The Water Lily Way

A school counselor's story of how to live, work and play…the water lily way


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The Need for Trauma Sensitive Schools

It’s estimated that 26% of children in the U.S. experience some kind of traumatic event before the age of 4.  Every year, more than five million children experience some extreme traumatic event. Traumatic events can include natural disasters, motor vehicle accidents, life threatening illness, physical abuse, sexual assault, witnessing domestic or community violence, kidnapping or death of a parent or loved one. Trauma can seriously impact our kids during their younger years and can cause severe health impacts later in life. In the classroom,  children can display traumatic stress through aggression, anxiety, defiance, perfectionism, and withdrawal. And here’s the biggie, signs of trauma often times look very similar to ADD, ADHD, OD & CD.

Trauma affects the whole child: the mind, body, and spirit. The impact of trauma on the brain significantly effects children, their learning, and their ability to form relationships with others. Our brains are developed to help us respond to threat. We often times hear this referred to as the “flight or fight response.” When we are confronted with a dangerous or potentially dangerous situation, our brain goes on alert and prepares the body to respond. The brain  does this by increasing the adrenaline in our system. When the threat is no longer there, our brain releases other chemicals such as cortisol to reduce the adrenaline in our bodies. This helps us to relax and to quiet down. We no longer need to fight or run, so our body adjusts accordingly. This is a normal, healthy reaction for many humans, but not for all.

In some situations where fighting or running is not possible, our brain may help us to freeze. In these situations our breathing may slow down and chemicals such as endorphins are released that help us to be very still or even to go numb, and therefore feel less pain. When a child is traumatized by extreme or repeated events of abuse (for example), chemical reactions in the body and brain can be switched on as if they have never been switched off. The brains of these children are often in a state of fear. This state of “fear activation” leads to changes in emotional, behavioral and cognitive functioning because the brain is tricked into survival mode. A major negative outcome of this is that a traumatized child can constantly be in this state of fear. As a result, this can cause things such as hypervigilance, a focus on threat-related cues (non-verbal included), anxiety and behavioral impulsivity.

With this in mind, it is not surprising that some traumatized children really struggle controlling their anger and impulses, and maintaining their attention and connection in the classroom. It does not come easy for these children to regulate strong emotions and instead, they jump right to a reaction, with no time to think. While often times we see this through aggressive behaviors, children may also react by disengaging or dissociating. Both are adaptive human responses to traumatic experiences.

Young Student Crying in Class

So what can we do in our schools, and in our communities to help our children who have been victims of trauma? Here are only some of the approaches you can help integrate into your school to effectively meet the needs and reach out to this, unfortunately, vastly growing population of kiddo’s.

  • Teach coping skills (mindfulness techniques, journaling, how to ask for a break when needed, deep breathing, relaxation, etc.). Check out the “Mindfulness” section of this blog to see various resources and activities you can utilize at your school.
  • Teach self regulation skills.
  • Inform and educate other teachers, school staff, administrators and families on the impacts of trauma
  • Give children choices! Often traumatic events involve loss of control. You can help children feel safe by providing them with some choices or control when appropriate.
  • Provide these children with EXTRA support and encouragement.
  • Once again, educate others on trauma! Educate, educate, educate! Advocate, advocate, advocate! Recognize that behavioral problems may be related to trauma. Keep in mind that even the most disruptive behaviors can be driven by trauma-related anxiety.
  • Be sensitive to cues in the environment that may cause a reaction for a traumatized child.
  • Provide a safe space for the child to talk about the traumatic event or provide additional resources in the community for the child’s family.
  • While a traumatized child might not be eligible for special education, consider accommodations and modifications for the child to support academic success.

Helpful Websites:

This is obviously only a start to the ways we can promote trauma sensitivity in our schools. However, there are so many resources available today to help meet the needs of our kiddo’s who have experienced traumatic situations and as a result, have been impacted for life. It is our job to work together as a team with other educators, specialists and the families of traumatized children to see that these children are cared for, understood, and guided through their long journey in coping with their traumatic experience(s). Be an advocate, be an educator, be a leader and promote a trauma sensitive environment at your school.
One last thing….If you’re looking for a good summer read, I HIGHLY recommend “The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog” by Bruce D. Perry. Dr. Perry (child psychiatrist) discusses the various children he has worked with who have suffered from severe cases of abuse and neglect. I PROMISE you, your life will be changed after reading this book. You will come to new awarenesses and insights on the extreme impacts of trauma. The cases he presents are unimaginable….
-Jessica 🙂
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School Counseling Connections: Integrating the Outdoors into your School Counseling Program

 

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I think we can all advocate for kiddo’s needing time outdoors! Truly, we all can benefit from time spent outside and in nature. I may have a bit of Wisconsin spring fever right now, but as the weather continues getting nicer, I am challenging myself to find more and more activities that can be done with children out in the sunshine and fresh air. There are so many ways we can work with student’s outdoors as we would inside our school walls, however outdoor time may actually result in additional benefits for our young ones. For instance…

Exercise, movement, physical activity!
Playing outside provides children with something many children don’t get enough of anymore – exercise. Exercising while having fun is the best kind of exercise! Walk and talks can be exchanged for sitting in chairs with students during individual meetings. Team building activities can be utilized during classroom guidance and small groups. Check out the WLW pinterest to see specific team building exercises to use outdoors.

Stimulation of the Imagination
As expectations for students increase in our schools, our student’s imaginations, creativity and freedom of expression are decreasing. Our children are not discovering and experiencing things on their own, rather they are being shown, taught, and instructed. Likewise, growing up in a society that is so consumed in technology does not help with this challenge. Playing outside helps children develop their imagination, which is something that television, video games, computers, iPods, etc. can’t do. Children tend to feel more comfortable outdoors, which allows them to “invent and create things,” once again stimulating their imagination.

Improves self-confidence and social skills

Outdoor play encourages children to risk. Children try different experiences which they normally wouldn’t and grow to be stronger and more confident individuals as a result. Children feel a sense of safety outdoors, which allows them to feel in control and promotes autonomy. Group activities, games, and sports help children learn how to solve problems with their peers. They learn to work together, compromise and communicate with one another.

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Here are some different ways you can incorporate “the great outdoors” into your school counseling program:

  • Walk and talks: Why always sit in chairs with students? Going outdoors allows for exercise, fresh air and increases alertness. The outdoors brings a sense of calmness, relaxation and safety. Isn’t this what we hope to provide to our students as we build relationships with them? Walking side by side helps diminish any sense of hierarchy.
  • Take the sandtray outside!! Sit in the grass with a child as you talk and play with the sand (really, any game/toy/etc. of your choice could be taken outdoors… 🙂 )
  • Journal time: Students may find calmness in journaling outdoors. Allowing for free time to journal at the beginning or end of time with a student(s) encourages autonomy, creativity and independence.
  • Yoga! There is no better place to practice yoga than out in nature…Take your class or group outdoors and see how the change in environment impacts the student’s practice.
  • Termination: For your last session with a student or group of students, encourage students to find rocks out in the school yard to decorate. With either paint/marker have them write words that describe what they learned from your time together, or what they are taking with them as a result of your time together .
  • Deep breathing/mindfulness with bubbles! Check out the link for a fun and soothing activity using bubbles.
  • Planting a flower/plant/etc. with a student or a group of student’s to increase cohesiveness and support the relationship(s) being built.
  • Sidewalk chalk: Sidewalk chalk can replace all sorts of art therapy activities that are typically done “indoors.”

Examples include:

  1. Encouraging students to write strengths/things they like about themselves(This could be done over the course of a day or two with multiple students/groups. It could be an empowering area that would be on showcase for all students in the school to see, names not included obviously.)
  2. Have students draw how they are feeling and suggest that different colors demonstrate different feelings/emotions.
  3. Free draw!
  4. Hopscotch! Why not play a game while chatting away?!

Now let’s hope for some sunshine and enjoyable spring temps the rest of the week… 🙂 -Jessica