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Thursday / May 26

Trauma, Anxiety, and The Healing Power of Asset-Based Relationships

As educators, we often wear many hats to support our students. Coach. Mentor. Counselor. Cheerleader. Guide. The relationships we build and nurture have the power to transform a kid’s life. Teachers make a difference. So, we balance many roles to provide holistic care for each student. We give out of love. However, for many educators, providing holistic care this year has proven more difficult. The hats we wear for students seem heavier, and getting through a typical school day feels tougher. Why? Because it is.

The COVID-19 pandemic changed everything. Hundreds of thousands of people died. Numerous people lost jobs. Homelessness rose. Schools closed. We struggled to live with only virtual contact as we chose isolation out of safety.  Our world that seemed safe and reliable shook and crumbled.

Once school reopened, everyone expected things for students to go back to “normal.” The only problem? Students came back carrying burdens heavier than backpacks and laptop bags. Chances are you have seen an increase in anxiety, apathy, and an uptick in negative student behaviors. The reality is that living so long in a natural disaster has taken a toll on our students’ mental health.

A Rise in Anxiety

According to The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 9.4 percent of children aged 3 to 17 (approximately 5.8 million) have been diagnosed with anxiety. Families seeking help with their child’s mental health are being faced with months-long waiting lists for health providers and no way to help their child who may be struggling. For those reasons, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and the Children’s Hospital Association have declared a “National Emergency” in children’s mental health. Children are struggling and can’t get the help they need. Over time, those with anxiety form neural pathways to react automatically to their environment, resulting in the flight, fight, or freeze reflexes you may see in classroom behaviors.

School counselors work to help students, but with hundreds to thousands of kids on their caseloads, they can only do so much. Teachers step in to help their students learn and also deal with the trauma and anxiety, but supporting each student as they struggle can be exhausting. The effort can cause even the most incredible teachers to question whether the relationships they form can really help students.

The Power in Relationships

Research shows that the adverse effects of trauma and anxiety can be mitigated by the presence of just one positive relationship in a student’s life. This means that forming one positive relationship can provide the support a student needs to begin to heal. However, teachers need to remember that the trauma and anxiety students carry with them did not get created in a day, so healing, even with great relationships, will take time.

Often those experiencing anxiety and trauma feel invisible and powerless. Through intentionally shifting student/teacher relationships to focus first on a student’s strengths, we can help combat these negative attributions. By deliberately pointing out a student’s strengths, value, and worth, we can help students build new neural pathways to decrease the impact of anxiety and trauma.

Asset-Based Education

An asset-based approach to forming relationships with students offers healing by assisting students in viewing themselves through what they bring to the world, not by what they lack. According to research, trauma and anxiety can be isolating and lower a person’s self-worth. An asset-based approach in the classroom is vital in fostering healing. Why? The relationships a student has show them how they should see the world and how they should view themself in the context of others.

To create strong attachments, people who experience trauma need to feel secure and have a sense of self-worth. Sadly, education typically takes a deficit-based approach, highlighting students’ weaknesses. The deficit-based approach causes more trauma and anxiety as students are grouped by what they’re not good at, like being weak in history, low in self-control, or lacking social skills. Kids need help in areas of weakness, but without first honoring the strengths and talents they bring, they have nothing to grow from and cling to.

When teachers take an asset-based approach, the student may initially view the assets as empty compliments. Utilizing an objective tool to help students see they have strengths and talents can help them trust an asset-based classroom culture.  For example, using the free strengths and interest assessments on Thrively or having students fill out a character strength assessment can help students see their strengths.  They get a profile of their psychological strengths or character strengths as soon as they finish.

These objective strength assessments can help you as the teacher learn to see your students in a new light and provide each student with a profile of strengths.  No one is good at everything, but everyone can see they are good at something through an asset-based approach.  The more assets we highlight in our students, the more we enrich our relationships with them and empower them to heal and thrive. Asset-based teaching takes a mental shift.

A former student taught me a Zulu greeting that genuinely symbolizes the daily goal of asset-based teaching with students: “Sawubona.” The greeting means, “I see you, you are important to me, and I value you.” It’s based on the idea of constantly looking at a person with fresh eyes without grudges, prejudice, and bias. The greeting serves as a reminder that we should understand and appreciate students every time we see them.

Somedays, student behaviors and actions may cloud our thoughts with negativity. That’s why it’s essential to hold on to the idea of Sawubona while we seek to see past individual moments and remember the worth a person brings with them to the classroom community. It’s a reminder that every life brings value to the world. Anxiety and trauma may cause students to doubt their worth, but they can find encouragement, strength, and the power to heal through asset-based relationships.

Written by

Cathleen Beachboard is a teacher, author, and researcher. She writes and creates content for Edutopia and has been featured by TED-Ed. After adopting five children out of a case of extreme abuse and neglect, she has been on a mission to improve outcomes for those who experience trauma and anxiety. Cathleen has taught middle school English for the past 15 years. She also works as a part-time researcher holding an M.A. in Psychology. Her research focuses on psychological tools schools can use to help students and staff increase psychological hope, resiliency, achievement, and happiness. You can find her on Twitter @Cathleenbeachbd.

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