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HeartMind e-News: Teach, Learn, Lead

A monthly publication dedicated to trauma-informed, compassionate school practices that help educators, students, and families move toward a sense of wholeness and well-being


FEATURED ARTICLE

Cultivating Resilience: A Whole Community Approach for Alleviating Trauma

Andrea Bartolo, CEI Intern, and Christine Mason, CEI Executive Director

Interested in conversations about childhood trauma and how it manifests in students' health, cognition, and academic learning? Student trauma has myriad sources: poverty, incarceration, substance misuse, bullying, and chaos at home are only a few.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated concerns about children’s mental health epidemic. However, in 2021 and as we enter 2022, we also continue to experience the collective trauma of violence in schools and racial trauma and tension, as well as the everyday variety of adverse childhood experiences. All in all this can be overwhelming. Despite these adversities, we can learn strategies to provide better support to students as we access wisdom from child experts and cutting-edge research and practices. Caring adults, heart-centered practices, and unconditional support can make a world of differences for our students.


The Cultivating Resilience Podcast Series builds on the expertise derived from neuroscience and our understanding of childhood trauma. The series includes:

  • Interviews with world-renowned authors and psychologists
  • Q&As with educators and school leaders
  • Practical and proven approaches in trauma relief for families and students
Cultivating Resilience

In the Cultivating Resilience Podcast series, co-hosts Dr. Christine Mason, Jesse Kohler (the Executive Director of the Campaign for Trauma Informed Policy and Practice), and Jeff Ikler (Cohost of Getting Unstuck: Educators Leading Change podcast series) conduct interviews with experts who are making a positive difference for students and schools. In this series, our guests answer questions such as:

  • What do parents need to know about trauma to help them understand their children?
  • How does leading with compassion in the classroom strengthen the student-teacher relationship?
  • How can systemic racism be overcome in the school by uniting the community?
  • Why might self-care be critical in our work in schools?



Consider the advice from two of our interviewees: Dr. Melissa Hughes, a neuroscience researcher, and Jeffrey Donald, a Mindfulness Coordinator.


Change The Brain, Not the Child

Dr. Melissa Hughes

As a neuroscience researcher and educator, Dr. Hughes has a wealth of knowledge that helps listeners understand why academics can no longer be the sole focus in schools. Dr. Hughes begins the episode by touching upon the ways trauma and chronic stress create different trajectories for students. Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) are traumatic events that occur in childhood that have lasting impacts into adulthood. ACEs are directly correlated with a student’s learning, social connections, and problem-solving ability.


Dr. Hughes points out that ACEs are not about minimal or occasional stress, stating that some stressful circumstances actually help us deal with disappointment, problem solving, and resilience. ACEs is different for the following reasons:

  • The disturbing impact from ACEs occurs when stress is piled on over time or with major traumatic occurrences.
  • Things take a turn when cortisol, the body’s stress hormone, is chronically being activated.
  • This constant heightened activation can impair rational thinking and relationship formation for decades.
  • ACEs change the anatomy and chemistry of the brain when cortisol is activated and the fear response is triggered, because the frontal lobe (the thinking region of the brain) is put on pause.
  • When an area of the brain is not used for a long time, “use it or lose it” kicks in. When the frontal lobe begins to shut down brain cells can shrink and die.


Luckily, the brain can repair itself through neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is the ability to change and modify the structure and function of the brain. When we learn something new and gain new experiences, new neural connections form in our brain. Dr. Hughes explains that we can help students form new connections by giving them a chance to express and process their emotions. Acknowledging that they are stressed about events, such as COVID-19 or a tumultuous household, helps them know that their ACEs are not their fault. As students come to understand that they are surrounded by caring, trustworthy adults, they start to feel safe, which in turn lowers stress hormones and makes the frontal lobe more available. Above all, this helps students practice emotional regulation, become more resilient, form peer connections, and work toward academic success.


This science offers an important question that many listeners likely considered halfway through this episode: teachers are not psychologists, so how could this be relevant to the school system? Well, it is. Dr. Hughes points out that we, as humans, cannot learn if we do not feel psychologically safe. So many teachers may be turning their academic wheels with no outcome when the majority of students in the classroom have ACEs. Teachers can start by noticing – looking for students who are constantly late, getting detention, are isolated, and not participating in academics or with peers.


In this time of COVID, the definition of an educator's job is continuing to evolve. Mental health support and neurological development must be addressed in schools. Creating a space for students to speak openly about their emotions and experiences brings community and trust among students and teachers while helping each student feel important. Exercise, even a few minutes of light activity, can increase oxygen to the brain to help with emotional regulation and thinking. Experiencing nature opens up neural pathways through exploration. Breathing, a tool we each have, can engage the calming system in our body. Teacher training on ACEs and trauma-informed practices can expand the understanding from schools to nations.


This episode was eye-opening. Dr. Hughes challenges educators to never ignore the red flags in the classroom – addressing them can be the start of critical intervention.


Restorative Justice and Mindfulness Unite

Jeff Ikler

Jeff Donald, an educator and instructional leader for almost two decades describes his work as the Mindfulness Coordinator in Montgomery County Public Schools in an episode of the Trauma in Schools Podcast.


With the largely diverse and broad student body in Montgomery County, Jeff helped students practice mindfulness. 

  • Over time, students re-engaged into the classroom as they became aware of the autonomy they have, empowering them to look at themselves honestly and objectively.
  • Over time, Jeff developed and implemented a program that resulted in professional development, training, and support for many teachers in schools in Montgomery County.
  • With this program, suspension data decreased, teacher referral data (e.g., teachers sending students to the principal) decreased, and graduation data and attendance data both increased.


How can stretching and breathing create these vast changes? 

Because the mind, emotions, and the body are all connected, a thought can trigger an emotion, which can then trigger a physical manifestation of the emotion. This can lead to thoughts about the physical symptoms, and the cycle repeats. Toxic stress occurs when this cycle becomes negative for years and students believe that these feelings are the norm. This is where mindfulness plays a role. Meditation helps to disrupt stressful thoughts by keeping students present; breathing exercises aid students in the regulation of their emotions; and yoga helps release any physical stress symptoms that students experience.


These practices are not a one-time thing. Teachers can offer daily breathing technique groups before or after providing meditation classes during lunch. Teachers can even take a few minutes before class to get students calm and collected.

In this podcast, Jeff describes a related practice, restorative justice, that he also coordinates for Montgomery County schools. Restorative justice reminds students that they are part of the community even when they make mistakes. When something goes wrong, they are still part of the community; we will not send them home or push them away. Students must learn that there are consequences to their actions, and they can also make it right. To do this, we need educators to lead students down the right path.


We must change the mindset from teacher versus student into us versus problems. When students feel safety and love, they will be on board for where the teachers guide them. Using mindfulness among teachers can increase academic protocols, academic success, empathy, and connectedness. Training staff to understand the neuroscience and psychology of mindfulness can help expedite the gains that are made with these practices, as we bring these practices to an increasing number of schools, staff, and students.


More about the Podcasts

If you are interested in hearing from others involved in addressing childhood trauma, check out the podcast series. Learn about “positivity projects,” “Nurtured Heart Learning,” integrating social emotional learning, simulations to train personnel to address trauma, and more, by tuning into conversations with social workers, professors, state and district administrators, school psychologists, superintendents, and others. Even though trauma is at an all-time high, educators can play a critical role in helping youth feel safe and secure, overcoming adversity, and increasing their resilience. As we do this, we can also learn from and support each other, promoting individual and community self-care, and leading to a holistic approach that furthers academic learning, while increasing the well-being of students and staff.