Trauma-Informed Facilitation Simulation

 




Reflection on the Simulation of Working With Parents of Elementary School-Aged Children 
Returning to In-Person Education During the COVID-19 Pandemic


Identifying the Community 

For my video simulation, my selected community is parents of elementary school-aged children in a district that is reopening to in-person classes. I selected this group because I have school-aged nephews as well as a number of friends who work in schools, and so I have seen all sides of this conversation around safety for students and staff amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. Focusing on this group of parents also provides an opportunity for me to explore a multi-faceted and dynamic array of viewpoints and concerns. While some parents have worked from home during the pandemic, others haven’t had that as an option, while still others lost or given up their jobs in order to be home with their kids.  Additionally, different families had different assessments of safety during the pandemic, which could lead to some tension about how best to approach the re-entry plan.  Then, too, there’s the consideration of the children themselves, how they’ve been coping during this period of remote learning, and how that’s impacted both their social and academic growth over the last year.  Meeting with these parents requires a delicate balance that remains respectful and cognizant of so many different experiences and belief sets.

Plan to Engage Community Members in Assessment of Trauma and Resilience

To begin with the engagement of this community, an assessment of where the parents are in this moment is crucial. Kirmayer et al. (2009) notes, “Some social scientists have critiqued the term ‘community’ because it is often ideologically loaded and ‘tends to imply unverified assumptions about how people in small face to face groups are supposed to interact’” (p. 65).  With this group of parents, it would not serve me well at all to assume everyone has the same feelings about the experience of the pandemic or their feelings about the school’s plan to return to in-person learning.  While some families may have seen little change in their day-to-day existence, other families may have completely upended any sense of normalcy -- and what further complicates this is that there could be many reasons why.  Maybe their pandemic lifestyles were unscored with political beliefs, maybe it was more to do with practicalities and necessities -- that variance in experience could be vastly different.  For some, especially those who lost loved ones during the past year, there could be survivor’s guilt mixed with a sense that the world is no longer a safe place (Erikson, 1998).  As Erikson (1998) writes, “The counterpart to guilt, of course, is blame” (p. 154).  There may be parents who want to lash out at other parents who weren’t strictly following mask mandates or who allowed potentially riskier playdates for their kids. In some of these instances, it’s possible that aggressive feelings like anger may simply be masking what the parents were experiencing (Van Dernoot Lipsky, 2010).   It’s possible there could be parents who don’t even view the COVID-19 as a traumatic event at all.  So, in order to determine a baseline, an assessment of where folks are in this moment would benefit the group’s ability to move forward with an actionable plan.

In my video, the first way I begin this assessment is by asking parents to use their voices to share a single word describing a feeling.  By asking them to say their word all at once, it allows for people not to feel put on the spot and ideally lends to more honest responses.  Having folks speak out loud also gives the others in the group a general sense of where everyone else is.  Later on in the meeting, I’d revisit this by introducing an assessment tool like concept mapping.  What I like about concept mapping is it, again, gets all voices into the conversation and co-creates a visual for where most of the group’s energy and attention might be.  It also helps identify those outlier issues that maybe are only currently important to one or two parents but might spark something for other parents who maybe hadn’t thought about that before.  Concept mapping, too, can build over time by being revisited and fine-tuned.  

Additionally, a tool like the THRIVE checklist could be quite revealing.  Since this tool’s primary usage is related to health and safety, it could provide very useful information around how safe of an environment parents believe the school to be during COVID-19.  I would more likely email the THRIVE checklist to parents to fill out at home and send back to me before our second meeting so they had an opportunity to reflect after our first meeting and have a little space and privacy to consider their responses.

Unique Strengths and Vulnerabilities of the Community

In school-based communities, one of the biggest strengths is a shared history that goes back many years.  Parents often already know each other and have built relationships and, in many instances, trust.  They often know the other children, too.  Having these long-term connections may allow decision making to happen more quickly, especially during a time of crisis, like the COVID-19 pandemic.  To wit, Erikson (1998) writes, “It is the community that cushions pain, the community that provides a context for intimacy, the community that represents morality and serves as the repository for old traditions” (p. 157).  Each of those elements rises out of a sense of clear knowledge about the other parents as well as the school system. 

Of course, history can create areas of vulnerability, too. While it can be a benefit to know the others in the group, there is a possibility of past events causing distrust or even hostility, which could prove to be both distracting and regressive for group action related to the issue at hand. Van Dernoot Lipsky (2010) offers, “There is often rigid socialization around anger: who is allowed to feel angry, who is expected to be angry, which groups are seen as angry people” (p. 102). If there are past rivalries, incidents, or even more recent judgments related to how families operated during the pandemic, it could lead to tension or issues as this school re-opening process unfolds.

Strengths and Challenges of Working with the Community

As a practitioner, my greatest strength in working with this community is a +20-year history of working with diverse groups of people as well as specialized groups, like this simulated one.  After so many years of working with the public -- especially in circumstances like running brick and mortar establishments where anyone could walk through the doors at any time -- I am very comfortable with even those who are unknown to me.  In fact, I relish those moments of first interaction with a new person or new group of people.  My many years of experience have taught me to read body language, tone of voice, and other manners of demeanor that quickly clue me in about what this person may want or need from our interaction.  I have built a strong and reliable toolbox of how to de-escalate conflict often before it erupts and have worked hard on my active listening skills, which gives me a great deal of insight into the situation at hand and how best to keep the interaction productive.  Beyond that, I am hyper-organized, on time, and reliable, which builds trust and instills confidence in the communities I work with -- they know I will do what I say because I model that from Moment #1, starting with our first interaction, be it over email, phone, or in person.

The challenge of working with a group like this would be rooted in both my newness to them as well as their familiarity with each other.  Even if I managed to win them over right away, I still won’t know all of the history about which parents are feuding and which are friends and which used to be friends but are now feuding.  I may not know their kiddos, which would be a massive disadvantage, since, really, this all circles back to dialogue around the safe re-entry of the children to in-person learning.  It’s possible, too, that I may not know the teachers or other school administration that well, either, which makes it hard to know the politics (perceived or real) between the parents, the teachers, the principal, and other school staff.  One key piece of advice to keep in mind is that “trauma stewardship refers to the entire conversation about how we come to do this work, how we are affected by it, and how we make sense of and learn from our experiences” (Van Dernoot Lipsky, 2010, p. 6). In this simulated role where I would be working with these parents -- and also the school -- it would serve me well to keep the line of dialogue open and fresh about our communal why and extend that why to all of the stakeholders.  If we can find grounding in our purpose -- our why -- then we can likely recalibrate more quickly than if we lose sight of that purpose.  The richness to be found in a shared ability to learn about ourselves and each other in this literal educational space could strengthen the community as a whole for years to come.

Utilization of Trauma-Informed Principles and Skills

In my video, I spend time acknowledging, honoring, and validating both the collective and individual experiences of the parents.  I ask them to have a moment of quiet to reflect on what has brought them to this moment in time and I do so with great intention.  Parents are often being pulled in many different directions -- maybe they had to hurry to get to this meeting, maybe they have anxiety about being around people outside of their “bubbles,” maybe they feel judged by the other parents for how they chose to make their way through the pandemic -- but beginning with a simple grounding exercise gives everyone a moment to release some tension and feel connected.  There is something very magical about breathing intentionally with other people.  Additionally, there is also a clear purpose in me asking the parents to vocalize feelings within minutes of arriving at the meeting.  As I mentioned earlier, this exercise allows folks to share and “get their voice in the room” without feeling targeted or exposed.  It also establishes early that their voices are wanted and that we were co-creating a safe space where it is OK to say out loud how they were feeling.

It is likely that tensions may be high at this initial meeting.  Erikson (1998) writes, “We live in a precarious world, and those people who must make their way through it without the capacity to forget those perils from time to time are doomed to a good deal of anxiety” (p. 161). Beyond the emotional impact of trauma, there may be a manifestation in the body as well (Erikson, 1998; Van Dernoot Lipsky, 2010). It is vital when working with any group or individual who has experienced trauma to provide them with coping mechanisms that can ground them in the moment and remind them that they are safe.  That tactile connection with breath and that empowerment to use their voice are two excellent ways to employ trauma-informed methods of working with groups.

Intervention Plan

While I would imagine that my role working with the parents would be somewhat controlled by the school administration or even teachers, I would make space in every meeting for some kind of reflection or storytelling.  Maybe that would come in the form of a check-in question to get every voice in the conversation. Kirmayer et al. (2009) notes that one way to view community resilience is to consider how people “overcome stress, trauma and other life challenges by drawing from social networks and cultural resources embedded in communities” (p. 66). By opening channels of dialogue, this can inform not only me as the group facilitator but all of the parents involved as we all get to know each other better.  Increasing familiarity reduces fear and paves the way for great vulnerability and group compassion.  Van Dernoot Lipsky (2010) writes, “Without a sense of the big picture, it is impossible to have any meaningful conversation about what we want to do collectively to improve the circumstances of our lives and work” (p. 27). Any opportunity for the parents to get to share their feelings and experiences with the group, the deeper the well of collective understanding will be. 

Important to distinguish, too, is the interventions to support the parents themselves and the interventions being taught to the parents to help them better support their child or children. Since it’s possible that both the parents and their offspring might be experiencing common side effects to emotional trauma, such as depression, anxiety, phobia, hypochondria, apathy, and more (Erikson, 1998), it’s important to note that the work we’re doing together must address both groups.  That means that parents attending meetings should be provided with at least one if not more than one intervention or tool they can use themselves at home.  In the video, I suggest things like so-called “fidget toys,” coloring books, going for walks, or other related activities that don’t require constant eye contact.  In order for kiddos to feel secure to share their feelings, it’s helpful for parents who may also have a hard time talking about such topics to create a space where it’s just a little easier to share.

Additionally, my intervention plan would include a revisit to concept mapping and maybe even a periodic return to the THRIVE checklist.  Doing so would show the change over time as the group continued to meet.  Ideally, parents would reach a greater consensus as they participate in facilitated dialogue while they felt increasingly empowered to dialogue with their kiddos about the return to in-person school.  As Van Dernoot Lipsky writes, “Reflection is a powerful antidote to the helplessness we may feel as a result of trauma exposure” (p. 148). For parents who may be too busy or distracted by their many responsibilities to be drawn to participate in this group work, there must be a sense of purpose to keep them engaged. If that purpose can be built through storytelling and skill building, then not only will they get the information the school may want them to have, they will also have an opportunity to feel part of the process.

The plan is relatively simple with the goal to allow for co-creation of how our time together will be spent.  In order for that process not to spiral into sheer chaos, framing it all thorough group-identified topics to discuss or by assessing where most parents need additional clarification will inform next steps and allow the plan to grow in specificity over time.  Such a plan would certainly align with community interests, needs, and priorities, as they would be the ones leading the creation of the group’s long-term goals and functions.  By allowing for this sharing of power, it makes the intervention strategy not only sustainable but likely to continue to build and grow through the transition back to in-person schooling and beyond.


References

Erikson, K. T. (1998). Trauma at Buffalo Creek. Society, 35(2), 153-161.

Kirmayer, L. J., Sehdev, M., & Isaac, C. (2009). “Community Resilience” in Community resilience: Models, metaphors and measures. International Journal of Indigenous Health, 5(1), pgs. 62-117.

Van Dernoot Lipsky, L. (2010). Trauma stewardship: An everyday guide to caring for self while caring for others.


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Simulation and reflection completed for coursework at the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences

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