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Let's Go Upstream


As the knowledge of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and trauma resilience begins to flow through Oklahoma and our nation, multiple programs, interventions and entire agencies are popping up to address the negative impact of trauma.  As the river of knowledge flows faster and rises, the words of Desmond Tutu should inspire agencies and schools to take action.  Desmond Tutu so brilliantly stated:

There comes a point where we need to stop just pulling people out of the river.
We need to go upstream and find out why they’re falling in.

His words can be used to motivate us to not simply address ACEs to improve the mental and physical health of adults, but to also acknowledge our youngest citizens who are falling in now.  Adult education about ACEs, self-regulation and competency building skills will decrease the negative impact trauma has on adult lives and thus their families’ lives.  Many agencies have surfaced to address the adult population, teach strategies, create support services, and “pull people out of the river”.  These efforts are vitally important to help build a resilience across our country and must continue to occur.  However, Desmond Tutu calls us to not “just” work downstream.

The implication of going upstream not only suggests finding the source but also preventing the “falling in.”  Through research we know that developmental trauma (trauma that occurs within the care-giving relationship on a regular or prolonged basis) can change brain development not only in infants and children, but in the fetus in the womb as well. So, experiencing ACEs and daily toxic stress in early childhood is one of the main sources causing so many to fall in. Knowing why they fall in allows us to create prevention strategies. Again, adult education regarding ACEs, self-care, positive parenting and strengthening adult-child connections will keep many children from falling in.  Prenatal care and education combined with resources and services to aid parents and decrease ongoing stress or abuse are required preventative strategies. However, no matter how expansive those programs are, some children may still be at risk of falling in.

How can we make sure those children do not fall in and become overwhelmed with trauma and experience life altering mental and physical changes? Children’s brains are very “plastic.”  We now know that if brains can be hurt by ACES, they can also be healed. If we want to see a decrease in the number of adults downstream, we need to prevent as many children as possible from falling in.  This can be achieved through interventions in early childhood education and schools. 

Research tell us that one key strategy increasing resilience in children is one stable, caring supportive relationship with an adult in the child’s community.  Teachers and other staff at early education centers and schools are in a prime position to be that caring adult.  Schools and other agencies working with children should focus on three inter-related layers to help children work towards resilience: 

Safety (both emotional and physical),

knowledge regarding emotions,

and building competency skills

The first layer is creating a safe environment: both physical and emotional safety.   Our brains cannot develop trusting relationships or process information well unless we feel safe.  Physical safety requires looking at the world through the lens of a child and determining how the environment can look and sound inviting.  Emotional safety is developed through relationships with adults who are consistently calm (have good self-regulation), have stable routines, and listen and reflect what the child is saying and feeling. 

The second layer is education regarding emotions.  Children need to learn how to identify feelings and energy in their own bodies: what does it feel like, where do I feel it, what may make me feel that way, and what am I thinking when I feel this way.  Once they learn to identify emotions and energy, then children need to learn how to change or modulate that energy.  Modeling different ways to calm or focus energy should be practiced with the whole class as well as with individuals when needed.  The safe environment should include a place where people can go to calm themselves when their emotions get overwhelming.  Lastly, children will be able to use the relationships created in the first layer to express their needs and emotions in a way that they will be understood. 

After developing a safe environment and helping children understand, modulate and express emotions, schools and agencies should focus on fostering positive identity and executive functions such as inhibitory control, working memory and cognitive flexibility. Trauma has an impact on the developing brain that can decrease the amount of neural connections necessary to perform these executive functions. Specific strategies and interventions should be taught and supported daily to recover these skills.  Doing so will also increase positive self-identity leading to internal belief system changes.  Once the belief system begins to change, the traumatic experiences will no longer be the main focus but will be integrated into the lives of the children with more positive futures.

Many of the above concepts, strategies and skills are already utilized in most schools, especially early education centers. However, once all staff who interact with children and families understand trauma, its effect on developing brains, and how trauma changes the behaviors and internal belief system, these concepts, strategies and skills will take on new meaning and purpose.  By mindfully interacting with children and families and creating an environment devoted to safe and trusting relationships plus building essential skills, we will begin to prevent children from falling in by creating resilience early in their lives. 

Helping children become resilient to trauma, should be one of the efforts we pursue with passion as we address trauma in our communities.  By combining the efforts both downstream and upstream to pull people out of the river and use preventative strategies to keep them from falling in, we will help build a stronger, resilient community.


Written by:

Cheryl StepMS, LPC, NCC, NCSC


Creating Resilience, LLC


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