Unleashing Superman (Draft Version)
While American education research and policy focuses on 21st Century skills, statistics regarding the psychological and physical health of American children and adolescents indicates that we are not focused enough on the needs and health of the 21st Century student. The issue is simple: children and adolescents in the U.S. are experiencing trauma and the practitioners and providers that serve them in one of the environments where they spend most of their time—school—are ill-equipped and underprepared to deal with the impacts. If, as the APA reports, “many children in the U.S. are exposed to traumatic life events,” then the professional who interact with them most should be informed about the indicators that a student is suffering from trauma so that they can intervene appropriately in a ways that do not exacerbate the effects. The purpose of this exposition is to define and clarify the philosophy and principles of a dynamic psychosocial “Enrichment” model, designed to be used by education professionals in a therapeutic social learning environment or milieu.
In a recent fact sheet published by the APA in 2018, they identify several key facts K-12 educators should note regarding trauma and American children (p. 1):
“Many children in the U.S. are exposed to traumatic life events.”
“Almost all children experience acute distress immediately after exposure to a traumatic life event.”
“Parents and families are also affected, and their responses affect how children react to trauma.”
Given this information, it could be reasonably inferred that if educators’ classrooms are ill-equipped to address trauma-related behavior and issues, then they are less likely to provide adequate student support and more likely to inadvertently do harm, traumatizing or retraumatizing a student or students.
Superman’s story is an apt allegory that describes the archetype for childhood and adolescent trauma. First, he experienced severe trauma as a child of a foreign land that he could not return to even if he wished. As a child, he experiences severe bullying and isolation for being different in ways that he could not understand or explain, mostly because he was likewise ignorant of why he was so different. In the many renditions of his character and childhood, he is never portrayed as a popular or secure child or adolescent. In some respects, he experiences a super-normal human adolescence. In order to realize his potential, Superman had to unleash himself from others’ expectations and the traumatization of his past. After, he realized that what made him different also allowed him to fly and subsequently save the world time and time again. Even still, many people would not fully accept him because of his differences. However, he knew his purpose and was no longer ruled by his insecurities or the insecurities of others. This is story has resonated with so many children and adolescents for generations as so many face trauma and its debilitating effects.
This model is being developed to inform and equip professionals with the knowledge and strategies to prevent and minimize traumatization and retraumatization as much as possible. However, before discussing the scope and use of this model in practice, it seems prudent to first define key terminology: Enrichment, Dynamic, Psychosocial, Trauma, Therapeutic Milieu, and Education Therapy.
Jensen (2006) describes enrichment from a strengths-based perspective as a dynamic positive biological response, or set of responses, to the environment in which global measurable changes occur. He purports that enhanced environmental stimulation affects the brain in six ways: (1) Metabolic Allostasis (changes in blood flow, baseline chemical levels, and metabolic functioning), (2) Enhanced Anatomical Structures (more developed neurons), (3) Increased Connectivity (more branches between neurons), (4) Responsiveness and Learning Efficiency (enhanced signaling, efficiency, and processing), (5) Increased Neurogenesis (new brain cells and special proteins, and (6) Recovery from Trauma and System Disorders (capacity to prevent or heal stress). Based on the Jensen’s descriptions, one could say that the primary effect of a strengths-based enrichment paradigm is healing, or de-traumatization.
A dynamic system or process is defined in the Merriam Webster’s Dictionary as one that experiences constant change, activity, or progress. In the field of psychology, psychodynamic theory examines “human behavior in terms of intrapsychic processes and repetition of interpersonal patterns that are often outside of an individual’s conscious awareness and have their origins in childhood experiences” (Deal, 2007 p. 185). Therefore, it serves that an educational methodology that stems from a psychodynamic paradigm or pedagogical framework would consider learning (1) as a behavior, and (2) as a result of singularly unique, as well as shared, experiences with other singularly unique individuals experiencing the same change, activity, or progress from as far back as they can remember.
This term has been in the literature for decades and defined and used by practitioners in the fields of education and social work for quite some time. Martikainen, et al. (2002) deftly describe how psychosocial can be defined and used in both Public Health and Social Work contexts (p. 1091):
“A fruitful starting point might be the Oxford English Dictionary’s first brief definition of ‘psychosocial’ as ‘pertaining to the influence of social factors on an individual’s mind or behaviour, and to the interrelation of behavioural and social factors’. This definition is likely to have important implications for social epidemiologists and other health researchers, because it implies that psychosocial factors, at least in the context of health research, can be seen as: (1) mediating the effects of social structural factors on individual health outcomes, or (2) conditioned and modified by the social structures and contexts in which they exist. ...To our mind this is a useful working definition of ‘psychosocial determinants of health’.…
As its namesakes imply, the term psychosocial describes a paradigm or ideology that is fundamentally rooted in inseperable psychological and sociological principles. One example would be a social learning environment, or classroom, consisting of autonomous individuals with unique perceptions, strengths, and agendas. Under this model, psychosocial is defined as: a transdisciplinary perspective of human behavior that combines psychological and sociological principles and practices to identify, target, and address mental health issues.
The American Psychology Association (APA) defines trauma as “an emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape or natural disaster. Immediately after the event, shock and denial are typical. Longer term reactions include unpredictable emotions, flashbacks, strained relationships and even physical symptoms like headaches or nausea. While these feelings are normal, some people have difficulty moving on with their lives. [Mental Health Professionals] can help these individuals find constructive ways [to manage] their emotions” (2019). Again, as many children in the U.S. experience trauma, if only mildly, it is imperative for professionals, especially K-12 educators and education therapists, who work with children and adolescents to be informed and capable of effectively identifying the presence and addressing the impact of trauma to some extent.
A model for development and maintenance of a therapeutic learning environment has been in the literature for decades, and is differentiated from other social environments based on purpose. The setup and structure of such an environment is designed and used by the practitioner to complement the aforementioned goals of Enrichment to prevent or counter the effects of trauma.
According to Redl (1959), the following 12 variables should be considered in order to develop and maintain an appropriate and impactful therapeutic milieu:
1) Social structure of classroom;
2) Value system of adults;
3) Routines, rituals, behavioral regulations;
4) Impact of the group process;
5) Trait clusters;
6) Staff attitudes and feelings;
7) Behavior received from other student clients;
8) Activity structure and nature of constituent performances;
9) Space, equipment, time, and props;
10) Seepage from the outside world;
11) System of umpiring services and traffic regulations between environment and child;
12) Thermostat for the regulation of clinical resilience.
Additionally, he identifies five elements that must be regularly studied by practitioners and service providers: (1) sociometric studies (questioning student clients to determine the social structure of the class); (2) the group as an organism; (3) Cliques and subgroups; (4) Role concepts and expectations that affect the group; and (5) Group atmosphere and morale (Newcomer, 2003). Failure to consider these variables and elements could result in the implementation of inadequate or inappropriate interventions, causing new or exacerbating existing issues.
Unfortunately, most state-approved teacher education programs, general education teachers are neither trained to consider these variables and elements nor expected to incorporate them into their practice. However, students Thus, public and private schools and systems have had to develop and implement some degree of clinical or therapeutic principles into their existing programs under umbrella terms like special education or learning support services.
Despite the dearth of literature denoting education therapy by name, as therapeutic practitioners using a clinical models like response to intervention (RTI) and multi-tiered systems of support (MTSS), education therapists: (1) identify the barriers and obstacles that are hindering one’s learning, (2) teach one the skills to address and/or remove those barriers for themselves, in a multi-sensory therapeutic environment or milieu, and (3) evaluate the effectiveness of the protocol and adjust as needed based on the data (Samuels, 2016). The psychotherapy and education experts at the Ann Martin Center might agree based on their explanation: “Educational therapy provides educational and therapeutic approaches to helping students through the learning process. Not only will an educational therapist assist a struggling student with specific subject material, but [they] will also take an active role in the evaluation, assessment and remediation process[es]” (2013).
THE ENRICHMENT MODEL
Coming from a strengths-based perspective, this model does not categorize people based on ephemeral or uni-contextual criteria (i.e. signs and symptoms that do not carry over from environment to environment). Instead, it seeks to identify the strengths and needs of students and student groups in order to help them overcome challenges and learn and hone specific skills. To do this effectively, providers must not only consider the individual’s personal issues or conditions, but also the extent to which the environmental conditions could be unduly causing or exacerbating the individual’s conditions. This section aims to highlight the skills that this model aims to enrich as well as introduce nascent providers and practitioners with a starter set of interventions that have demonstrated positive results with children and adolescents dealing with trauma.
Ultimately, the primary goal of any learning program is for the student to remember the key or critical details of their experiences. Thus, the central and most critical skill that is being targeted and assessed is recall. It is the reason that cognitive assessments collect, analyze, and report data on Working Memory and the potential effects of disabling conditions on that process. If we cannot recall what we learned from an experience, then the knowledge or procedure will be difficult to apply or adapt to future situations.
Next, before students can engage in academic, comprehension-based, analytical thinking, certain functional skills need to be developed and refined to a certain extent. Considering that literacy and numeracy form the crux of all academic learning programs, all students desiring to enter and succeed in any profession requiring academic achievement will have to learn and hone functional language arts skills, specifically reading, writing, speaking, and listening.
Regarding reading specifically, Mark Seidenberg, in his book entitled “Language at the Speed of Sight” (2017), states that “having less reading experience makes it harder to learn how to learn and how to think critically and analytically” (p. 7). Furthermore, “human culture has evolved to the point where this skill is critical to our ability to thrive” (p. 12).
Consequently, students must be effectively taught the language they will use to access learning materials and then communicate what they have learned from them. In a multi-sensory social learning context, students can survive and even thrive without certain senses, like hearing or sight, but they will find it very difficult if they cannot learn to communicate, the essence of which comprises language skills.
The next level incorporates academic skills. Historically, educators have been taught to teach the “3 Rs: Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic,” but that is—to quote Sir Arthur Conan Doyle—elementary. “Postman and Weingartner  aver that a new set of fundamentals that “derive from the emotional and intellectual realities of the human condition” is needed. I proffer that what used to be Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic be reevaluated, and that a new set of R's be considered: Reason, Rhetoric, and Rightness” (Quail, 2018). In this case, reason would define the logic or rationale one uses to explain and support their theses, claims, or arguments; rhetoric defines the diction and devices used to construct and communicate their points; lastly, rightness defines the degree to which the statements proffered by the claimer are accurate and relevant to the points being discussed. This new set of R’s indicates the more analytical and evaluative nature of the kinds of the skills educators and instructors should nurture if they wish for their students to achieve academically.
Finally, there are the executive skills. These skills are critical because they are used to organize human behavior over time and override impulses or immediate demands for long-term goals. These skills help us plan and organize tasks, concentrate, and persist to completion. They enable emotional regulation and thought-monitoring to augment efficiency and effectiveness (Dawson & Guare, 2010). The current list of executive skills identified and targeted by the Enrichment model, adapted from Dawson and Guare’s list of 11 skills, includes:
Planning: The capacity to create a roadmap or guide to reach a goal or to complete a task.
Organization: The capacity to design and maintain systems to keep track of information and materials.
Metacognition: The capacity to stand back and objectively review one’s own thought-process or perspective.
Empathy: The capacity to understand others’ perspectives in an effort to sense and relate to their feelings and, with the will to respond appropriately, to work collaboratively toward a common objective.
Concentration: The capacity to attend consistently to a scene or task despite distractibility, fatigue, or boredom.
Efficiency: The capacity to estimate how much time one has and best allocate it in order to meet deadlines.
Goal-Setting: The capacity to identify a desired outcome and create criteria for evaluating its success or failure.
Self-Inhibition: The capacity to think and plan one’s actions before acting on a stimulus or impulse.
Self-Regulation: The capacity to manage one’s emotions in order to achieve goals, complete tasks, or direct behavior.
Decision-Making: The capacity to begin and commit to a task or outcome, adhering to a timeline.
Adaptability: The capacity to revise a plan in the face of barriers, setbacks, new data, or errors.
Persistence: The capacity to follow through and complete tasks despite other demands or competing interests.
(unable to display)
Children and adolescents face many barriers that could limit their ability to meaningfully and healthily acquire the aforementioned skills without interventions of some kind. However, regardless of ability level, all students, particularly adolescents, can benefit from learning supports. Howard (2006) explains that (pp. 97-98):
young people [process] emotions, instructions, and procedures much more consistently in the amygdala (the seat of emotions), whereas adults processed the same activities more consistently in the frontal lobe. In addition to processing these activities in an emotion-ridden manner…the young people found it more difficult to identify these emotions accurately to other people. Part of the explanation for these phenomena relates to the continuing development of white matter necessary for complete communication. The frontal area of the brain does not seem to appear to be fully mature until the late 20s (some say 25, others 28, still others 30). Boys’ brains typically mature later—by a couple of years—than girls’ brains.
Consequently, adult service providers and practitioners often need to serve the role of “surrogate frontal lobe… In the role of surrogate frontal lobe adults are accomplishing several very important missions:
Walking the child through a frustrating situation in the present (and thereby preventing explosive episodes in the present)
Solving problems routinely precipitating explosive episodes, preferably in a durable way
Training lacking thinking skills so that the child won’t need a surrogate frontal lobe for the rest of his [or her] life” (Greene & Ablon, 2006 p. 51).
It is important for practitioners to meet the needs of the whole student, regardless of ability; however, it is imperative that educators research and incorporate strategies into their practice that meet the needs of the whole class.
To directly and meaningfully address student needs, Eide & Eide (2006) identify three categories of intervention that can be employed in customized combinations based on need: (a) Remediation—interventions that help a child develop new functions and areas of strength by reteaching, (b) Compensation—interventions that help children use their strengths to overcome deficits, and (c) Accommodation—interventions that aim to minimize the negative consequences of learning challenges that cannot be or have not been successfully addressed by remediation or compensation strategies. Under this enrichment model, interventions or strategies are also delineated into the following subcategories:
Supportive: empirically-based strategies and best practices that aim to help students apply new knowledge or skills despite trauma-inducing stimuli,
Prescriptive: empirically-based strategies and best practices that aim to help students acquire new knowledge or skills despite trauma-inducing stimuli,
Instructive: empirically-based strategies and best practices that aim to teach students how to healthily recover from the effects of trauma experienced in the learning environment, and
Preventive: empirically-based strategies and best practices that aim to deescalate/modify unhealthy student responses to trauma experienced in the learning environment.
The figure below highlights various interventions that have yielded success with students in therapeutic milieus, adapted mostly from Newcomer’s Understanding and Teaching Emotionally Disturbed Children and Adolescents (2003), Howard’s The Owner’s Manual for the Brain (2006), and Hinebaugh’s A Board Game Education (2009). The list is not exhaustive. However, it is designed to serve as a starting point for practitioners who are less familiar with the literature on these strategies but wish to develop a therapeutic milieu:
(unable to display)
It has been said that “all people learn differently,” but simple reasoning renders that statement fallacious. According to data from the Wellcome Sanger Institute’s fact sheet on findings from the Human Genome Project, all humans are at least 99.8% genetically identical (2001), with more recent explanations placing that figure at or around 99.9%. This does not imply that we have identical strengths and weaknesses, but it explicitly indicates that we are only negligibly different from one another. So what makes us or our learning styles so different? From a psychosocial perspective, our minimal differences are contextualized by the experiences individuals have in their respective learning environments.
Reframing Dog Behaviorist Cesar Millan’s philosophy, one could claim: If you are going to be an instructional leader, then you must understand who your students are and what they need as human beings. Of course no two people are the same, but humans ultimately learn the same life lessons, albeit via unique experiences. We are all human; thus, it stands to assume that what traumatizes one can certainly traumatize another. We are also capable of overcoming the effects of trauma with appropriate and meaningful interventions and supports. Educators work with autonomous, thinking, and feeling human beings who come with pasts. If front-line education service providers and practitioners fail to prepare themselves to deal with children and adolescents who have experienced, experience, or will experience trauma, then they are likely not prepared to work in the 21st Century American classroom.
American Psychological Association (2019) Trauma and Shock. Retrieved from: https://www.apa.org/topics/trauma/
APA Presidential Task Force on PTSD and Trauma in Children and Adolescents (2018) Children and Trauma: Tips for Mental Health Professionals. Retrieved from: https://www.apa.org/pi/families/resources/children-trauma-tips.aspx
Dawson, Peg & Guare, Richard (2010) Executive Skills in Children and Adolescents: A Practical Guide to Assessment and Intervention, 2nd Ed. New York: The Guilford Press
Deal, Kathleen H. (2007) Psychodynamic Theory. Advances in Social Work, 8(2), 184-195
Eide, B., & Eide, F. (2006) The Mislabeled Child: Looking Beyond Behavior to Find the True Sources—and Solutions—for Children’s Learning Challenges. New York: Hyperion
Greene, R. & Ablon, J. (2006) Treating Explosive Kids. New York: The Guilford Press
Howard, P. J. (2006) The Owner’s Manual for the Brain, 3rd ed. Texas: Bard Press
Hinebaugh, Jeffrey P. (2009) A Board Game Education. Maryland: R&L Education
Jensen, Eric (2006) Enriching the Brain. California: Jossey-Bass
Martikainen, P., Bartely, M., & Lahelma, E. (2002) Psychosocial Determinants of Health in Social Epidemiology. International Journal of Epidemiology, 21(6), 1091-1093
Marzano, Robert J. (1992) A Different Kind of Classroom: Teaching with Dimensions of Learning. Alexandria: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development
Newcomer, Phyllis (2003) Understanding and Teaching Emotionally Disturbed Children and Adolescents, 3rd ed. Texas: Pro-Ed
Postman, N. & Weingartner, C. (1969) Teaching as a Subversive Activity. New York: Dell Publishing Company
Quail, Kevin J. II (2018/02) Class—Deconstructing the School-Based, Psychosocial Learning Environment to Serve the 21st Century Inclusive Classroom. Retrieved from: https://www.naset.org/index.php?id=4837#c35927
Samuels, Christina (2016) What are Multi-Tiered Systems of Support? Retrieved from: https://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2016/12/14/what-are-multitiered-systems-of-supports.html
Seidenberg, Mark (2017) Language at the Speed of Sight: How we Read, Why so many can’t, and What can be done about it. New York: Basic Books
Wellcome Sanger Institute Press Office (2001/02) Ten Facts from the Human Genome Project. Retrieved from: https://www.sanger.ac.uk/news/view/ten-facts-human-genome-project