Newsletter & Blog
Caring for Native Students with Trauma
While traveling last month, I visited a school in Tucson to provide a consultation for a student of the Navaho Nation. This student was the hardest in their school. The principal and counselor both described him as "ferrel," and felt they had tried everything to get him integrated into the school community. After observing him for an hour, I wrote the teacher the following letter: (All names have been changed.)
I first want to reiterate what great skills you have in developing your students’ social and emotional development with your exceptional ability to connect with them. I appreciate the amount of energy that takes, and know that you are aware of how your efforts pay off in gigantic dividends for those children.
Here are some things I noticed about Abel today:
He is eager to please you and has a desire to connect with you.
He is easily overcome with emotion, rendering him speechless when you do connect with him.
He looks unfocused when he is off-task and wandering or wiggly. This suggests that his prefrontal cortex has low activity and there is some dissociation, or an experience of being “out of it.” (The prefrontal cortex inhibits impulsive behavior, so we want to get this online.)
Because his bids for attention are not easily noticeable, they fail to elicit the response from others he is looking for.
When he senses that he is not noticed, his stress and anxiety rise and he engages in uncooperative behavior.
From the limited observation I made, Noah’s behaviors appear to be based more on his need to connect than on sensory integration deficits. I gathered this from watching him try to make contact with others and fail, and then engage in uncooperative behaviors directly afterwards. Below are some recommendations to increase Noah’s sense of connection in your classroom.
Connect Whenever in Proximity
I saw how his anxiety would increase when you came near but did not engage with him. This seemed to set him off to leave his work and wander the classroom as it happened directly afterward. A reassuring pat or squeeze on the shoulder might work to calm his anxiety. That is probably all it will take for him to know that you notice him.
Detect his Bids for Connection
When Noah comes anywhere into your proximity, this could be a bid for connection. It is difficult to notice because his bids are nonverbal and lack any eye contact. I, myself, failed to notice this when we were in the library. Kelli and I were seated at a table, and Abel approached us while appearing to be engrossed in flipping the pages of an Angry Birds book. Kelli asked him if he liked Angry Birds. He indicated that he did without looking up. Both Kelli and I were then silent watching him flip the pages, so he went away. Had I realized that this is his way of trying to engage, I would have invited him over to look at the book with him to help fill his emotional cup. Unfortunately, when his side of the conversation seemed flat, it did not occur to me to jump on the opportunity until hours later. I tell you this because it might be difficult to engage with him when he does not seem to hold up his end. We are socialized to respond to eye contact and animated speech, so it will take a lot of effort to pay attention to Abel's quiet way of engaging. Other children will come and make eye contact and chat you up, and this fills their cups. Being Native, is it not necessarily a part of Abel’s culture to do this, nor has he acquired the skill. In our culture, it’s noisier, the pace is faster, and people need to talk and interact a lot in order to get their need for connection met. This cultural mismatch puts him at a disadvantage in being able to get the connection his brain needs in order for his executive function to kick into gear. Because his behavior seems to be based on a relational need, it is connection that will most likely flip his prefrontal cortex on. He will likely have fewer impulsive behaviors if you can pick up on his cues and respond before discouragement causes him to become emotionally dysregulated. Fortunately, if there is any teacher who could possibly do this, it is you.
Use a Connection Sandwich for Corrections
Abel already responds to directions when he is regulated, so this is a less obvious need. Each time he is told to do something, there is also the suggestion that he is doing something wrong. This idea erodes his sense of connection over time, gradually emptying his cup. To prevent discouragement, make a connection before and after any corrections whenever possible. I call this a Connection Sandwich. Fill his cup with a connection, make a correction, then fill up what was lost from the correction. Here’s how it might look:
When he’s wandering around and should be seated:
“I see you feel like walking around right now. Take a couple more steps if you need to, and then have a seat.” Once he sits, “I see you needed six steps. Thank you for helping the classroom settle down.”
When he’s throwing his Angry Bird stuffy in the air:
Smile at him and say, “I see you’re having fun with that stuffy. Please hold it still so it won’t be so distracting for me.” Give him a slow count of five to follow directions to give his prefrontal cortex time to absorb the idea and start itself up, or repeat to give him another chance to hear you. (You are already doing these things.) Then, “You’re making my job easier by holding onto that. Thanks.”
When he’s not getting in line or is doing something dangerous:
“Oh, did I forget to check in with you after recess? I’m sorry, I got distracted when ___ ran off. Come on over and let’s do our secret handshake” (or some other ritual you have for just these kinds of situations). There’s a teacher who has a special secret handshake for every student in his class. That would be hard for me to remember, but you get the idea. When he isn’t cooperative, it could be because he got discouraged from failing to get a connection from you. Something like a knock-knock joke, a quick story about something you saw on the way to school, or anything else that is just for him could get him back on track. Just have a couple of these connection tools ready for when his brain goes offline.
You are clearly this boy’s sun. Every time you talk to him, the warmth and light he gets from that bowls him over. At first, your attention might dysregulate him a little. I notice that he was so overcome with emotion when you gave him a connection that he couldn’t talk—he had to point instead. Sometimes kids get so excited that they are getting their needs met, it’s stressful for them, and their difficult behaviors get stronger before they improve. If this happens, he should settle down within a couple of weeks of the interventions.
Also, remember that this intervention is not as time consuming as it may seem. A minimum of 60 seconds a day makes an enormous difference: twice for 30 seconds, 3 times for 20 seconds, 10 times for 6 seconds, or 30 times for 2 seconds (a quick “hey, buddy, I’m glad you’re here” or the shoulder squeeze). While it does not take a lot of time, it does take a great deal of effort to keep it in mind. Once he starts feeling more secure and is able to get more connected to his classmates, you should be able to taper off the amount of connection that comes from you.
Please let me know how it goes and if there is anything else I can do to help. I am grateful that there are people in the world as willing and as skilled as you to do this hard but important work. I am so glad you are a teacher!
All My Best,
Betty Peralta, MIT, LMHCA, IMH-E® (III)
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Feeling pretty good about yourself? What did you do to elicit trust, cooperation, or just grateful relief from a child this month? We all want to know, so please share it
(Beginning) Before Sissy was born, it was just you and me while Mommy was at work. We did a lot of things together, didn’t we? When we went to the park every day, I played with you on the monkey bars and chased you around the playground. We had so much fun together!
(Middle) And then the baby was born. Everything changed. We still go to the park, but it’s harder for me to play with you the whole time. I have to give Sissy attention, too. And when it’s time for Sissy’s nap, you don’t have me to play with because I have to help her settle. It’s tough when a new baby comes. It’s hard to have things change. It’s so sad sometimes. So on this particular day, you were playing on the monkey bars, and I was stuck sitting on the bench with Sissy on my lap. She was having her snack. You called to me, "Dad! Can you come play when Sissy is done with her bottle?" I told you I couldn't. Boy was I sad. And you were sad. You didn't even feel like playing on the monkey bars anymore. Do you know what happens next in the story? (Child either ends the story with his/her own ideas or says, "I don't know.")
(End) Then, one day, Sissy got big! She started walking and talking and playing on monkey bars! Then we could all play together on the monkey bars and we weren't sad anymore. We were having fun together!
(Beginning) Once upon a time, you were at school hanging out on the playground near the basketball court. You were standing there, waiting your turn to play. You were looking forward to playing because you just knew you were going to make a basket this time. You could feel it!
(Middle) But before it was your turn, you felt someone shove you from behind. You almost fell on the ground! You heart started pounding real fast. And do you know what you did? (Let child answer. If child says, "I don't know," continue.) You didn’t know what to do! You didn’t want to run, but you were scared to stand still. Then a hand knocked your baseball cap off of your head. Your stomach felt weak, and your throat got tight. You were so nervous and scared. You heard his voice in your ear. “Get out of line, now!” What?! This guy was kicking out of line? No way! That felt so unfair! Now you were getting mad. You were mad and scared at the same time.
(End) You put up a hand and yelled, "Stop!" The kid stepped back. You yelled with a big booming voice, "Move away from me now!"
He replied, "You don't tell me what to do!"
You said, "Get away from me now, or I will report your behavior!"
He looked really mad then. He turned around and left.
(Beginning) One day, everybody was at home watching TV. We were happy because we were watching our favorite show show together. You were cuddled up next to me eating your snack, and we were laughing at the funny parts together.
(Middle) Then your dad came home. Oh, he was drunk, and he looked mad. BOY did he look mad! He came in yelling and hollering about who knows what?! He made all that noise, and I went and told him to settle down, and then what did he do? He smacked me right in the head! Ouch, that hurt! He kept hitting me and hitting me until I didn’t know which way was up! And then what happened?" (Allow child to come up with any idea of what could have happened next.)
(End) That’s why daddy doesn’t live here any more. It’s not safe for us. We need a safe place for our family, and now it’s nice and safe. Now we can watch our favorite TV show with no one to bother us.
(Beginning) You were lying in bed, all comfy and warm, waiting for sleep to come.
(Middle) And then, you heard the door creek open. It was Lester, coming into the room. Your heart raced. He came on top of you! He did terrible things! You wanted to scream but you were too scared. It was horrible! But then do you know what you did? (Let the child answer. If the child does not provide an ending, happy or not, provide one that leaves the child feeling safe.)
(End) This kept happening to you, until one day, it stopped. You came to live with me. And I am here to keep you safe from all of the men like Lester in the world. Now you are going to stay with me, and there will be only safe people in this house. (This could be a good story to hold and rock the child to reinforce a sense of safety)
1. You can either get the story straight by asking questions, or get the story wrong and make it a similar story. As long as the main idea is there, the details don’t really matter to most children. They will be fascinated by whatever you make up. After all, they won’t necessarily remember it correctly, either. It’s mainly the feelings that really matter to the child’s ability to connect with the story.
2. Tell the story often until the child seems bored and done with it. After each telling, stay with your child until her/his heart rate is slow and s/he feels calm again.
3. Overwhelm is not helpful. If the child seems to be shutting down, ease off and tell a milder version, veer the story off into a safer direction, or increase cues of safety such as wrapping the child in your arms and rocking. Another option is to change the details to turn the child into a hero if your child hadn't thought of that when they had the chance to add to the story. Try different scenarios to feel out what works for your child. Just do not stop and leave the child with unresolved feelings. See it through to the end.
4. You can’t get this wrong. You’re there. That’s a big part of what is so healing. If you say something that is upsetting, good. Be upset together. Go boldly into hard feelings until they feel good. Until it feels like splashing around in rain puddles. Stay in the feeling for as long as it takes until it is spent from your child’s body. People don't have to be professional therapists to heal each other. They just have to be there.
Trae's mom wrote to me an email after that class:
Hi Betty, just wanted to thank you again for welcoming me into your beautiful home and sharing such wonderful tools and advice. I just wanted to share the litte success story I've already had with you.
When I got home after doing some of the regular routine and reading a couple books, I decided to practice story telling traumatic experiences. I chose to try it with a melt down he had today. I started at the beginning of the day, and as soon as we got to the part of the day where he had the meltdown, he again became emotional. We talked about how he felt briefly as not to get him to worked up and as soon as we got to the "happy ending" which wasn't even the end of the day, he said goodnight, rolled over, and was out instantly and at a relatively "normal" hour. Pretty amazing! :)
Thank you again for all you do and for your encouragement.