Special Edition: Trauma and the Emotional First Responder

Dear Educator,

It’s Amanda writing this time! We’ll explain why...

This month we’ve decided to pause family engagement business as usual, and ask a difficult question:

How do we as educators become the Emotional First Responders?

The news in recent weeks has been devastating. Mass shootings, hurricanes, wildfires tearing across California. But as Mr. Rogers said, in a terrible situation, look for the helpers. We’ve also seen so many first responders rush in to help.

At Family Friendly Schools, recent traumatic news has hit very close to home.

Dr. Joni’s home and the FFS HQ is in Chico, CA and she is currently living in a hotel after being evacuated from her house just outside of Paradise, CA.

Yes, that Paradise, CA.

Dr. Joni wants you to know she so appreciated the concerned emails and texts. Our Family Friendly School community is amazing!

But it has still been very, very hard.

While Joni and her home are ok, when we spoke with her last week she described herself as having a “mushy brain.” The constant hum of worry and uncertainty makes it nearly impossible to concentrate on anything.

She was missing appointments, couldn’t work at the same pace she’s used to, and just didn’t feel herself.

When we met this month as a team to talk about the newsletter, one thing became very clear - we need to speak with YOU about the impact of trauma on our students because many of them deal with traumatic events and “mushy brain” every day.

What is an Emotional First Responder? How can we as family engagement professionals support emotional first response in our schools?

We’ve identified 4 crucial steps:

  1. Invest in your emotional trust bank with students.

  2. Pause business as usual, and use your community as a resource.

  3. Be the emotional anchor.

  4. Be willing to go deeper & ask difficult questions.

Let’s go through them together...

First, invest in your emotional trust bank with students - starting today.

Trust is like an emotional bank account and you make deposits into it when students see that you’re interested in them, that you listen to them, and that you’re not afraid when they express strong emotions. This means really listening to what they’re saying (and not saying.)

When you greet students at the door, you're making deposits. When you send home a "feel better soon" text, you're making a deposit.

The sad reality is that something traumatic most likely will occur in their lives.

Either your entire community will go through a natural disaster or another community-wide event (everyone on the FFS team was a student or teacher during 9/11 and remembers it distinctly)…

Or, individual students in your school will go through a personal event that won’t make the nightly news. Divorce, death of a loved one, an alcoholic parent who goes on a bender…

The impact of either type of trauma can be obvious or hard to detect, but your gut will tell you “something’s off here”.

Even when you think “everything’s great over here” - that’s still a super important time to continue investing in your emotional trust bank.

Commit today to do something small (we have ideas in our downloadable!).

By investing in your emotional trust bank with your students today, they’ll have a balance they can draw on when these big events occur in their lives.

Second, when you suspect or know a traumatic event has occurred pause business as usual and use your community as a resource.

Here’s an example:

Dr. Joni had a student one day acting out. As he passed from class to class each teacher sent him to the office for misbehaving. They had classes to teach!

Finally, the student ended up with a lunch monitor who sat with him on a bench outside and asked “What’s going on today? You’re not acting like yourself…” With a few more questions and a lot of patience, the student opened up and shared that his dog died the night before.

No other adults had taken the time to ask him what was going on, and once the teachers knew what had happened they all created a lot of space for the heartbroken kiddo.

You might be saying, “But I just can’t pause everything for just one student.”

The truth is that for the kid going through the traumatic event - business as usual has already sailed out the door. They often forget things they easily remember, miss schedules and deadlines, or get sick. That’s part of the “mushy brain”.

Your community can be a resource here. Ask an aide to take over your class and take a moment to sit in a comfy corner of the room with your student. If you teach older kids, you could start a lunch peer support group to help students support each other. On 9/11, many classrooms just stopped the day’s lessons and turned on the news to watch together.

This month we specifically paused our prepared email for you to write this one, and then intentionally held our Practitioner’s Backbone call to increase our support for each other even though Dr. Joni was facing stressful circumstances.

It is in these times of uncertainty that we need each other more than usual.

Third, be the emotional anchor & be willing to ask the difficult questions.

Whatever way a student is experiencing trauma, you respond with empathy, concern, and comfort.

An Emotional First Responder commits to teaching the human beings in front of them, not the content. If you must deviate from your lesson plan to be an Emotional First Responder, you take that unexpected turn.

This doesn’t mean that you need to be a psychologist or solve their problems. But this does mean that you aren’t dismissive (Oh, you’ll get a new dog!) or minimizing of the situation they are in (If you just start the assignment, I’m sure you’ll forget about your dog!).

We’re uniquely positioned to make a powerful difference in our students’ lives when we engage as Emotional First Responders.

Committed to your success,

Dr. Joni, Amanda and the entire FFS team