Professional Resource

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MEMBER CORNER: Eleonora Cahill, PhD

"So what does a trauma-informed early childhood learning community look like?... It is one where the compassionate, dependable relationship with adults re-establish trust and create opportunities for new, healthy, emotional experiences for children..."

Many years ago, prior to my career as a psychologist, I was a teacher. I distinctly remember, early in my teaching career, when I would go home in tears, completely at a loss for how to support my students who were profoundly impacted by trauma. I remember, clearly, the ways in which I struggled to create curriculum that met their many needs, both academic and emotional, that was at the same time aligned with the curricular goals of the school. What I learned most, in that time, was that building relationships was paramount, that authentic connections and attunement were my greatest tools.

Fast forward in time. I am in my pre-doctoral internship, providing trauma therapy to a 3-year-old boy, a survivor of perhaps the most profound experiences of abuse and neglect that I have seen in my professional career. By the time I met him, he had already been in 7 foster homes, held numerous mental health diagnoses, and was at risk of being removed from his preschool placement due to the center’s concern about their ability to meet his significant behavioral challenges. Sadly, his story is not unique. I worked with my young client in play therapy—and in family therapy with his foster mom—as he worked to recover and heal, bore witness to the re-enactment of his trauma, and sought to provide co-regulating experiences for him. I consulted with his preschool (from which ultimately, he was asked to leave) around ways to establish safety and predictability, to build relationships, and to provide space where he could have corrective experiences that would support his ability to grow and learn. And at the end of my internship year, I left him.

I have thought often of this child, and of myself as a young educator lacking the necessary resources to support my students, and it is these experiences that planted the seeds for the nonprofit which I co-founded in 2018, Resilient Futures. Our mission is to promote equitable, safe, resilient communities for all youth. We utilize the HEARTS (Healthy Environments and Response to Trauma in Schools) model, developed by Drs. Joyce Dorado and Miriam Martinez at the University of California, San Francisco, to promote trauma-informed early childhood learning and school communities.

It is now well known that trauma has a profound impact on early childhood development. Early influences of trauma can have a significant impact on brain development, interfering with a child’s executive functioning, self-regulation, and ability to cope with stress, process information, and maintain attention. Young children who experience trauma often demonstrate speech, language, and cognitive delays, in addition to behavioral challenges, making it difficult for them to succeed in pre-school settings. Working with all members of an early childhood learning community, Resilient Futures provides training and consultation needed to understand trauma, develop strategies to provide healing encounters, and promote wellness and resilience for all members of the center, including staff.

Although all early childhood learning communities are different, I have found several salient recommendations that educators and providers repeatedly identify as most helpful. First, a shift in mindset when working with children experiencing challenging behaviors that often stem from trauma, from one that asks, “What is wrong with this child?” to one that wonders “What has happened to this child?” This shift in mindset provides a critical context, fosters compassion, and helps to maintain optimism about the future of both the students and the learning community. Second, an understanding of the ways in which trauma truly alters the architecture of the brain. Many of the most challenging behaviors encountered by early childhood educators are a direct result of a young child’s coping with adverse experiences. Rather than viewing these behaviors as maladaptive, we support educators to reframe behavior and to recognize that challenging behaviors are often misapplied survival skills. In healing relationships, children can and do learn new, healthy ways to respond. Third, is the active promotion of wellness and self-care for provider and educators. At Resilient Futures, we recognize that working with children affected by trauma can take both a physical and an emotional toll on caregivers. By identifying and naming these experiences for staff and providers, and intentionally promoting opportunities for self-care, staff can begin to foster their own resilience.

So what does a trauma-informed early childhood learning community look like? It’s one where teachers and caregivers prioritize relationships, attachment, co-regulation, and attunement. It is one where the compassionate, dependable relationship with adults re-establish trust and create opportunities for new, heathy, emotional experiences for children. It is one where children are engaged with pedagogies that affirm and promote their sense of self-worth. It is one where adults engage in their own personal wellness that allows them to show up present, engaged, and with compassion to learn and grow with the young children entrusted in their care.

To learn more about Resilient Futures, Inc., please visit our website at www.resilientfutures.us.

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