Early childhood educators learn new ways to spot trauma triggers, build resiliency in preschoolers

Julie Kurtz, co-director, trauma-informed practices in early childhood education, WestEd Center for Child & Family Studies/photo by Laurie Udesky

A hug may be comforting to many children, but for a child who has experienced trauma, it may not feel safe.

That’s an example used by Julie Kurtz, co-director of trauma-informed practices in early childhood education at the WestEd Center for Child & Family Studies (CCFS), as she begins a trauma training session. Her audience, preschool teachers and staff of the San Francisco, CA-based Wu Yee Children’s Services at San Francisco’s Women’s Building, listen attentively.

Kurtz leads them into a description of how a child’s young brain functions, how young children – regardless of whether they have experienced trauma or not — live in their reptile brain.

“What’s the job of the reptile brain?” she asks.

“Survival” comes a response. “Yes, it’s fight, flight or freeze,” she says.

With guidance from adults, she explains, children’s immature brains develop neurons that build bridges to the rational part of the brain. The rational, executive part of the brain, she continues, is a place of calm, where we can plan, solve problems, and imagine how someone else interacting with us is feeling.

But if a child is in a state of terror, explains Kurtz, all bets are off. In that state, a child can’t hear what you’re saying or express herself in words, Kurtz says.

“What’s the strategy to calm a reptile brain?” she asks.

“It depends on the child…one idea is holding the child,” offers a teacher.

”Reassure the child,” suggests another teacher.

“Bring them to the current time,” another chimes in.

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