I have been reading The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel Van der Kolk and the more I get into the book the more I think about my students. I was just reading about our preprogrammed physical response to crisis which is fight or flight. We all know this part. I don’t think we spend a lot of time thinking about it because it is just a part of life. Bessel Van der Kolk talks about this pre-programming being in the oldest parts of our brain and that when this part of our brain has to take over in times of high stress our higher brain, our conscious mind has to partially shut down so that our brain can propel our body to run, hide, fight, or sometimes freeze.
Think about that…our lower, older, more primitive part of our brain, the part that can save us, has to partially shut down our higher brain, part of which is where we generate speech.
And then he goes on to say,
“If for some reason the normal response is blocked–for example, when people are held down, trapped, or otherwise prevented from taking effective action, be it in a war zone, a car accident, domestic violence, or a rape–the brain keeps secreting stress chemicals, and the brain’s electrical circuits continue to fire in vain. Long after the actual event has passed, the brain may keep sending signals to the body to escape a threat that no longer exists.” (p 54)
It’s that last part that hit me the hardest…”Long after the actual event has passed, the brain may keep sending signals to the body to escape a threat that no longer exists”.
This is what is happening in some of my students. I witness it on a daily basis. I am trying to teach students whose brains are sending their bodies signals to escape. I am asking some of my students to do something that I am not sure many of us could do in their circumstance. I am asking them to overcome what their brain is telling them to do. I am asking them to reignite that higher part of their brain, focus, absorb and retain information and keep their body from trying to escape a threat that does not exist in my classroom. I am asking 6 and 7 year olds to do this. I’m sorry, but how fucked up is that? I am actually sitting here, tearing up at the thought of what my job is.
With my whole being I want these kids to learn. I tell them on almost a daily basis how important it is for them to learn to read and do math so they can go to college, get jobs, buy a home, pay for things they want, so they can read interesting things, figure out how things work, find out what I have written on their note home…I want this for them and I believe in them that they can learn these things. But then I am faced with the reality of their lives. Faced with the reality of chemistry and how our brains and bodies work. And I think I need to do some things differently next year.
I started this year with a strong focus on teaching them about their bodies and their brains. We worked on calming techniques and we learned about how to read other’s bodies and how to handle social situations in ways that would be kind to all involved. But then I got swept up in academics. I felt pressure to teach them the right academic things and that was overwhelming for me since I really had no idea what they were supposed to be learning or how to teach it. I moved away from our mindfulness practices and our social skills as formal parts of our day and moved towards academic blocks of time. I focused on figuring out how to teach academics and it was too hard to keep all the balls in the air. It’s not that we don’t do calming activities or learn about social skills, it is just not a major focus of our day.
I keep telling people that next year I will walk into my classroom with more knowledge. And, I will. I want to be intentional this summer. I need to be planful about the year ahead because I need to find ways to provide the therapeutic environment my students desperately need so that they can learn all the things I know they are capable of learning.
I have the opportunity to go back to autism next year instead. I haven’t really even thought twice about it though. I could go back to what is also a challenging job but in many ways is so much more manageable than my current position and often I really miss those kids. But as hard as my days are now and even when a kid is driving me up the wall after he’s been crying, trying to bite and scratch me, spitting in my face, telling me “Fuck you”, attempting to tear my room apart, and being overall difficult to like I find myself looking down at him and seeing the little boy who is often hard to see through such extreme behavior and feeling love. I really love my kids. Don’t get me wrong, I am happy when my day is done and I look forward to extended breaks because they exhaust me to my core but I love them and I think they know it 🙂 I’m not going to be another adult in their lives who walks away because they are too hard. Who will they become if we all walk away?