup your hands and bring your hands together, palms up and little fingers touching about at your heart center, with your elbows resting on your ribs.
  • Stare into the “cup” made by your hands. Breathe in deeply.
  • Now imagine someone you want to send positive energy to.
  • Inhale deeply and blow 3 times into your hands, imagining that you are sending positive thoughts (I wish you well; You are feeling great; Sending happiness.) with your breath right into your hands.  So, the positive thoughts are being collected in your hands.
  • Focus on your hands and feel how full they are with positive energy.
  • Now, take a very deep breath and when you blow out into your cupped hands, imagine that the breath takes your positive thoughts and they “ride the wind” to your friend, to the person you have chosen.
  • Repeat 1-2 more times, each time, choosing a person, storing the positive energy in your hands as you blow into them 3 times, and then sending “happiness” and good wishes to that person.

Mindfulness in Schools

Dr. Michele Rivers Murphy then shared about her experience spreading mindfulness to schools around the country for the past few decades. One of the Fellows, Lee Elementary Principal Kate Retzel, described how her school transformed after working with Dr. Rivers Murphy and CEI to bring compassionate practices and understanding of the neurobiological effects of trauma to her school community. Dr. Rivers Murphy provided tips for introducing mindfulness into a school, including:

  • Encourage staff to practice self-care, be present, and avoid multitasking.
  • Add a section to tests that says, “Stop and take a breath.”
  • Use mindful greetings: Pick a different student each day to be a greeter who gives everyone a hug or a word of praise before they walk in.
  • Create Worry Wort Cubbies: Kids give away their worries for the day and the teachers read them at the end of the day.

We invited Fellows to explore their copies of Drs. Mason and River Murphy’s Mindfulness Practices: Cultivating Heart Centered Communities Where Students Focus and Flourish for more examples of how to infuse mindfulness into the school day.

During the course of the day, Fellows had multiple opportunities to dialogue about what was and wasn’t working in their local communities. Many described how one person made a difference in the lives of children who were stressed out or traumatized. A caring adult who finds ways to help celebrate a student’s interest makes a difference. A caring adult who hears a student’s anguish and has the compassion to provide scaffolds or modify assignments makes a difference. Whether it is a teacher, a counselor, a social worker, or a  principal, we all can contribute to a compassionate school culture. However, sometimes we need to first become more mindful ourselves. When we cultivate self-compassion through a personal mindfulness practice, we deepen our ability to be available to our students in ways that are most critical for their well-being.

Continuing Work with the C-TLC

Since our Kick-Off Event, we have been hosting live webinars, which you can access on our YouTube channel, sharing ideas and resources on our members-only Basecamp platform, and looking at the results of the School Compassionate Culture Analytic Tool for Educators (S-CCATE), which assesses a school’s climate and gives feedback about which aspects of climate may need improvement. This 12-15 minute assessment can help a school get a snapshot of what they need to do to transform their school into a compassionate community. We have been providing schools with ideas for how to address their areas of need based on those results. We provide schools with tailored advice for interventions and professional development opportunities that will address their areas of greatest need. We also use the S-CCATE results to determine which topics to address in our webinars. Fellows are continuing to recruit more schools to take the S-CCATE so that more leaders have the opportunity to transform their buildings into compassionate communities.K

Knowledge is Power: Expert Presentations

CEI brought together several experts in childhood trauma and mindfulness to share with the Fellows what current research suggests are best practices for addressing trauma. Presentations included:

  • New England Mental Health Technology Transfer Center’s (New England MHTTC) purpose, goals, and work to increase access to mental health resources
    Presented by Dr. Larry Davidson and Maria Restrepo-Toro
  • Complex Trauma: Influence on the Brain, Body, and Behavior
    Presented by Dr. Hilary Hodgdon
  • From Pain Pills to Heroin: The Opioid Addiction Crisis and Schools
    Presented by Suzan Mullane, MS. Ed.
  • Cultivating Compassionate, Mindfulness Practices in School Communities
    Presented by Dr. Michele Rivers Murphy

We wanted to provide Fellows with knowledge from those who have spent their careers investigating how trauma affects child development and how best to address those effects, so we invited a collection of experts with a wide variety of experience to share their work. Dr. Davidson is a Professor of Psychology in the Department of Psychiatry at Yale University, and the Director of the Yale Program for Recovery and Community Health (PRCH). Maria Restrepo-Tori is the Project Manager in Training and Education at the PRCH. Dr. Hodgdon is a clinical psychologist who specializes in the assessment and treatment of complex trauma, as well as the Associate Director of Research at the Trauma Center and Co-Director of the Complex Trauma Treatment Network. Suzann Mullane has been working closely with communities experiencing high levels of childhood trauma for over 25 years. Dr. Rivers Murphy is the Associate Director of Mindfulness at the Center for Educational Improvement and has been a consultant and educational leader for both regular and special education for many years. To attend more webinars on similar topics, click here.

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