Lessons from the Super Bowl: What does Tony Dungy have to do with creating Trauma Smart® homes and schools?
By Marcia Weseman, Saint Luke’s Hospital’s Crittenton Children’s Center, Trauma Smart®
Between commercials during the Super Bowl, I overheard the commentators describing an event that made me think about the most important set of strategies educators can use to improve student academic performance.
In 1997, Michael Husted, kicker for the Tampa Buccaneers, was missing easy field goals and extra points. The Buccaneers had been having a good season and the media and fans believed Husted should be benched. His performance was declining and “everyone” knew he had to go (NBC, 2018).
“Everyone” except Coach Dungy who was not listening. Coach Dungy knew what was happening in Mike Husted’s life and it wasn’t something that additional kicking drills would fix. His mother was dying of cancer. When Dungy called Husted, it wasn’t to tell him that he was through. Instead he said, “You’re a Buccaneer. You’re part of our family. You’re our kicker.” (Alex and Emily, 2009) Dungy told the rest of the team, “We are family. We help each other. If he misses a kick, the defense better do their job.” The next week, Husted made a field goal that won the game! (NBC, 2018)
Conventional wisdom would say, bench the player and bring in someone who can do the job. But instead, Dungy’s words could be translated, “You are safe. You are connected to me and the team. We all support each other.”
An effective leader supports staff, families and children and makes them feel safe and connected. Children feel safe and connected when adults are able to manage their own emotions, energy levels, and moods. The growing body of brain research makes it clear that when we don’t feel safe, we react from our brain stem. When we react from our brain stem, our choices are limited. We fight, flee, or freeze. When our stress levels cause us to react from an emotional state or a threatened state, we create a perceived unsafe environment and may put others into a fight, flight, or freeze mode. When we ignore the emotion driving a child’s behavior, or worse, react in a manner that does not create a sense of safety and connection, we initiate a cycle of escalation and inhibit the child’s ability to be their best; to learn and grow.
Adults who care for and about children must learn strategies to prevent reacting from their own brain stem, and encouraging response driven by activity in their prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex and brain stem are mutually exclusive. Positron emission tomography (PET) scans show that when the brain stem is working actively to save us from perceived danger – when the brain stem is lit up – the pre-frontal cortex is literally dark. Cognitive functions such as problem solving, decision making, and executive tasks occur in the prefrontal cortex. It is not possible to learn when we are reacting from our brain stem. Caring professionals and families who calmly validate and respond to the emotions driving children’s behavior help move children from an emotional state to their prefrontal cortex, so they may be ready to learn (Jacobs-Kenner et al.2016).
Saint Luke’s Hospital’s Crittenton Children’s Center’s Trauma Smart® staff teach educators, school staff and families to manage their own emotions and behaviors, so they may guide children through difficult times. Crittenton’s work in trauma is grounded in Blaustein and Kinniburgh’s Attachment, Self-regulation, and Competency (ARC) Framework for fostering resiliency (2010). Using this framework, educators are taught to recognize when they are influenced by triggers, unconscious reminders of prior negative events; secondary trauma, stress from contact with others who are experiencing toxic stress; or inadequate self-care (Jacobs-Kenner et al, 2016). Managing a classroom with diverse needs and behaviors or a chaotic home environment can be challenging when we are at our best. Recognizing these influences and learning strategies to manage our affect is as essential to good teaching as content knowledge and pedagogy; and as essential to good parenting as food and shelter.
Children must feel safe to perform well academically. Effective adults validate students’ emotions to help them feel connected. After attachment is achieved with safety and connection, children are able to develop self-regulation skills (Blaustein and Kinniburgh, 2010). With self-regulation skills, children are ready to become problem solvers and decision makers, so they may be life-long learners and productive citizens.
Adults who care about the healthy growth and development of the children in their charge must shut out the noise of conventional wisdom that all behaviors must have consequences, and instead, provide the safety, connection, and support that reduces the occurrence of those behaviors and increases positive outcomes. This is the support that Coach Dungy demonstrated in 1997.
Alex and Emily. (2009) Tony Dungy Loves You and Has a Wonderful Plan for Your Life. Mockingbird.
Blaustein, M. and Kinniburgh, K. (2010) Treating Traumatic Stress in Children and Adolescents: How to
Foster Resilience through Attachment, Self-Regulation, and Competency. The Guilford Press. NY,
Dungy, T. (2018) NBC Televised Super Bowl Show.
Jacobs-Kenner, J., Holmes, C, Levy, M, Pinne, S., and Smith, A. (2016) Creating Trauma-Informed Schools
That Support Student Resilience: Expanding lessons from Preschool and Elementary School
Intervention. Crittenton Children’s Center, St. Luke’s Health Systems. Kansas City, MO.