“I’ve come to a frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element in the classroom. It’s my personal approach that creates the climate. It’s my daily mood that makes the weather. As a teacher, I possess a tremendous power to make a child’s life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration. I can humiliate or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated and a child humanized or dehumanized.” ~ Haim G. Ginott
The new buzzwords in child development and education are self-regulation, trauma and attachment. Thank goodness! I’m so glad we are recognizing the burden of pain, depression and anxiety kids are carrying, and the support needed for them to feel more equanimity and engaged.
There’s a missing piece in all this talk, however: the teacher.
In teaching kids to self-regulate, we must be careful—we can make a subtle, or not so subtle implication that they “over there” are the unruly or damaged ones, and that they, only, need the skills to pull themselves together and calm down. Not us. We’re just fine over here.
Forgotten is the fact that we are part of this relationship system. We are not separate from it. More than ever, Mother Earth is teaching us this in dramatic and traumatic fashion. In the same way the planet is an ecosystem, the classroom or family unit is a system where one part affects the other, no matter how separate pieces may seem. Our clouds cast shadows on children’s’ worlds, and vice versa. Inner rays of sunlight illuminate hearts and minds of others. Our attitude, and over all energy, impacts the ecosystem without our knowing.
“When little people are overwhelmed by big emotions, it’s our job to share our calm, not to join their chaos.” ~ L.R. Knost
What isn’t being talked about in education is co-regulation. I know this because I travel the country speaking to thousands of teachers a year, and only a handful of them have ever heard the term. The simplest example of co-regulation is when you have an anxious child sitting on your lap, taking a deep breath soothes them and you at the same time. Your calm engenders their calm. On the other hand, if you are anxious, your dark clouds can strike lightening in their nervous system.
This is, in part, how trauma develops. We all know how easily young impressionable children absorb the energetic field of an environment. They soak it up unconsciously. It’s not just the words they hear, but also the attitudinal matrix of an environment that causes trauma, and an imbalance towards the sympathetic nervous system.
Sympathetic and Parasympathetic Nervous Systems
The purpose of the sympathetic nervous system is to mobilize us into action; and at its extremes, it causes us to react in fight and flight. Simply put, it arouses, engages and protects. The parasympathetic nervous system, on the other hand, does the opposite—it serves to calm and disengage, to soften our fixated, weary circuits and senses. A healthy nervous system makes way for the other in symbiotic fashion—sympathetic flows into parasympathetic, and then back into sympathetic. They flow in a natural and healthy rhythm back and forth so that we are not up or down too much, but rather engaging and disengaging like a continuous wave, and without extremes.
This healthy symbiosis is difficult to experience in the fast-paced, hyperactive, and cluttered world where the brain, body and senses are on overdrive. Excessive screen time, chronic pressures to perform at school, hectic workloads and frantic households offer little room for the kid, parent or worker to rest. Outside of sleep, the parasympathetic nervous system is largely disengaged. The sympathetic nervous system works overtime, causing burnout, anxiety, chronic fatigue syndrome and more.
We parent, teach, learn, live and work from this fevered state. It’s the reality we’ve come to accept, yet struggle in. And it has an impact, not only on our health and wellbeing, but on children as well. Our wired sympathetic nervous systems, combined with the cluttered, high-pressured schooling system, wires children’s minds and bodies for increasing rates of anxiety and depression.
As of 2013, one in five young Canadians suffered from mental health issues.
At a time when mental health amongst kids is staggeringly poor, fortunately, the education system is raising awareness and implementing systems to address this swelling issue. Teachers are being trained on the psychology of child development, and specifically, on attachment theory and strategies for self-regulation. Meditation and yoga, as well as clapping, counting and drawing games are now being used in schools; kids are being given more breaks, and encouraged to visualize a favorite place during those breaks if the time-out is not enough for the child to regulate; and kids are being allowed play with yarn, sit on bouncy balls, walk on treadmills, and even chew gum in order to ground and engage.
Kids are still being forced to sit for unreasonable hours, without consent, while teachers and students continue to be overwhelmed by the pressures of academic achievement; however, there are signs of improvement. Research and anecdotal evidence show progress in emotional responsiveness and academic performance in classrooms where children can move and self-regulate.
The above-mentioned progress is an excellent first step. But it is an incomplete picture because it does not take into consideration the whole ecosystem—the relationship-based, holistic system of education we are now moving into.
Co-constructed learning is slowly replacing teacher-led didactic models. The democratic process of “We” is getting a voice. For instance, recent changes in the education models in British Columbia and Alberta, Canada, now give greater creative choice to kids in what they want to study.
Yet, what about the “We”—the co—needed in regulation? Although rarely talked about, co-regulation is where we must travel next if we are to create an engaged, relationship-based learning environment where the relationship systems themselves foster learning and development.
Trauma inflicts trauma. Hurt people hurt people, often without even knowing.
“The most important thing you can do for your child is to heal your own stuff so that she can get on with being herself.” ~ Anonymous
If you think that it is only kids who have trauma, attachment issues and regulation needs, you may want to take a moment and remember where you come from. Everyone has trauma, more than they know. It is part of being a human born into an imperfect family system, going to an imperfect school system, and living in an imperfect community system. The trouble is, so many are blind to it or do not want to believe they have any; or, they know they have some issues, but don’t realize the impact they are having on others with their trauma.
For the last 18 years, I have been on a healing journey. I have worked with four therapists, M.D.’s, osteopaths, cranial sacral workers, acupuncturists, life coaches, homeopaths, naturopaths, reiki healers, and have attended numerous personal growth courses and retreats, releasing what has felt like a bottomless pit of sorrow, anxiety and pain. I have cried, shook and had the most peculiar and un-diagnosable physical symptoms.
For instance, for about five years—from about 2009-2014—whenever I spoke, immediately I fell ill. A soar throat, headache, tingling in my cheekbones, and heat rising to my crown would manifest. The top of my head often felt like a stove element on max, so much so that I had dandruff from all the skin that was flaking. I would later discover that heat rising up to the crown was a sign of trauma seeking resolution.
I finally found a cranio-osteopath who helped me heal this chronic ailment. One of the first things he said to me was that my body was like steel caused, in part, from an over-stimulated sympathetic nervous system (fight and flight). Tremendous amounts of trauma still lived in my system, despite 11 years of committed healing practices.
You’d think that I was ritualistically abused when young, or was raised in a war torn country. I was not. While my childhood was far from perfect, I simply incurred developmental trauma from the many imperfect choices that I, my family, teachers and friends made. More so, I took on my parent’s trauma, and that of my ancestors before. I eventually knew this because often when I had emotional release during a retreat or healing session, the tears did not feel like purely my own, but that of a larger system I was crying for. I shed the tears of those before me who never had chance to properly grieve.
Trauma and Grieving
“But a mermaid has no tears, and therefore she suffers so much more.” ~ Hans Christian Anderson, The Little Mermaid
In Euro-Western culture, we do not make room to properly grieve, in part because of our hectic lives, but also, because we are afraid to. How many times have you experienced loss, and when faced with your own grief someone was quick to patch you up with a, “There, there, it’ll get better. No need to cry.” This is less the case in certain First Nation communities where they will shut down often for weeks to properly mourn the loss of a loved one. In certain traditions, tear-soaked tissues are collected and later burned in a ritual fire.
We have been conditioned to be strong and move on; to not rest in the space between our enslaving thoughts and to-do’s where we can feel what our body longs to move. The conditioning keeps us heavily distracted, contained, controlled, or like steel, as my cranio-osteopath suggested. It is one of the reasons why we keep ourselves so busy and have taxed sympathetic nervous systems and adrenal glands—we are afraid to be silent and still where we can feel / grieve.
In Traditional Chinese Medicine, tumors are associated with excessive dampness in the system. It is believed that a lack of movement of water—tears—through the body is the source of illness, and specifically, cancer. In the same way health and wellbeing requires flow between our two nervous systems, so too does it need a flow of honest emotion in the body. Like children, energy is meant to move; hence, energy-in-motion—e-motion.
Grieving Heals the Past and Bridges a New Future
Grieving is essential not only for health, but also to ensure history does not repeat itself. The Canada-wide Truth and Reconciliation Commission events, where First Nation residential school survivors and family members told harrowing stories of physical, sexual and psychological abuse, helped victims and family members heal, and reconcile grievances nationwide. But the events also helped to lessen the likelihood that history repeats itself, not just through the raw, overwhelming disclosures, but also by the collective grieving itself necessary for all Canadians. Without the trauma resolution that grieving provides, our past pain unconsciously seeps into our immediate relationships and systems. Victims of abuse may become abusers themselves, perpetuating the cycle. Moreover, those who inflicted the atrocities to indigenous people, without proper grieving, pass on their unresolved grief—or as spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle calls it, pain body—to their children and grandchildren. We take it on for them, unwittingly. It’s not just the victims, their families and communities who need to grieve, but also the entire nation itself that has inherited the unresolved pain of the perpetrators—our ancestors and the colonial pain body of our forefathers—while living comfortably on ceded land viciously stolen.
It is the tears of today’s people that the Earth waits for. Only they will water the dried, tarnished soil upon which we stand, and from which new healthy generations will grow.
Heartbreak and the Wounded Healer
My personal grieving journey has not stopped, nor will it. I will never be “fixed” nor “there”. I will always be wounded, and am grateful that this is so. The archetypal “Wounded Healer” uses his or her pain to inspire creativity, remain humble and be compassionate to those who suffer and are on their own healing journey. Pain turns into purpose. Grieving is the key.
Grieving continuously breaks my heart open. This is also part of its purpose—to bridge me closer to others, nature and life as a whole. In this there is joy. Like our two nervous systems, our health and wellbeing is dependent on grief and joy living in consort with one another.
There is a story of a woman in Africa who always had a beautiful smile that could light up a village. She radiated beams of joy. When asked why she carries such countenance, she replied, “Because I grieve a lot.”
Paradoxically, in the heartbreak of suffering lies beauty. One of my friends called this beautiful suffering. Kahlil Gibran says in his breathtaking book, The Prophet, “Your joy is your sorrow unmasked. And the well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears.”
In Healing Trauma We End Separation
It’s natural to deny our grief and numb. It is part of the self-preservation strategy to cope as a child. But now is the time for each of us to courageously take responsibility for our tired nervous systems and trauma, and the impact we are having on children. It can feel frightening and like a tremendous step into the unknown to turn towards the dark corners within, but fortunately there is a growing army of Wounded Healers ready and waiting for your arrival to begin your journey into health and wellbeing.
It is by healing ourselves that we end the cycle of trauma inflicted on children, our communities, and struggling Mother Earth. Healing ends separation-based systems, such as those in education, for no longer are we separate from our own trauma and the trauma in our environment. We can co-regulate because we’ve learned to grieve and self-regulate. We can hold more loving and compassionate space for the pain in children, and better invite a joyously engaged classroom, simply by how we are being.
“Children learn more from what you are than what you teach.” ~ W.E.B. DuBois
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Check out Vince’s book: Let the Fire Burn ~ Nurturing the Creative Spirit of Children, A Children’s Book for Adults