Teaching Through Trauma With the Applied Educational Neuroscience Framework

Today’s guest author is Connie Persike, M.S., CCC/SLP.

Connie is a highly experienced Speech Language Pathologist and Educational Consultant. As founder of CP Consulting, she brings 20+ years of experience in educational settings to provide insight, guidance, coaching, and support to school districts, agencies, and families across Wisconsin — and throughout the country — who need expert direction in working with children. Put simply: she helps students succeed by working with school systems, parents and/or agencies who have yet to identify the underlying “why” behind unsolved behavioral challenges. She helps identify paths forward that benefit both the student and the staff. No two children are alike – she collaborates with all parties to find an individualized solution that helps everyone thrive. CP Consulting works from the guiding mission that Connection + Collaboration = Endless Possibilities.

The pandemic has been difficult for everyone. While there have been silver linings to this very dark cloud – like having the ability to pace ourselves, be more present with family, and revisit our priorities – our sense of safety has been impacted and many of us have seen our ability to connect with others heavily limited.

Many people have also faced financial hardship at some level. And far too many of us have lost loved ones.

With these personal and societal struggles come chronic stress, trauma, and an increase in mental health disorders.

We must take into considerations what Deb Dana expresses so eloquently, “Trauma compromises our ability to engage with others by replacing patterns of connection with patterns of protection.”

Emerging evidence suggests that children and adolescents around the globe are experiencing more mental illness during the pandemic. Estimates conducted in the first year of the pandemic suggest that 1 in 4 youth across the globe are experiencing clinically elevated depression symptoms and 1 in 5 are experiencing clinically elevated anxiety symptoms.

These numbers are double the pre-pandemic estimates.

As Dr. Lori Desautels states, “Anxiety is our nation’s new Learning Disability.”

Our students will not recoup the learning loss that has occurred in chronic states of anxiety and stress.

Further examination tells us the impacts on children and adolescent mental health are getting greater the longer the pandemic continues.

Our girls are also being impacted at higher rates as are our older children.

Lastly, the pandemic is not impacting American children equally. Mental health in children and adolescents are showing grave differences in the following minority groups:

  • Hispanics and African Americans
  • Developmental & physical disabilities
  • Chronic medical conditions

As educators, we must take the mental health impacts of this pandemic into consideration. To do this effectively, we need to create school environments that are trauma-sensitive, safe, and relationship-driven for both students and staff. That’s where the Applied Educational Neuroscience© framework comes in.

What’s the Applied Educational Neuroscience© Framework?

The Applied Educational Neuroscience© (AEN) framework was developed by Dr. Lori Desautels at Butler University. The AEN© framework is trauma-responsive and incorporates current relational and brain science. It is comprised of four pillars, including educator brain and body state, co-regulation, touchpoints, and teaching students and staff about their brain and body states.

The AEN© framework is innovative in many ways, but especially in the way that it incorporates nervous system regulation of both teachers and students. Emotions are contagious, so if we want our children to feel regulated and safe, we must first focus on supporting their teachers and staff. There has never been a more important time to make this a focal point! Our teachers and education staff are feeling the impact of this pandemic as well. A survey of public sector workers released in October 2021, shows that our educators were the most likely to experience high levels of anxiety, stress, and burnout during the pandemic. By focusing on supporting our teachers and educational staff, we ensure that our adults are regulated and ready to help our children regulate their emotions. This makes the AEN© framework an extremely valuable teaching tool.

So let’s explore the four pillars of AEN© in more depth.

Pillar ONE: Educator Brain and Body State

This pillar of the AEN© framework focuses on supporting educational staff by providing them with time for connection and regulation throughout the day.

In order to do this, schools can build resiliency teams for both students and adults. These teams can provide frequent check-ins and support to staff. There is focus on teach teaching and embedding brain-aligned, focused attention practices into rituals and procedures. By providing these supports and strategies that will assist with emotional regulation, staff and teachers can be ready and able to help our students.

We also must concentrate on teaching adults to check in with their bodies and recognize their sensations, while at the same time, naming their nervous system states and feelings. By recognizing how we’re feeling and understanding our sensations, we can tame them.

This part of the AEN© framework also has key implications for discipline to address student behaviors. Staff are taught to check in with themselves prior to addressing a student’s behavior. This is key as oftentimes our nervous system dysregulation, nonverbal cues, and body language can escalate a situation, rather than defuse it.

Lastly, this pillar teaches staff to think deeply about their own emotional triggers. All our staff must know what experiences cause dysregulation in our brains and bodies. With awareness, staff learn to name their triggers and use strategies such as breath, movement, and rhythm to regulate themselves.

Pillar TWO: Co-Regulation

This pillar of the AEN© framework focuses on the warm and responsive interactions that provide others the support, coaching, and modeling that they need in order to understand and modulate their own thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.

By utilizing co-regulation strategies, educators can develop connections and relationships with both adults and peers that can help students to feel safe in their environment. This teaches adults to be aware of their nonverbal communications as much as their verbal ones. After all, a big part of how our messages are perceived has to do with how we say it not what we say.

So, we must take into account that students are always reading the body language of the adults around them on a subconscious level. If we display threatening body language it will activate the part of the student’s brain that will escalate their behaviors or put them into fight, flight, or freeze mode. In other words, the way we move can offer significant cues to our students’ brains.

Another co-regulation strategy to consider is using movement as a tool to regulate behavior by providing students with proactive movement activities intended to help calm their nervous system.

Finally, when we’re supporting our students, we must ask valuable questions to understand how we can work better to help our students regulate in the future, create long-term change regarding their behavior, and also to understand their perceptions of their experiences.

Pillar THREE: Touchpoints

This pillar of the AEN© framework focuses on touchpoints. In this context, touchpoints are targeted and intentional interactions between educators and students that take place throughout the school day.

Such touchpoints can last anywhere from 30 seconds to 5 minutes. They may include noticing and affirming a student’s strengths, interests, passions, belief systems, and culture.

Touchpoints help students build resilience, learn lessons about feelings of despair and hopelessness, and better engage with educators and people they encounter in school. Educators are taught to embed these touchpoints into rituals, procedures, and transitions throughout the students’ school day.

Pillar FOUR: Teaching Students and Staff About Their Brain and Body States

The fourth and final pillar of the AEN© framework is perhaps the most important one for the success of the entire AEN© framework in schools. It focuses on teaching students and staff about their brain and body states. Together, your staff and students learn about their neuroanatomy, autonomic nervous system, and how their brains and bodies work together.

This teaches everyone in our schools that there is no such thing as a “good” or “bad” emotional or nervous system state, and that we all fluctuate through our emotions throughout the day. While learning how our emotions fluctuate, we also learn how to recognize our sensations as well as how they may be influencing our behavior.

When we teach our schools about the brain and body states, we must focus our teachings on the fight/flight/freeze response, and how our autonomic nervous system acts as an invaluable gift by keeping us safe and helping us to connect with others.

Strategies that result from these teachings can include focused attention practices, movement, rhythm, and brain-aligned activities. They can all be embedded into a student’s daily routine and are intended to help us all to better regulate and calm our nervous systems.

How We Move Forward From Here

In September, 2021, The American Psychological Association (APA) stated that there is an increased need for educators and school staff to understand how to work with students who have experienced a traumatic event. They went on to say that in the absence of this knowledge, educators may inadvertently exasperate students’ trauma. By implementing the Applied Educational Neuroscience© framework into our schools, we offer appropriate supports to both staff and students. While so much in our world feels unsafe, we can make our schools safe, trauma-sensitive environments that focus on relationships and social-emotional learning.

By implementing Applied Educational Neuroscience© frameworks in our schools, we can develop a roadmap to help our students and staff to navigate these uncharted waters. This is a call for action: let’s get to work for our students and our educators; there’s never been a more important time to do so!

For more information about the AEN© framework, you can visit Dr. Lori Desautels’ website, Revelations in Education.

Categories Education, People, TraumaTags
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