One of the things I admired about James McBride was not only his acknowledgment of hardship, but what I saw as some level of gratitude for it. It was relatable and genuine, and I thought it especially inspiring that he still spoke not only on learning to persevere but also on what I like to call “burning coals.” In other words, he still displayed a tone of kindness with much of what he talked about, even when it comes to the people that have hurt us (with the boundaries necessary to guard one’s own heart, of course). In a very eye-for-an-eye culture that simultaneously preaches on kindness and acceptance, I know there are a lot of people that probably needed that reminder that we live in the age of grace– Exodus 21 and Hosea 3 were atonements foreshadowing the grace that was then to come, and has now already come. Passages like those demonstrate that there was a price to be paid so we can now stand here with all the details available to us and recognize it was paid for us. Of course, McBride didn’t explicitly preach like that, but the ideas were still present in what he did present.
As for what that has to do with trauma in education, I can say from some of my own experience that this particular point I noticed out of James McBride’s lecture is more important to working with traumatized students, regardless of what the trauma actually is. I’ve tried talking and writing about it as a means of letting it go, but really I was just reliving everything in my mind again. It helped me to some extent, until I plateaued, and sometimes crashed. I held this mentality that I didn’t have to forgive or forget, I just had to get over it or learn to live with it– and I was so, so wrong about that.
Studies have shown that gratitude cannot be simultaneously processed with negative emotions and details, and that the more we practice processing gratitude, the more resilient our minds become to adversity. I believe it was Dr. Norman Doidge that often recites the principle that “neurons that fire together, wire together.” So the more we recite the details, the more we will experience it again within our own minds, affecting memory.
(To clarify, this does not mean that we should repress and totally avoid thinking or talking about the reality of pain and trauma. This process of rumination is important to post-traumatic growth.)
But to go back to the point of trauma affecting memory, you may be questioning how this might happen. Brittany Piper, whose speaking and activism has helped me a lot to understand my own healing journey and why I’ve been affected in the ways that I have, explains some of the science behind this below :
So basically what I’m saying is that unprocessed or “stuck” trauma puts the prefrontal cortex (which processes logic and learning) and the hippocampus (which processes primarily memories) into a state of shutdown. Some rumination is necessary to overcome this challenge (though how much may depend on the individual), but excessive rumination often leads to the development of trauma and anxiety disorders due to the constant reliving one’s own trauma.
But there have been developments in psychology in the past two decades that are explained in the video below and the part two of it that I’ll link here. We process things “bottom-up,” meaning that memory, learning, and behavior cues are processed and stored in the body– experiencing what we’re learning, in other words, is key. I tend to think that this is largely out of survival adaptation. I think of just how fast some reactions needed to be when hunting or gathering food some thousands of years ago– there was no affordance of time to be able to think much or process things emotionally, what had to be done to survive had to be done. Meanwhile the current generation doesn’t seem to be able to get out of their own heads; they trap themselves in a corner of dissociation using things like video games, social media, pornography, YouTube, and other programs as tools helping them dissociate.
So there’s at least a few things I think we can take out of this in terms of trauma-informed education.
- The first would be that talking someone through a hard time whether a panic attack, outburst of anger, etc., only helps to a certain extent. Yes, always leave your door open to your students so long as you are reasonably able, making sure to also leave time to care for yourself. You may not be a therapist– and that is something to make very clear– but as an educator and a mentor to some, you may become part of the reason a student gathers up the courage to go to one.
- As well as lending an empathetic ear, it also helps to understand how general stimuli are processed, which is why I decided to somewhat focus on that for this week. Understanding how we process and react to things and how our brain’s networks develop is key to discerning the wisest course of action.
- As important as remembering information may be to education, understand that memory is sometimes impacted by trauma, whether temporarily or long-term. Keep encouraging students and reminding them that a person’s worth and intelligence is not ultimately defined by grades or how well they do in school. Encourage students to encourage each other. Encourage a collaborative environment, but also one that students can work independently but still find other ways to love and encourage.
- Also off of the memory point, keep in mind how much more memory is stored in the body. Create an experiential learning space. This may help to prevent PTSD or CPTSD from developing by keeping the body and brain building new, positive neural pathways. This may run the risk of potential triggers for some students, depending on their trauma, but over time, and with patience and work, may help to develop an understanding in the child that yes, there was danger there, but that does not mean there is now or always will be.
And this is in part why I think integrating so much technology into education can be somewhat hurtful to development. Whether it’s like what I studied and wrote my final literary analysis and presented on last semester for psych senior sem about the ways we dissociate using technology (though that was a more narrowly focused form of internet dissociation that I studied) and the state of flow that it can put us into, or maybe it’s just the simple lack of body-to-brain experiences, too much of anything in this world can be a bad thing.