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 Don’t Teach Kids through Trauma – Teach through Connection

Exploring Neurodiversity Podcast – Episode 8

by Adina Levy

Play. Learn. Chat - Exploring Neurodiversity Podcast Logo
Show Notes:

Picture this. You take your child to swimming class and it’s a pretty unfamiliar environment. They haven’t met the teacher before. It’s noisy. It’s all new and pretty overwhelming. It might also be quite enticing and interesting, but there’s also a huge dose of new and unknown in there.

 

The time comes around for your child’s lesson to start. And you take your child over to the edge of the pool. The teacher’s standing in the pool, looking up. Checking the clock and saying, “just pass it to me. She’ll be okay.”

 

Your child does not agree. Your child is clinging to you. Crying screaming and quite simply not feeling ready to do what the teacher is asking.

 

We all learn best through connection, relationship building when we’re in a calm headspace. When we’re intrigued, when we’re feeling supported. Put simply, nobody learns well when they’re in a state of trauma.

 

Today we discuss why teaching kids through trauma isn’t the way, and ideas for how teaching through connection can look.

 

Learn more with me about this topic and many others!
 
For Allied Health Professionals:

 

For parents of preschool-aged autistic or possibly autistic children:
Join my on-demand parent course Connect & Grow: https://playlearnchat.com/connect-and-grow-course/

 

Transcript:

Welcome to the Exploring Neurodiversity Podcast. I’m Adina Levy from Play Learn Chat. I’m a neurodivergent speech therapist. And I’m obsessed with creating a world where neurodiversity is understood, embraced, supported, and celebrated. Join me as we have conversations about autistic, ADHD, neurodivergent experiences, and I share how you can support neurodivergent children in your world.
Let’s all work together to make change where change is needed so that the world can be a more friendly place for neurodivergent people and for everyone.
Picture this. You take your child to swimming class and it’s a pretty unfamiliar environment. They haven’t met the teacher before. It’s noisy. It’s all new and pretty overwhelming. It might also be quite enticing and interesting, but there’s also a huge dose of new and unknown in there.
The time comes around for your child’s lesson to start. And you take your child over to the edge of the pool. The teacher’s standing in the pool, looking up. Checking the clock and saying, “just pass it to me. She’ll be okay.”
Your child does not agree. Your child is clinging to you. Crying screaming and quite simply not feeling ready to do what the teacher is asking.
Let’s keep in mind that you’re also in this scenario. You, the parent, have your own experiences. Your own thoughts. Your own sensory considerations. Potentially your own traumatic experiences in similar scenarios.
And certainly all of your emotions regarding how your child is feeling and how you are supporting them.
Now, this scenario feels all too familiar for me. And as I’ve heard many of you as well.
No matter what the situation is, where we’re expecting a child to learn something, whether it’s swimming lessons, school, therapy sessions, learning to ride a bike, learning to communicate, practicing new maths skills while doing homework.
Whatever we’re expecting a child to learn. They’re not going to learn through trauma.
The idea I share time and time again is that we don’t teach kids through trauma. We teach through connection. The more I talk about it the more, I think it’s absolutely wild that I even need to share these messages. It feels so obvious to me, but, hey, that’s part of teaching and learning.
Many of us might’ve had our own experiences of being taught in different ways that did not involve being taught through connection.
So we might come to this idea with a whole other set of preconceived ideas of what teaching and learning should look like.
That’s why I’m here sharing this message today and all the other ways that I shared messages with parents and professionals who support children, especially people who support autistic and neurodivergent children.
So. Something that we need to keep in mind. Is that autistic and neurodivergent children can experience sensory and emotional dysregulation in ways that are more intense, and potentially for longer than neurotypical children, but everything I’m sharing today applies to supporting all kids to learn. And PS adults too.
We all learn best through connection, relationship building when we’re in a calm headspace. When we’re intrigued, when we’re feeling supported.
Put simply, nobody learns well when they’re in a state of trauma.
So in this scenario that I painted for you earlier, a child who is upset, crying. They’re shut down. They’re having a meltdown. They’re reaching out for their familiar comforts. AKA you. That’s not a child who’s ready to learn. And no amount of punishment, shouting, forcing, coercion, is going to help that child into that learning space.
In the second part of today’s episode, I’m going to share what does work? What can we do? I do love to unpack problematic practices or beliefs, but I do also want to build you back up with some skills and strategies, so you feel ready to try new things and you do have practical ideas you can take forward.
When a child is experiencing a traumatic response to any situation. Their brain and body goes into fight flight or freeze mode. The brain literally cannot take in new information or make new connections in that phase.
You might even pause to consider your own examples where you have experienced incredible amounts of overwhelm, and how you were able to process information in any given situation. How were you able to understand what other people were saying? Take on new ideas, have flexible thinking. Probably not very much.
So you might wonder, well, how does my kid ever learn? Or in the words of the swim school, perhaps they might be saying, ” well, she has to get used to it some time, so you might as well put her in now”.
When you have this approach of teaching through connection rather than through trauma, the gains might feel slower. The progress might feel slower.
But it’s not. If you’re a therapist, you might’ve experienced having a client who’s reluctant to come to your sessions.
Well, you’re feeling the pressure of delivering therapy that the parents are paying for.
That pressure might have come from the parents themselves, or that might’ve even come from your own expectations. What you think others are expecting of you.
It might feel in the moment that it’s more productive to motivate the child to sit down, join you at the table and do some learning tasks. That might feel like the work that others are expecting you to do with the child.
And if the kid enjoys it and it’s helpful, that might be completely appropriate. But if the child is in that fight flight or freeze mode.
And we somehow motivate them to sit and do the thing that we’ve asked of them. But that connection and relationship piece is missing, that trust is missing – that learning is simply not going to happen or it’s not going to happen in a deep way.
If you’re a parent and you’ve observed your child being in scenarios where a teacher is pushing your child beyond their comfort zone, beyond a space where they’re actually okay. And into a space where they’re experiencing trauma. They’re shutting down. The relationship between your child and that teacher or therapist is being damaged. You have a big job ahead of you, which is to advocate for your child.
That’s not an easy ask. It can be really hard to regulate yourself and your own emotions enough to be able to have productive advocacy conversations with the people who are supposed to be supporting your child.
I’m going to s hare more ideas about how you do this advocacy and collaboration piece in our next podcast episode. Make sure you’re subscribed so you don’t miss that one.
So there’s a lot there about what we shouldn’t be doing. We should not be teaching kids through trauma.
So, what do we do instead? Let’s build it all back up. What do we do? How does it look to teach kids through connection, through relationship through trust?
One of the biggest ideas here is to trust in the process. It will take more time, potentially. It will take more patience. But if you allow your child to develop that relationship with the person teaching them, they’re going to develop positive associations with that space, with that kind of activity. They going to feel safe, secure, and supported.
They’re going to be more willing to turn up the next time. They’re going to be more willing to listen, learn and develop in time. When your child is feeling connected, respected, and supported, that’s when the learning happens. That’s when their brain is in a calm space that is more willing to try something a little bit new or different. To take on new information. To consider new perspectives.
This whole approach is not a permissive approach that says, do what your child wants forever and ever.
It’s our responsibility as grownups to guide kids to learn and develop, but we have to stand firm, knowing that the learning and development happens when the groundwork of relationship is there.
Once the trust is in place, your child will try something new, take risks and expand out of their zone of current abilities, to try new things.
They’re going to be much more receptive when they are exposed to new opportunities or new information.
It’s really important that you set really small goals for yourself and potentially with your child.
If you’re a parent in this scenario, you might even model and explain those tiny goals to the teacher, for example, to the swimming teacher, to the therapist.
One tiny goal might be “we’re just going to turn up, put on our swimming costume and watch the lesson. Another tiny goal might be ” we’re just going to touch the water today and see what it feels like.”
Tiny goals might be about observing another kid, do the activity or shortening the time that we’re expecting a child to do it.
These are just some examples, you’ll need to personalise that to your child’s individual needs.
Where are they at in that exact moment? And what is that next tiny step that is going to help them move towards trust and connection.
This allows you to celebrate the wins and be present, and you will be able to notice the improvements.
If you go straight to the goal of, “I want you in the pool for 30 minutes with that teacher”. That might be way outside what is okay for your child, at that moment.
So I want you to picture a new scenario.
We going to stick with swimming because this is a very real scenario.
Picture this, you go to a new swim school. On a sensory level, it’s much more supportive. It’s smaller, it’s quieter. So you found lots of ways to have that environment and the baseline of that setting be much more supportive from the outset.
You explain your approach to the teacher. You explain that you’re very happy with small progress and building that relationship and that trust. And that’s, what’s most important for you.
The teacher and the swim school, get it.
You model setting those small goals. And the teacher picks up on that. For example, you discuss that for the first lesson. Just sitting on the top step is totally fine. And playing with the toys. So building that familiarity and that safety and that security without the high pressure of demands that are way outside what a child can cope with.
Before, you know, it, it’s the end of term one and your child is going to the lessons, happily hopping in the pool. Has fun most of the time. Trusts the teacher.
And you suddenly realise that over 10 weeks there have actually been huge gains and improvements because of this step by step small goals, celebrating the little wins. Building trust, building connection.
PS you also feel better because you haven’t had to see your child feeling distressed. You know that your child is feeling better, safer, and more comfortable.
So while it may look like smaller gains in the short term, It will end in longterm gains on every front.
I’d love to hear what it looks like for you, either as a parent or a therapist or a teacher. When teaching through connection and relationship has gone really well.
So feel free to share on Instagram or wherever you find me online.
Because I know that you’ve got positive examples of when you’ve supported your own child or. You’ve taught a child. With the basis of building that relationship and the trust before any of those other learning goals are on the map.
If you’re a therapist wanting to learn more about supporting autistic and neurodivergent children in affirming ways, I’ve just opened up doors for my next one day workshops. This is for speech therapists, OTs, psychologists, social workers, behavior support professionals, any allied health professional, who wants to learn more about what these affirming approaches look like in a one day, very dynamic discussion-based format. You’ve got two options. You can join me for the one day online workshop, which is on Thursday, the 6th of July, 2023.
And I’m very excited to also be sharing that I’ll be hosting a one day workshop live in-person in Sydney. And that is on Tuesday the 11th of July, 2023.
If you can’t make either of those or the time has passed when you’re listening to this. Please don’t fear. I’ve also got a whole range of workshops and webinars that are ready and available on demand. So you might want to check out the Learning Hub.
Which is a collection of all of my Neurodiversity Affirming Practice webinars, workshops for professionals that you can access for a discounted rate when you get them all together.
You can go to www.playlearnchat.com/professionals and choose your own adventure. Find the pathway that suits the time you have available and the kinds of things that you’re ready to learn.
And I’ll share all the links in the show notes of course.
If you’re a parent of an autistic or a neurodivergent child, and my stories today have sparked something for you. You’d like to know more about how you can guide and teach your child, but also advocate for their needs, and how other people work with your child. You’re absolutely welcome and invited to join me in my on demand parent course, it’s called Connect & Grow. And this is for parents of preschool aged, autistic, or possibly autistic kids. No diagnosis necessary.
And as a thank you for being a fabulous podcast listener, you can use the code POD20 that’s P O D 2 0, to get 20% off. Again, links in the show notes.
Thank you for joining me through this vulnerable and important message. This has not been an easy one for me to talk about or to process because it is so personal, but I also know that these messages resonate with a lot of you. And the more we can get our whole world to shift and to understand that the way to support children is through connection. We’re all going to benefit.
Thank you so much for sharing this audio space and time with me, and thank you for being open to learning and unlearning and truly listening to the neurodivergent experience and perspective. If you found this episode helpful, please share it with a friend and join me on Instagram and Facebook. I’m @play.learn.chat
that’s Play.Learn.Chat, you’ll find all the links that we discussed in the show notes. Have a fantastic day.

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