For a moment, imagine you are about to enter a room for a big test or an important job interview. How do you feel? Anxious? Overwhelmed? Do you have trouble concentrating? Maybe you could not sleep the night before? Perhaps you would experience all the above and more. These are just a few of the signs and symptoms of stress in our bodies. Undoubtedly, many of these symptoms have intensified through the COVID-19 pandemic. Many families are experiencing hardships such as unemployment, financial insecurity, and homelessness leading to increased stress levels, especially historically underserved communities. Our nation’s youth have been left especially vulnerable to stress as their routine environments change, they are separated from support systems, and feelings of trust and safety are broken. This crisis is exacerbated for youth in marginalized communities. As many schools begin returning to in-person instruction, it is crucial to implement practices that help students heal from these broken senses of trust and safety. Out-of-school or afterschool programs present a unique opportunity for educators and students to come together and do just this.
The Threat of Toxic Stress
Stress is expected or even necessary in the everyday lives of children and adults. This expected stress is known as positive stress and helps us stay alert, focused, and able to make safe, responsible decisions. More severe temporary periods of stress are standard as well. However, a tipping point exists when stress becomes toxic and sometimes traumatic rather than tolerable in young people’s lives. Oftentimes, the deciding factor between tolerable stress and toxic stress is whether or not the young person has healthy relationships with trusted adults in their life. A brief biology lesson on stress and the brain is needed to understand why this trusted relationship is so vital in buffering toxic stress. When children experience a stressful event, their brain releases a stress hormone known as cortisol, which causes the familiar “fight, flight, freeze” feeling. When exposed to toxic stress or a traumatic event, the brain can overproduce cortisol. This overproduction of cortisol can have damaging effects on how the brain regulates emotions, holds attention, expresses behavior, and learns. When a child has a strong positive relationship with adults like teachers, this produces a different hormone, oxytocin. Oxytocin can counterbalance cortisol and buffer the damages of toxic stress on the developing mind. Amid a traumatic, cortisol-producing pandemic, it is necessary to surround young people with supportive, oxytocin-producing relationships and environments. If not addressed or buffered, this toxic stress can have negative consequences on long-term life outcomes.
Healing in Practice
It is clear why it is crucial to surround young people with supportive relationships and trusted environments in their afterschool time; however, it is equally important to understand how to do this. Throughout October, nationally recognized as Afterschool Awareness Month, the Afterschool Alliance held a three-part webinar series titled, “Caring for Children and Youth in Crisis.” This webinar series focused on the critical role that afterschool programs play in healing our nation’s young people as they endure chronic toxic stress. In part one of the webinar series, panelist Brigid Ahern, President and CEO of Turnaround for Children, shared 5 Non-Negotiables for Whole-Child Design as a model for what those stress-buffering, relationships and environments look like in the afterschool setting. This model serves as the foundation for approaches that give every student the opportunity to thrive and heal.
For education practitioners, integrating research models like Turnaround for Children’s Whole Child Design in afterschool programs can seem daunting and requires both knowledge and willingness. In part two of the Afterschool Alliance’s “Caring for Children and Youth in Crisis” series, Dr. Shawn Ginwright, Founder and CEO of Flourish Agenda, Inc., spotlights healing-centered engagement rather than trauma-informed practices as the key to transforming a research model into a living, supportive afterschool environment. Healing-centered engagement is a way of shifting how we view trauma. Reframing trauma-informed practices as healing-centered approaches help capture students’ lived experiences rather than isolating individual traumatic experiences. Building these intentional relationships with students places them in the driver’s seat of their own healing.
“A healing centered approach to addressing trauma requires a different question that moves beyond “what happened to you” to “what’s right with you” and views those exposed to trauma as agents in the creation of their own well-being rather than victims of traumatic events.” –Shawn Ginwright, Ph.D.
In his Medium article titled “The Future of Healing: Shifting From Trauma Informed Care to Healing Centered Engagement,” Dr. Ginwright identifies four key elements that differentiate healing-centered engagement from trauma-informed ones. First, healing-centered engagement is unique because it is a political relationship rather than a clinical one. Not that it is partisan, but rather that it engages community action and is built on an awareness of justice and inequity in our society. Second, healing-centered engagement is grounded in one’s cultural identity, giving young people a powerful sense of meaning in their healing. Third, because these relationships are grounded in identity, they are asset driven and not symptom targeting. Last and most important, healing-centered engagement supports two-way healing. Adults have experienced trauma in the pandemic as well. Before presuming that they can help young people heal, educators must determine a way to sustain their own healing and well-being.
Conclusion and Actionable Considerations
It is no secret that since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the lives of our nation’s young people have been anything but stable. For many, the pandemic worsened an already stressed community. Educators and policymakers should consider how to ensure young people can utilize their afterschool time to begin their healing process. The third and final part of the Afterschool Alliance’s “Caring for Children and Youth in Crisis” webinar series presented important considerations for advocating policy supporting trauma-informed and healing-centered practices. In reviewing the series as a whole, the following three recommendations can be made.
1. Advocate for local action by joining or beginning a Trauma-Informed (or Healing-Centered) Community Network.
Trauma-Informed Community Networks, such as the one in Fairfax Virginia, are multi-disciplinary partnerships that engage educators, policymakers, and community members alike. This method of leveraging widespread community engagement can encourage the advancement of trauma-informed policy decisions and increase support for local afterschool programs. It is also essential to consider the distinctions between trauma-informed and healing-centered practices. While trauma-informed practices may be a place to start, transition to healing-centered language may be more impactful.
2. Organize Site Visits for Policymakers.
Bringing policymakers into the afterschool environment engages them in a way that connects them to the communities that they serve. These intimate interactions allow young people and educators to share their personal experiences with policymakers and opens the door to building empathy. It is crucial to recognize that hosting site visits for policymakers in the COVID-19 pandemic may look very different than site visits in the past. Still, with the helpful presence of technology, virtual site visits may be just as effective.
3. Build empathy.
Whether an educator hopes to implement healing-centered engagement in an afterschool program or policymakers are looking to serve their constituents better, it is vital to start by building empathy. Through this practice, it becomes easier to reflect on actions taken with a critical lens. By building empathy, educators can better connect with their students, and policymakers can prevent trauma rather than exacerbate it.