Most of the 3rd-graders in Anita Parameswaran’s class at Daniel Webster Elementary in San Francisco have had experiences so awful that their brains won’t let them easily forget.
“Whether it be that they’ve been sexually molested, or they’ve seen domestic violence, or shootings, or they know somebody who’s passed away,” Parameswaran said, “I would say every single year about 75 percent, give or take, come in with a lot of trauma.”
Now a national campaign is recognizing, backed by research on brain development, the power of teachers like Parameswaran to lower the levels of stress hormones in a child’s body and strengthen the neural connections needed for learning and self-control. The campaign, called Changing Minds and launched last month, is a partnership of the U.S. Department of Justice, the nonprofit group Futures Without Violence and the Ad Council, a nonprofit agency that creates public service advertisements.
While the message of the campaign is a truism — caring teachers and school staff can have a life-changing impact on struggling students — Changing Minds cites research that suggests the impact of these relationship extends to preventing or repairing imbalances in the brain that interfere with learning.
The need for adults to take steps, small or large, to encourage these children is urgent, the campaign said. More than 60 percent of children from birth to age 17 in the United States were exposed to violence, crime and abuse in the past year, according to a paper published in 2015 in JAMA Pediatrics that analyzed the results of the 2013-14 National Survey of Children’s Exposure to Violence.
Exposure to violence “is not limited to one community or one group of children,” noted the co-chairs of the U.S. Attorney General’s National Task Force on Children Exposed to Violence in a 2012 report that called for a public awareness campaign. “It occurs among all ethnic and racial groups; in urban, suburban and rural areas; in gated communities and on tribal lands.” The Changing Minds campaign, which includes publicity materials as well as teacher tools, is the result of that call.
The campaign is not meant to suggest that teachers and school staff must carry the entire burden of healing traumatized children, said Joyce Dorado, director of UC San Francisco’s Healthy Environments and Response to Trauma in Schools, or HEARTS, program and a consultant for the Changing Minds campaign. Instead, Changing Minds aims to provide information to make it easier for teachers to have “calm, compassionate and empowering” interactions with students who have experienced trauma, and to encourage schools to become supportive places for everyone, including staff.
“The message to teachers is that we care about how stressful this is for you,” Dorado said. Teacher supports have “a very clear focus on addressing stress, burnout and trauma in educators,” she said. “It’s an invitation to teachers to take better care of themselves and each other.”
With repeated exposure to violence, children’s developing brains grow strong neural connections to regions associated with impulsiveness and anxiety, and weaker connections to regions that control behavior and planning, according to research cited by Changing Minds. Elevated levels of stress hormones disrupt the brain’s ability to process memories, which can lead to thoughts that are intrusive or deeply suppressed, according to a 2012 research review published in the Journal of Adolescent Health.
But brains are malleable, research has found. A consistent, caring relationship with an adult is one of the most significant mediators to the deleterious effects of trauma, according to research on resilience. The campaign has identified five “everyday gestures” — listen, inspire, collaborate, comfort and celebrate — that teachers, coaches, counselors and all school staff can take to counter the damaging effects of elevated stress, known as traumatic or toxic stress. The website offers detailed tips about how to build a relationship with these students.
Encouraging students is already part of the modus operandi of many teachers, but these positive words are even more crucial for students whose emotions are on high-alert. “These are the students that are consistently being told they are doing something wrong, everywhere,” Parameswaran said. “It’s different than interacting with students who come from a loving home and know where their next meal is coming from.”
In Parameswaran’s classroom in the Potrero Hill neighborhood, many of the 8- and 9-year-old students intuitively study their teacher’s every word, nod of the head and glance for an indication that they are safe, or not, she said. She has learned to choose words that encourage and reassure her students.
“You notice how a positive interaction with a student can go miles,” she said.
“This exposure to violence is not limited to one community or one group of children,” noted the co-chairs of the U.S. Attorney General’s National Task Force on Children Exposed to Violence.
Parameswaran practices what she calls the “positive reframe” to replace the comment “don’t sit that way” with “please sit criss-cross applesauce.” She practices the “5-to-1 positive ratio,” giving five positive comments to a student for every negative comment.
And she said she had the enormous advantage of having staff from the Seneca Family of Agencies, an Oakland-based mental health agency, train teachers at Daniel Webster Elementary to cope with the behaviors of students who have been exposed to violence or other forms of trauma. Part of the training is recognizing a teacher’s own reactions to student behavior and providing a place to vent those feelings and gain new perspective, she said.
“You get really frustrated — oh my gosh, ‘Why can’t you sit crisscross applesauce? Is it that difficult?’ ” she said. “Then you realize, wait a minute, I keep singling out this one student. How must that student feel?” she said.
The Changing Minds website lists the following tips for interacting with students:
- Recognize that when children are disruptive, they are generally feeling out of control and may not have the ability to express themselves in other ways. Use a calm approach to help children regain a sense of safety and control.
- Be patient. Processing experiences and emotions can take time, and children may need to talk about certain topics multiple times.
- Support them when they’re frustrated with a task and offer the least amount of help needed for them to accomplish it. Offer praise throughout.