As I write this my body is flooded with adrenaline. My mind is racing. My heart is pounding. A little while ago I received a text from my middle schooler. It is the text that every parent fears. “Something has happened at [school]. We heard a loud explosion and the windows shook.” While I frantically texted (trying to appear calm to my son) to get more information, my husband took to social media to find out what was going on. We quickly learned there was an explosion on the block next to his school. A building collapsed and was on fire.
My mind raced to the worst possible scenario. I was imagining all the possible causes, trying to figure out if I could get to my kid, and if not what should I tell him to do. Over the next few minutes we learned that the explosion was caused by a gas leak. My mind kept racing. What was the school going to do? Are they going to evacuate the kids? Is it safe to be in the building? Is it safe to leave the building?
As a person who experienced the tragedy of September 11, 2001 while living in Manhattan, has been in a few car accidents, and has witnessed and stepped in to help in several medical emergencies any suggestion of danger puts me on alert and takes me back to previous stressful/traumatic events. On top of that, being a parent brought a whole new understanding of how precious and fragile life can be. It is true that being a parents means having to learn to live with your heart outside of your body.
I am writing about this moment because I want you all to think about how you respond to stress and emergencies. What goes through your mind? When you last were faced with a crisis or stressful situation did you fight (act), freeze, or take flight (run away)? What skills have you learned in your lifetime to help you cope in those situations and what skills have you learned to help you heal after the situation has passed?
I know in the immediate aftermath of hearing of the tragedy in downtown Durham I had irrational thoughts and ideas that I had to work to redirect and not act on. I had to tell myself to take deep breaths, release my clenched hands and shoulders, take a minute to get more information about the situation before acting, reassure myself that in all likelihood nothing else was going to happen and my kids were okay. Once I was sure my kids were fine and my oldest was on the bus on the way home I was still not able to return to my scheduled work for the day.
Now let’s think about the children in your program. Are all your kids getting their basic needs met at home? Are they fed, clean, loved (feel secure at home), and rested? Are the children the victims of social aggression/exclusion from their peers, do they have a developmental difference that makes it harder for them to communicate, participate, socialize, or understand their environment? Does a child in your program have a very ill parent, caregivers that travel often, welcomed a new sibling, or has lost a pet?
There are so many possible stressful situations children experience that I cannot even begin to cover them here. What skills and coping mechanisms do these children have? Often they have coping mechanisms that are not healthy and can cause problems in your program. Maybe they hit or run away. Maybe they cry easily or scream at their peers. Maybe they adamantly refuse to do what you ask. Maybe they are aggressors towards peers or they are shy and hesitant to engage.
As early childhood educators, administrators, and parents we are often faced with situations that require us to act and be involved in ways we are not always comfortable or feel experienced enough to handle. It is our job as educators to take care of ourselves by learning coping strategies so we can then teach and model these skills to out students, children, and co-workers. Children see everything we do. They hear what we say, they are dialed into our emotions, and they learn how to engage in this world first by watching the responses of the people in their world.
We will not always know what trauma or a stressful situation has impacted the emotional state of the child. We will not always know if the child’s behavior is related to a trauma. What we do know is that early childhood educators should first and foremost be addressing the social/emotional health of their students. Children need to feel safe, supported, and loved when they are with you. They need to be taught how to read social cues, be a good friend, be tolerant and accepting of others. They need to be taught what to do with their big feelings, how to calm themselves down, and how to get help when needed.
There are tons of social emotional curriculums out there but there are also great websites with resources and ideas. Start with what you know about your children. For instance, developmentally normal behaviors such as biting and hitting are common with toddlers. If you are a toddler teacher start your year out with books about gentle hands and have a common language you use with other staff, parents, and the children about the topic. If you have four year olds, a common development challenge is social aggression/exclusion. Build a curriculum around community, helping others, tolerance, and friendship. Read books, act out scenarios, and make kindness central to your classroom agreements.
Teach coping strategies and social skills proactively hopefully before you children experience trauma. Teach kindness and empathy so children learn to care for themselves, others, and their environment. Know that you will work with children and other adults that have experienced trauma. Be an advocate for those who need support and understanding. As Carrie often says, “When you know better, you do better.”
As Durham heals from the tragedy, I sit here comforted by the immediate actions of the first responders and the staff at my son’s school and the outpouring of love and support to the family of Kaffeinate for the loss of a beloved husband and father and to all of those injured both physically and emotionally by this event. My heart is warmed by the offers to donate time, resources, and money to help the victims and the first responders during this time of sadness and trauma by this community. Lastly, I feel optimistic about a community that immediately offers professional mental health resources to its community as a way to help healing.
Did you know?
“Roughly 26 percent of children in the United States witness or experience a trauma before the age of 4 (Briggs-Gowan et al. 2010). In 2015, an estimated 683,000 children were victims of child abuse and neglect. More than one quarter (27.7 percent) were younger than 3 years old, 18.6 percent were between the ages of 3 and 5, and another 17.5 percent were between the ages of 6 and 8. Almost 80 percent of these early traumas occurred at home and were perpetrated by the children’s own parents (HHS 2015).”