Self care and trauma informed practice.

-by Tim Grivois-Shah, Ed.D.

Self-care is now mainstream in popular culture, and is discussed more frequently as being part of our professional repertoire in education. And, as more schools respond to the needs of children who have experienced trauma, the need for all educators to view self care as an essential daily practice is growing. More than once, however, I’ve talked to educators who really don’t want to talk about taking care of themselves. What these educators want to know is how to help kids who’ve experienced trauma heal, learn, grow and achieve. Talking about self-care when our students have been through so much can feel selfish at first. 

Trauma Informed Practice begins when practitioners practice self-care. However, while it’s hard for professionals who always place their students’ needs ahead of their own to think of themselves too, making self-care systematic is essential and this is why: 

Because caring for children who have been victims of trauma is hard work. 

Planning lessons, gathering materials, keeping up with developments in our field, and attending to everything else that makes a classroom run is complicated in the best of conditions. 

And, if you work in a school, the likelihood that you are helping children who have experienced trauma is high. The heartbreaking truth is that our schools serve children who have been the victims of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse. Some students have witnessed violence in their home, while others have no permanent, safe place to call home. Many students rely on us to provide breakfast and lunch every day, with some schools providing take-home dinners and clothing, too. These circumstances have the potential to overwhelm a child’s capacity to cope on their own, and the resulting traumatic stress can affect how children learn.

Frequently, helping children who have experienced trauma starts when a teacher listens to one child, holding both the child’s pain and potential at once, and creates space for the child to feel fed, safe, and cared for. Ideally, teachers and school leaders are on teams that think through these complex issues of practice and are able to put plan in place to support our students and all that they bring with them to school as learners. In all settings, helping children heal is complicated work that requires intense amounts of physical and emotional energy. 

Like the flight attendant reminding me to put on my own mask before grabbing a mask for my children, self-care is about more than taking a break to watch a funny video or having coffee with a friend. At its core, self care is about making sure that there is a ‘self’ available to ‘care.’ Really, self care is about surviving and thriving.

Because the most effective caregivers for victims of trauma are those who see themselves clearly and love themselves unconditionally.

Often, children who have experienced trauma have complicated relationships with the people who have harmed them. Sometimes children believe that they are responsible for their trauma, feeling ashamed or embarrassed that they were helpless to prevent what happened. When children have both 1) good reason to distrust adults; and 2) a false sense of responsibility for their hurt, learning how to see themselves as resilient, beautiful, and loved is often an integral part of healing.

While in a different way, we educators come up against our limits daily—the lessons that didn’t work as planned, the paperwork that keeps coming, and the testing regime that keeps telling us we need to work harder. What our teachers and school leaders deserve to hear is that we are doing an amazing job of helping our children and youth learn and grow. 

Take a moment, and think about something you did today that helped a student learn and grow. Guess what? You were the person that did that thing, and you get to feel good about it. All the rest can take care of itself.

Because unless we know how to care for ourselves, we can’t teach someone else how to do it.

Carol Dweck’s work in growth mindset has resonated with educators throughout the world. Dweck’s research demonstrates how people who see intelligence as something that can increase through hard work tend to be happier and more successful than people who think of intelligence as a fixed quantity that doesn’t really changed over time. Even more powerful is Dweck’s well-researched claim that we can learn to have a growth mindset, even if we don’t already have one.

Self-care is similar to growth mindset. It’s possible to change how we think about ourselves. It’s possible to decide to love and care for ourselves even if that has been hard for us to do in the past. And unless each of us does the hard work necessary to love and care for ourselves, we will never be able to teach someone else how to do it. 

Singer and composer Lizzo recently said “Self-care is more than just going to the spa, getting your nails done or drinking a mimosa “’cause it’s Sunday.” Lizzo describes self care as being about self preservation, and involves each of us knowing ourselves well enough to know how to love ourselves. 

Certainly, children who have experienced trauma have a right to know that that are loved and cared for when they are at school, and they have a deeper right to know that love for themselves and from themselves. And, while we can teach students to care for themselves, we have to know how to care for ourselves first.

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