By Tammy Kaiser, MSJE
[This article is the second in a four-part series featuring graduates of the Mandel Teacher Educator Institute (MTEI). MTEI is a two-year journey of discovery, helping educational leaders transform their educational communities into places where teachers learn together, exploring both Jewish content and how to enrich learning for students. This series focuses on how some MTEI graduates are grappling with challenges of teaching and leading at this time.]
As the director of a Jewish early childhood learning center, I have trained for many unexpected events. Natural disasters, school violence, custody battles, and more. But I never took a class on surviving a global pandemic, or how to welcome back our little learners whose lives have been upended. I have learned day by day alongside the amazing faculty at a small Jewish school in South Florida. The last two months have been a crash course in trauma-informed care.
The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACE Study) was a study led by Kaiser Permanente and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Conducted from 1995 to 1997 with two waves of data collection, the ACE study is one of the largest investigations of childhood abuse, neglect, and household challenges in respect to later-life health and well-being. The study linked adverse childhood experiences with the evolving architecture of the brain.
According to the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, brains are built over time, from the bottom up. The basic architecture of the brain is constructed through an ongoing process that begins before birth and continues into adulthood. Simpler neural connections and skills form first, followed by more complex circuits and skills. In the first few years of life, more than 1 million new neural connections form every second. After this period of rapid proliferation, connections are reduced through a process called pruning, which allows brain circuits to become more efficient.
Although genes provide the blueprint for the formation of brain circuits, these circuits are reinforced by repeated use. While positive stress like meeting new people or the first day school are healthy for brain development, toxic stress weakens the architecture of the brain, which can lead to lifelong problems in learning, behavior, physical and mental health. Ultimately, genes and experiences work together to construct brain architecture.
I have taught the concept of brain architecture to educators worldwide. In order to simplify the idea, I created two fictional children: Baby A and Baby B. Baby A and Baby B were exposed to some similar and some different life experiences. Educators would have to determine whether those experiences were positive, toxic, or tolerable. The more positive experiences the child had, the more they were able to tolerate negative stressors. The more toxic experiences they had, the less they were able to tolerate negative life experiences. In the end, the baby who had had repeated positive stressors, Baby A, thrived, while the baby who had repeated negative stressors, Baby B, was at risk of lifelong challenges in mental health and other aspects of well-being.
As children prepare and even begin returning to classrooms during and post COVID-19, we must prepare to treat all children as Baby B’s. As they begin to reacclimate to a social setting where things will look much different, these children will rely on educators to be prepared with strategies and approaches to problems which are creative and based on trauma-informed care practice.
Trauma-informed care understands and considers the pervasive nature of trauma and promotes environments of healing and recovery rather than practices and services that may re-traumatize. As children return to our educational institutions, we must consider what the past months may have looked like for them. Were they home with parents, siblings, extended family? Were their needs properly met? Did they experience increased anxiety, social isolation, or violence? Even if a parent reports that their family experienced no negative impacts from COVID-19, the fact that the world has changed in response to a global pandemic will likely have had significant impact on children. What we do as educators has the power to help them heal.
Children will not realize how these times have impacted their developing brains. Children are likely to have experienced worry, anxiety, and fear. This may include a fear of dying, a fear of their relatives dying, or a fear of medical treatment. When not in school, they may not have had a sense of structure and stimulation. As children return, educators will be met with many emotions and behaviors. These will range from excitement to fear, from gratitude to anger. All expressions, though sometimes challenging, are valid.
Here are the things that my staff and I are trying to keep in mind as we welcome children back to school:
Expect the Unexpected: Students may react and behave in seemingly unexpected ways. This uncertainty can leave the educator in a state of hyper-alertness, which may result in fatigue. So, how do we prepare? Jessica Minahan explains in her Educational Leadership article, Trauma-Informed Teaching Strategies, “One way to understand these reactions is to think of the student as a soda can, and events that may trigger their trauma stress as shaking that can. We can’t tell by looking if the can was recently shaken, but if it was, opening the can results in an unexpected explosive, messy reaction.” By acknowledging and anticipating that the can they are about to open may have recently been shaken, educators can react with understanding and empathy rather than anger and frustration.
Empower and Give Choices: Decision-making is one of the most important skills children need to develop in order to become healthy, mature adults. The ability to make well-thought-out decisions – rather than acting on impulse or anxiety – is cultivated through practice. The brain develops according to how it is used, so empowering children to make decisions gives them the tools and experience necessary to think calmly and clearly. During COVID-19, a child’s ability to choose may have been limited or even nonexistent. It is important to allow them some sense of control over their environment, even if it is just choosing a snack to eat or a topic to research.
Promote Collaboration and Mutuality: Partnering and leveling of power differences between children, educators and even administrators demonstrates that healing happens in relationships, and in the meaningful sharing of power and decision-making. Everyone has a role to play; one does not have to be a teacher to teach. Peer collaboration increases self-esteem, and responsibility, exposes students to diverse perspectives, and prepares them for real life social situations.
Focus on Ritual and Routine: Many scholars and scientists have explained the difference between ritual and routine as the intent or attitude behind the action. Establishing routines is important to promote predictability. When children know what to expect, they are less likely to be surprised, confused, or anxious. An example of a routine might be washing hands upon entering the classroom. Educators can elevate this routine to ritual by discussing the intent behind the action. For example, we wash hands to protect ourselves and others, to keep ourselves and our community healthy.
Students learn when they feel safe. COVID-19 has presented educators and administrators with many challenges, some of which are beyond an educator’s power. According to Minahan, however, there is also a great deal we can do to build a supportive and sensitive environment where students feel safe, comfortable, take risks, learn, and even heal.
Tammy Kaiser, MSJE, is a writer, mother of three, and Jewish Studies Doctoral Candidate with Spertus Institute. She Lives in Atlanta, GA and works with Jewish Youth. Kaiser describes her time at MTEI as “life changing.”