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Building resiliency ain’t easy

Building resiliency is a difficult task.

People battle toxic threats and constant stressors – poverty, discrimination, inequitable access to quality healthcare, food, and housing, and a sense of safety, acceptance, and security. We know that this is the case for many of our students, yet if we want our schools to succeed and our students to truly flourish and become compassionate, empathetic, and hardworking individuals, then we must begin to focus on enhancing their sense of resiliency.

The importance of giving our students a language to describe how they are feeling, both physically and emotionally, cannot be understated as one step toward resiliency.

Have you ever asked a young person, who is clearly stressed and overwhelmed, “how are you feeling?” only to be answered with a mumbled “fine” or “mad.”

Too often, their feelings are so immense that they struggle to find the words to explain how they truly feel within that moment and therefore the frustration builds – often resulting in angry outbursts or complete withdrawal.

Emotional literacy is necessary for social and academic success – we must figure out ways to enhance our students’ sense of self and their ability to communicate about their feelings.

But, as always, the answer is how to go about doing just that?

After reading about the work that other districts across the country were doing to support trauma-sensitive schools, Buncombe County’s schools stood out to me. Only two hours away, I became excited to see what they were doing in regards to professional development of staff and to determine what ideas we could borrow and apply here in Cabarrus County.

After speaking with several people involved with the school system, I kept hearing about one training in particular titled the Community Resiliency Model (CRM).

CRM is a skills-based training that teaches participants to coach themselves, students, and peers on managing stress. Attendees learn skills to use during stressful situations that will improve overall health and well-being, both physically and emotionally. CRM’s goal is to create a healthy school community by creating a shared understanding of the impact of stress on the body and how resiliency can be enhanced.

In August, we trained 20 school staff members in the Community Resiliency Model (CRM). Prior to the training, we met with leaders within both school districts to discuss the training and to help us determine which staff members would make the best fit for this type of information. We also applied for additional funding to assist with the costs associated with training such a large group without having to send them to travel elsewhere for training. We created applications then carefully selected 20 individuals who we felt would be champions of the trainings, utilizing the information with students, peers, and themselves.

The group was composed of school psychologists, social workers, several administrators, school counselors, and behavior specialists. The training took place over the course of two days (we utilized some of the capped professional development days over the summer, immediately before school started back up) and was about eight hours each day. The three trainers spent part of the first day explaining the background of and reasoning behind CRM and spent the remainder of the time working with small groups in mastering the skills.

The training was described by one school psychologist as “the missing piece.”

We push the practice of mindfulness, yet miss a key step that is crucial for many individuals who find themselves in some type of crisis. In order to be mindful, we must be in a state in which we are consciously aware of what is going on in the present moment. CRM backs up a step by asking us to learn the language of sensation. Tracking how we are physically feeling and reacting to a situation can allow us to develop targeted strategies to either enhance those positive feelings (your chest warming when you talk about your child laying their head on your shoulder) and negate the more negative sensations (the sickly feeling in the pit of our stomach when we think about an argument with our significant other).

It takes a lot to impress school staff who are constantly being asked to attend another professional development session or give up a teacher workday. Yet at the end of this training, all participants rated it as highly effective and useful, with skills they saw as being easy to implement across the spectrum of their schools. I believe wholeheartedly that CRM was one of the most useful trainings that we could have brought to our county. We are currently seeking ways to expand the training, through similar basic skills training opportunities and Train the Trainer programming.

My biggest goal is to ensure the sustainability of this program so that we can have individuals in each facet of the school system trained in positive self-regulation.

Imagine the impact if everyone – from the bus driver meeting a child at the start of their day to the cafeteria working handing over a meal to the after-school tutor – was able to support students in their journey to increase their emotional literacy and develop positive coping mechanisms.

I implore other districts to think about stress and trauma from a strengths-based perspective, asking our students and teachers how they are managing to do so well even during times of incredible unrest and constant traumatizing experiences. Equipping our school communities (and ourselves) with the ability to understand and describe what is happening to us physically, and therefore behaviorally, during moments of distress, can lead to miraculous changes in how we begin to respond, which is a vital step toward building resiliency.

Katie Dight

Katie Dight is a Program Manager with the Cabarrus Health Alliance in Kannapolis, NC. Katie grew up in New Jersey and then happily migrated south to attend UNC Chapel Hill for her undergraduate degrees in Political Science and Sociology. Katie continued her studies at UNC, receiving her Masters in Social Work and her Masters in Public Health, with a focus on maternal and child health, along with community management and policy. An interest in violence and injury prevention led her to Cabarrus STARS, a male youth violence prevention program coordinated through the Health Alliance where she originally worked as a case manager before shifting her focus primarily on assisting schools in becoming trauma-informed.