Reaching the Fourth "R": Schools and Classrooms Make the Difference

I am very excited to bring you my first guest blog. In full disclosure, I met Cathy Anther-Fialon, at a webcast on a seminar regarding building trauma informed communities. It won't be hard for you to understand that we immediately hit it off. Up until that point I had been working in my community, primarily isolated and the progress was slow. After out interaction, we have been able to move our community forward, together at a more rampant pace, which is good for my own mental health and well-being.

Schools teach. Schools teach reading, writing, and arithmetic. But what happens when a child can’t learn what is taught? What can a teacher do with a child who can’t learn? Classrooms have steadily been growing. In these larger classrooms of 25+ it is nearly impossible for a teacher to dedicate the individual attention a student in distress may need.

But why wouldn’t a child be capable of learning? When a people experience adversity or toxic stress their brain, in an effort to be protective, signals the body to fight, flight, freeze or submit. This is a life saving response when confronted with immediate danger like an angry bear while out hiking on a trail.

In childhood if the adversity or toxic stress is within the family or immediate environment the brain acts just like there is an angry bear present. The child’s brain goes into its evolutionary fight, flight, and freeze mode. In childhood the brain experiences a period of unparalleled growth and development, which means the brain, can actually develop in a way that fight, flight, freeze or submit become the programmed response. When a brain is responding to danger in fight, flight, or freeze mode other parts of the brain actually shut down.

When danger is present, the brain does not take time to strategize, access executive level functioning, or consider options. Also, under these conditions the brain signals the body to release hormones to aid in the danger response. These chemicals bathe every cell in the body, priming them to respond to danger. They impact hunger and digestion. They impact eyesight and smell. The body becomes hyper- vigilant. Now imagine, if a brain develops under these conditions to the point that these conditions become the brain’s norm. These children cannot learn, because a brain experiencing danger is not in the position to learn new information- organizing and interpreting the new information with executive functioning skills. The brain is instead stuck in a mode of constantly scanning the environment for the next threat. This trauma brain syndrome is experienced by millions of children in classrooms across the country every day.

There are two solutions to help children learn and escape the negative impacts of trauma brain syndrome. The first solution is prevention. Prevent childhood adversity. Prevent childhood trauma. However, many times the adversity is not preventable or the risk of adverse circumstances is not known to those who can offer support to prevent. The second solution is to build resilience (The Fourth “R”) Help children reach a place of resilience. According to a leading researcher Emily Werner (1995), resilience is the ability to achieve positive life outcomes despite risk and the ability to rebound from adversity with strength. Harvard’s Center of the Developing Child Supportive Relationships and Active Skill-Building Strengthen the Foundations of Resilience (2015), details how resilience is built in children.

To reach resilience a child needs one, not two or three, but only one, positive, stable, adult relationship. Only one. There are other factors which contribute to resilience, but the most important and most successful is for a child to have access to one, positive, stable, adult relationship. This adult relationship does not have to be a parent. It can be any adult.

Reaching the fourth R- resilience can be accomplished at school. How can a teacher, with an over-crowded class, be the stable, positive adult relationship for each child? How can an overburdened teacher offer the kind of personal relationship needed? It doesn’t have to be the teacher. The connection can be offered by a classroom volunteer, a bus driver, a cafeteria staff person, any adult in the school environment.

The adult needs to be consistent, positive, and needs to regularly reach out to listen to the child and share conversation with the child. So, with dwindling budgets, over-crowded classrooms, low staff salaries, what if school staff can’t dedicate enough time to develop a positive, stable relationship with every single child? The solution begins with the community.

Schools offer opportunity for community members to volunteer, in fact, they welcome volunteers. Helping children reach resilience prepares them to weather any kind of adversity they may experience. It allows a child to avoid the negative impacts of a trauma brain and have the ability to learn. A resilient brain can access executive functioning. A child with the ability to learn has a greater possibility of becoming a healthy, happy, productive adult adding to the greater community in a positive way.

I offer a thank you to all of the school staff across the nation dedicated to helping children reach resilience. Thank you to all of the school volunteers. You do make a difference. Your time and energy is building our future community. Let’s agree every child deserves to have access to at least one, stable, positive adult in their life. Let’s agree to make this happen.

Cathy Anthofer-Fialon holds a PhD in human services. She has previously worked in domestic violence victim/survivor advocacy, with the juvenile justice system, and in higher education. She currently dedicates her time to educating others about the lifetime impacts of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES) and inspiring resilience.

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