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The Weight of Distance Learning

Let’s understand the weight of distance learning. The education system has struggled to apply known brain science and research on the impacts of trauma on mental health in children (and adults), as it applies to learning. More and more, studies are coming out about the impact of a global pandemic on a child's capacity to learn. They are failing in part, because they are stuck in an antiquated system of “this is how education is done” instead of “Let’s make this be a turning point in education.” A turning point in education focused on creativity and viewing learning as a lifelong process, rather than solely for 12 years of a child’s life. The fact remains, that there is no answer that every family will be happy with because we all in different positions.

I speak as a parent of two elementary school students, as a wife to a high school teacher, and as a child mental health provider of 20 years. Our education system has to change the expectations of the definition of success in this school year.

The pandemic changed everything about our lives. It became apparent quickly that while COVID 19 is highly contagious, so was emotional distress and mental health decline.

Parents and the community heard many districts say in September “we’re providing training on Social Emotional Learning (SEL) to teachers” and that the focus would be on making sure the students were capable of learning, because teachers would focus on the students emotional needs first.

Many districts have failed to provide teachers with trauma-informed learning strategies or even awareness of the impact trauma has on the learning brain. Many districts relied on programs and self-motivated teachers to learn how to put effective SEL practices in place. This failed attempt to develop a culture of SEL, has also failed to meet the demands that a pandemic places on both students and teachers.

Districts and Administrators under distress and pressure themselves became reactive in their expectations of students learning and the outcomes needed to achieve their goal. The focus has been on grades, in part because that has been the way to assess a district in meeting a child’s educational needs - passing grades and graduation rates. Yet, brain science says- A child cannot learn, let alone achieve when they are experiencing TRAUMA.

The global pandemic created a traumatic event that impacted EVERYONE. No one will get away unscathed by this event. For a child, this event has disrupted their life, is causing them physical and emotional harm, and overturned their family and education system into an Adverse Childhood Experience(ACE). Everyone got an additional ACE added to their score.

ACE’s have been shown to be significant factors that impact the lifelong physical, psychological, and emotional well being of humans. We can not simply ignore that this added ACE has not put some children and families over the threshold for significant risk. To that end, if an educational system is failing to recognize and address this trauma impact on themselves, their teacher colleagues, and their students- that too is causing harm and risk to the wellbeing of ALL involved.

The impact of ACE’s can be offset by CONNECTION and being in RELATIONSHIP. This develops resilience in humans to weather the storm of a traumatic event and to develop resilience or grit to future life stressors. This is achievable if known, addressed, and applied to the humans impacted. We can do this by taking a trauma-informed approach to education.

So much concern is being placed on the idea that “they will fall behind in school.” Fall behind how? EVERYONE is in this pandemic storm. This will be an anomaly year. A year that when anyone looks at transcripts or grades, they will know it was the year of COVID19. What will be studied is the recovery period in subsequent years. A student can learn and “get caught up” when they are healthy, in relationship with teachers, and there is a rhythm to daily life again. When the FEAR is gone, LEARNING will happen.

We need to reset realistic expectations for this school year. We need to set expectations for this school year around where we ARE, not where we think we should be. Already teachers and students feel “done.” Teachers and Administrators are trying to achieve the same level of learning as a typical school year. THIS IS NOT A TYPICAL SCHOOL YEAR.

Teachers need to be addressing their own stress response to the global pandemic. Teachers, you are experiencing "trauma fatigue" too. This is negatively impacting the emotional and mental health of students and families. Teacher and parent reports of students missing class time and assignments at higher rates this year demonstrates that the school system is missing the bigger picture. Students are saying “School forgets about my emotions,” “Teachers say stop working after 3, but to get the work done I’m up until 9 or 10pm,” and “If teachers want quality work done, give us time to do them, I’m too stressed out by their expectations.”

We are shouting from the rooftops, as many mental health experts have stated that the focus has to be on developing and managing emotional connections and relationships. Connection and relationships are more important to a student’s well being than academics. We all want children to be learning, to progress academically and socially, however we are living in a global pandemic followed by a mental health crisis. The world is different, therefore we must do something different. We have to adapt and flex, be curious about trying a new way of approaching learning.

Parents, I know you are concerned and are seeking out knowledge and information to help yourself and your child survive this pandemic with minimal impact. I am a parent too. Unfortunately, the mental health of your children is in decline (likely yours is as well). The disconnection from teachers and peers is creating mental health challenges for most children. We are seeing your student’s anxiety and depression skyrocket!

While some students are doing well in distance learning, this is a small minority and likely students who were headed to online learning before the pandemic hit. Even for students who are doing moderately well with school right now, their mental health is still suffering. This demonstrates the impact of this global trauma. Distance learning is disrupting the parent-child relationship as well. Parents, you are not teachers. You must monitor your well being first. Don’t fall for the pressure from the school to get missing assignments in. Instead check-in with your kid, and make a plan for their current assignments.

Parents please note that your well-being and self-care is priceless right now. Take care of yourselves FIRST.

There appears to be no cohesive plan on the application of trauma-informed education awareness or application of the brain science in the classroom for many school districts. The focus has remained on attendance, assignment completions, and non-failing grades. WHY?

The brain science and research state that a child’s physical, emotional, and mental needs must be met first and then they can LEARN. A child’s brain develops from bottom to top, primitive to cognitive functioning in the neocortex. Trauma impacts this development as learning only happens in the neocortex. When the body is in distress, the primitive brain takes over, turning off cognitive functioning and executive skills until the body tells the brain it is safe and secure again- it does this by being regulated, which is to feel safe and connected.

The fatigue and constant high-stress levels are informing all of us how the pandemic is impacting us at all levels. We are ALL desperate for connection, to feel safe, to feel secure in our world again. This is especially true for teachers and students most of all, as the weight is on them. The teachers will be graded by their passing rates. Students will be judged on assignment completion and grades. These “results” at the end of the year somehow define success or not for our community? All the pressure to be placed on the youngest humans?

Dr. Bruce Perry, MD, Ph.D., a world-renowned Psychiatrist and expert in childhood trauma, knows from his research that adults are the regulators of children. If a grown-up or teacher is frustrated, stressed, and dysregulated, this is transmitted onto and communicated to the children they interact with. He notes “emotional contagion” can be negative and positive, the grown-ups have the brain experience to choose, children do not. Developing brains need time to fully develop, 25+ years actually. Therefore, it is up to the teachers and grownups in a child’s life to help them be successful in their development during and after the pandemic.

If a grown-up, caregiver or teacher is dysregulated, the child/student becomes dysregulated and the child’s brain is now in a state that they are unable to learn. Thus, the need for self-care for grown-ups, both teachers and parents alike. Teachers especially must be regulated before they interact with children, it is crucial to student learning success and everyone’s wellbeing.

Teachers, we beg you, SLOW DOWN-GIVE THEM A BREAK.

Across the board students are reporting “we have too many assignments so we give up,” “teachers think all I have is their class,” "teachers only care about their own agendas, not us," and “teachers don’t understand I see their stress and I shut down and don’t want to be in class.”

In fact, just as dysregulation can be passed on, so too can regulation. This concept is called co-regulation and is established by having relational safety and connection with another human. Administrators need to facilitate relationships and ensure their teachers are not transferring their own dysregulation to students by setting accurate expectations, having clear policies and procedures to follow, to back them up when parents and students complain, and to be supported when they speak up and say, “I’m not ok.” Teachers, if you would like to learn about Dr. Perry’s work you can find some videos here.

In fact, Administrators need to attune to their own level of functioning first, then interact with the teachers. If we expect students to learn this skill, then it is one that needs to be fostered and demonstrated to them by the grown-ups in school. Stress trickles down and pressure becomes heaviest to those on the bottom, currently, this is our students.

Student behaviors such as low motivation, apathy towards work, negative attitudes, inability to complete tasks (turning in assignments), poor focus and concentration, and refusal to comply with instructions are symptoms of a larger problem. The problem is the system is not attending to the needs of the humans in the system. Even the Association for School Counselors educates school counselors that emotional and social well being must come before learning can occur. How is your school applying this knowledge today?

Currently, the educational system is failing to meet the needs of the teachers (lack of training, lack of support from administrators, lack of boundaries with parents, lack of self-care), creating a dangerous mix of dynamics in a system under pressure. The system is in a trauma cycle as well, they also have the power to change, adapt, and problem solve these challenges.

Instead, teachers are being told to do more, to hold the responsibility of all of their students, to learn new ways of teaching, to be isolated away from colleagues, to manage their own stress, and to manage the mental health of their students, which currently is in decline. We are asking our teachers to burn themselves out during a pandemic. This is avoidable. We are not going to have any teachers left for 2021 if we fail to support them this year.

And then there are the students. Students are suffering from increased anxiety and depression. Many are choosing suicide(ages 10-18 have dreamatically increased) and self-harm, because the system is not listening. Students bear the brunt of the societal weight of distance learning. They have been expected to adapt without a struggle. They have been told to “buck up” and “keep going” and show up to a world that is foreign and with old rules in place. Children are great observers of the world, we are teaching children to not trust their instincts, to override the inner voice for the sake of an outcome of a GRADE.

The students bear the weight of the culture change this pandemic brought and they are buckling under the pressure. We are not listening to science and we are not listening to the children. We can not tell them we understand. We can not tell them we know how it feels. We can not tell them everything will be alright. We can not tell them they are safe.

It is not healthy or realistic to expect students to get “caught up” on missed schoolwork, without addressing their brain state of functioning. In and out of the classroom children are going to struggle. Once students are back in school, their behaviors are going to escalate because their brains will still not be able to learn unless they are regulated and in a relationship with their teacher. In-class instruction after the pandemic will need even further understanding of the impact of learning on the stressed out brains of children, it will not be a return to "normal" just because you are back in the classroom.

Dr. Bruce Perry’s Neurosequential Model in Education, teaches about the six R’s for a classroom. These are “relational, relevant, respectful, rhythmic, repetitive and rewarding.” These six R’s are required for a healthy life and a trauma-informed classroom. He states the 6 R’s are crucial for parents and teachers to know in order to support the student/child’s “relational foundation.” This foundation is what supports and maintains a child’s development. Their brain state determines their ability to be regulated, maintain regulation, and thus allow a child to reach their learning goals.

In the image below is Dr. Perry’s demonstration of how our brain states impact a human’s overall level of functioning based on his Neurodevelopmental Model of Therapeutics which applies to education as well. Per his recent reports, Perry notes that most of us are in the ALARM or FEAR states a majority of the time.

While the second image applies his model to organizations like school districts which currently flip back and forth between the anxiety and fear states, as demonstrated by thier actions. We must understand the role that systems play in impacting a human's state of being and its impact on the developing brain. This is trauma-informed awareness. It is with this knowledge we can apply practices that foster emotional wellbeing for students and teachers.

So what do we do?

We give the teachers the knowledge, and we provide them a culture of support to manage and regulate their own brain states so that they can successfully co-regulate students. We focus on connecting before teaching. We set expectations that match a student’s ability. We ensure a student feels safe and basic needs are met before we DEMAND they show up and learn. We support parents who cannot do it all to take a break, to have no homework, just family time. We provide education and support to families on how to strengthen connections and relationships with their students, not missing assignments and tests. We pay attention to the science and let the pandemic pass. This year will pass.

We must focus on regulation. This is a low brain or brain stem level of functioning. When a human is regulated they feel safe, secure, and connected to others. When regulated, the emotional brain comes online, meaning they can start to engage with the world around them. Once the body and emotions feel safe and secure, a student/child can begin to be curious about learning. The research shows that if schools can support these regulated states- learning is accelerated and students meet academic targets more successfully.

The research shows that positive connected relationships counter the stressors and impact of ACE’s. The ONE thing teachers must do is be regulated when with students. They have to have the capacity to engage with co-regulation for the positive connections and relationships to develop and strengthen. This is not simply a space like a classroom, it is a sense of being. When a human can “be with” another human, the interpersonal dynamics of relationships do what is intended -make healthy connected relationships where regulation happens and learning can occur. This isn’t about teaching the content, it is being present with your students-FIRST.

When teachers understand the underpinnings of neurobiology and how a child’s brain develops, they can use strategies to allow for learning to be most successful. This means knowing how to balance lecture, group work, individual work, and task completion to be attuned to the students' brain states so that they can ACTUALLY LEARN.

This would decrease the stress of teachers who feel the pressure to “get it all in” and the students bearing the weight of unrealistic expectations. Students are the ones bearing the brunt and then we wonder why they shut down, meltdown, refuse and check out. They are doing what any human would do under a traumatic event- stop functioning till it is safe to do so.

If we do not do these things, our children/students will grow up in a world that doesn’t flex, that doesn’t adapt, that doesn’t empathize, that doesn’t have compassion for another’s pain. We risk them losing themselves, their ability to know who they are, and what they can become. We tell them that being vulnerable and having compassion and empathy for suffering is worthless. That being human is painful and they do not belong. We tell them to do as we say, not as we do.

If you are a school adminstartor, I plead with you to LISTEN. Let classrooms be safe places. Let going to school be about curiosity and connection. Encourage teachers to be regulated grown-ups in a student’s life. Focus on being human first and for the relationships to heal. To have a student's life NOT revolve around a GRADE they achieved during the pandemic. We must listen to the needs of the children and not the demands of society. For those districts doing this already- Thank you for daring to lead.

Academics will come. Children can get “caught up,” let this year be the anomaly in a child’s education. Let this year be about focusing on your child’s mental and physical health. Let learning be life long versus focused on 12 years.

The impact of the pandemic will be felt for many years to come. It is a collective trauma. School can NOT continue as usual, as we are living in a pandemic- that is likely going to last through the next school year.In-class instruction after the pandemic will need even further understanding of the impact of learning on the stressed-out brains of children.

Paying attention to the impact trauma has on the brain, and that children/students need healing, will allow their learning to “catch up,” and maybe children will learn just how resilient they can be when they have the correct support around them.

Our children will have to live with our pandemic response, not us.

Their brains are undergoing change as we speak and we can help those changes have positive outcomes. If we are brave enough to acknowledge that change is the right thing to do- for the mental health and wellbeing of our children.

Cary M. Hamilton LMHC, RPT-S, NCC, CMHS, CDWF


1 Comment

I am a student of your husband's and I read through this article and thought it was very insightful. As a high school student, I think the hardest thing for me is not being able to connect with people I used to see five times a week. I'm not making connections with my teachers or even getting to know them because I'm not forced to see them or interact with them. A lot of weight is put on the teachers I agree with this 100%. Many teachers don't know what to do and simply give students more work. You mentioned that school counselors are trained to deal with social and emotional wellbeing with students. I find this interesting because I…

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