Last summer, educators’ professional development focused on remote learning, as school districts nationwide scrambled to learn more about delivering a quality online education in the face of the pandemic. This summer, the focus for PD has shifted toward understanding trauma in an effort to best support students’ needs as we emerge from the depths of the pandemic.
In the most recent episode of Building the Bridge, Dr. Wendy Oliver conducted part one of a two-part interview with Dr. Kathryn Kennedy, an expert in both trauma and online & blended learning. In this interview, Dr. Kennedy shared her perspective on social-emotional learning (SEL), her personal experience with trauma, and some surprising information about trauma and prolonged stress.
Learning can only take place when students are feeling mentally stable, shares Dr. Kennedy. Additionally, SEL needs to be viewed as a foundation, rather than an add-on. As a result of the pandemic, there are fears about learning loss and students and teachers not having done enough to keep up with their learning and teaching. When you focus only on meeting standards and achievement on assessments, you are trying to build something without a foundation.
Trauma and the Mind
Dr. Kennedy notes that when we think about learning, and also trauma, and what our tolerance window is, it all goes back to our social-emotional health. She cites the polyvagal theory developed by Dr. Stephen Porges of the Kinsey Institute at the University of Indiana. The premise of the theory is the vagus nerve is part of our central nervous system and it basically hits every single one of the major organs in our body. When we have trauma or prolonged stress, all of the systems in our body are affected. We tend to go into either a hypoarousal or hyperarousal state. Fight or flight, or fawn or flop, if you will. It’s a matter of how one copes with stress.
The polyvagal theory addresses that window of tolerance as being the one place where new learning can happen. In essence, if we are not taking care of our social and emotional selves and our true mental health and well-being, we are not going to be able to learn new things. Dr. Kennedy stresses that we need to put a lot more effort into strategies that will encourage people to take care of their mental health and well-being in order to be able to function to the best of our abilities.
Trauma and the Body
When asked why trauma is an area of focus for her as a researcher, Dr. Kennedy shares her personal experience with trauma as a child. You will have to listen to the podcast to hear the story, but she shares with us her childhood trauma and how participating in art therapy as a young girl was comforting. Her therapist was empathetic and let her know that she saw her and understood why she was behaving a certain way. To be told that her concerns were heard was extremely helpful with her healing.
Later on in her adult life, she discovered a book written by Bessel van der Kolk called “The Body Keeps the Score.” According to Kathryn, the book basically describes how the body holds onto things when you have trauma or prolonged stress. As much as we want to tell people who have experienced trauma and who have experienced prolonged stress that they should do cognitive behavioral therapy or go to a therapist, you also need to expel your trauma or prolonged stress through physical movement in order to move it out of your body.
“I read that book and it was eye-opening because I had been in therapy for 35 years,” she shares. “Cognitive behavioral therapy, specifically. I was definitely understanding how to be compassionate toward the people that were involved in all of the different traumatic events in my life. And to have compassion, to have empathy, to have sympathy – all of these different things – but at the same time, I still internally felt all of the feelings that would come up.”
She wondered to herself why she would continue to have feelings of anxiety and why she was not processing her feelings. She then discovered yoga and Qigong and many other ways of healing the body through movement, which brought her to a whole new level of healing.
Whether you’re a parent, a teacher, or simply a human being who has survived the pandemic, you likely play an important role in the lives of others. Please practice self-care and nurture your mind and your body so that you can be the best for yourself and in turn for others.