I can picture readers looking at this headline and pondering why we need to complicate disaster relief by adding educators to the team of necessary workers. Education seems like a secondary level of need, way behind water and power and disease control and food supplies. And, then readers may wince perhaps over the word “lasticity,” wondering what it means. The word could sound oddly familiar but no definition comes to mind. And finally, there is the word “trained,” and many question how valuable professional development actually is and whether it is worth the proverbial candle. And, don’t we have better things to worry about as we enter a New Year.
Good questions all. Let me see if I can explain both the title and the needs described there. And, of course, feel free to chime in within the comment section below with your reactions and thoughts.
Lately, I have been dealing on a number of fronts with natural disasters, and how to help schools and their educators best deal with their aftermath. At the same time, I have been listening to and learning about disaster response team efforts across America (delivered by state and federal government), teams that are dealing with the treacherous aftermath of person-made calamities (floods, fires, shootings, hurricanes, tornados, bombs and car/truck intentional crashes). When Veteran hospitals and facilities are at risk, the Department of Veterans Affairs offers their added expertise too.
The ongoing work is, in some respects, remarkable and noble, bringing our best technology and personnel efforts to the table to aid those in trouble. We can debate how effectively all these agencies/departments work together (I would argue that we are way short of optimizing coordination and interoperability) but there is no question about this: thoughtful people in many agencies and disciplines are efforting disaster remediation. They are being educated to handle the crises before them.
But, even the best prepared teams come to see that with each disaster, they miss some item(s) that affect the effectiveness of the relief efforts. One of the most recent is the fact that the navigation system WAZE sent drivers directly into the California fires, not away from them. That is because the algorithms showed low traffic on the proposed routes; the reason for the low traffic flow was not good: fires were on or near the roads. Yipes. Another example: relief on an island is different from relief on our mainland, ramping up delivery and distribution challenges. Trains and cars and trucks don’t work for initial delivery; ships and planes and helicopters are needed.
Recently, I listened to the stunning efforts of National Health IT Collaborative for the Underserved (NHIT) under the excellent leadership of Luis Belen. And, I learned of the many challenges (money among them) to facilitate recovery in Puerto Rico, where the level of damage to property, infrastructure and people is vast. For a look at these efforts (short and longer term), see here.
But, here is what is troubling me. There are really two main parts of disaster relief: pre-incident planning and post-incident action. Ideally the latter informs the former so that with each disaster, we get better and better at providing relief, with improved coordination and technological interoperability. And the participants on disaster preparation include medical personnel, EMS and ambulance services, IT experts, communications and logistic professionals, pharmacology experts, transportation teams. There are also trained mental health experts that can be mobilized too, both psychiatrists and psychologists and I assume social workers. Tele-psychiatry can be important for sure. All of these individuals get training — call it disaster education for a moment.
But, and this a big but, unless I have missed it, these teams have not included education experts who are trained to help students, parents and administrators restart schools and handle students between the time of the disaster and school re-opening. This isn’t, let’s be clear, about educating disaster teams; that happens (we can debate its effectiveness). This is about educating educators and making these trained individuals part of teams that go into disaster-torn areas.
Some schools in these regions are destroyed. So are their books and supplies. Surely, we know instinctively that post-disaster, students should not return to classroom (whether in their old school or elsewhere) only to be met with the educational equivalent of “Let’s pick up where we were before we were so rudely interrupted. Please turn to Chapter 12, page 7 and let’s solve that math problem.”
There are strategies that can help schools and their students post-disaster. They can fit under the umbrella “lasticity,” a process based on a made-up word that identifies how to navigate situations involving individuals who have experienced trauma, toxic stress and abuse. Grounded in the words “last” (as in durable), elastic (as in stretchable as in rubber bands), plastic (as in the scientific process that recognizes that change occurs with outside interventions like applying heat), this term provides a framework for understanding and then assisting those who have been traumatized.
Lasticity’s key features are: a recognition that bad situations will not disappear but can be transformed into events that are understandable and possibly even leading to positive traits in the future; reciprocity among a victim and an adult with experience; pivoting right (involving the need for good choice architecture); and belief in self. The concept of “lasticity” is developed more fully in a book I wrote titled Breakaway Learners and is an effort to provide a concept that encompasses but extends far beyond but embraces grit, resilience and mindsets.
One key feature of lasticity is that it does not place blame or obligations on victims; indeed, the point of lasticity is that it requires schools and institutions and their personnel to step up and to move away from a deficit model that treats victims as broken. And, educators need to be trained to be “lastic” and once they have had that training, they can respond more effectively to disasters.
Here are some of the things that “lasticity trained” educators can do:
They can assist in providing assorted activities in which students can engage, all designed to temper tensions and reestablish equilibrium; collaborations where students engage with those outside the school community to rebuild connection and trust; mechanisms for dealing with emotions, including through increased engagement between students and faculty/staff/ administrators; and scholarship as a surrogate word for changing the materials studied by students at all ages and stages, altering the educational activities in which students and teachers engage, and ramping up the ways professionals can write about the efforts they are deploying for their own benefit and the benefit of others.
The choice of words is not unintentional; the first letter of the words “activities,” “collaborations,” “emotions/engagement,” and “scholarship” form the acronym ACEs, referring to Adverse Childhood Experience Scores, something with which all educators should be familiar although they deal with small t trauma and the topic here is Big T trauma. For more on the import of ACEs including new advances in the testing, see here and here.
We know that trauma affects children — starting at (if not before) birth. We know that infant connections to a mother are key and their absence can lead to brain changes. And we also know from developments in neurobiology that toxic stress and trauma (heightened by disasters) affect the hard wiring of the brain, which in turn can affect school performance, behavior, future health and mental well-being and educational success.
So, if we know this, it seems to me that need teams of educators who can go into disaster zones, much like other disaster relief workers. I appreciate that schooling and education are not as “imminent” a crisis as the need for dialysis when there is no power or the need to vacate premises when floodwaters reach dangerous levels.
But, if we can expand our lens to see the impact of disasters on the next generation and its well-being, perhaps we can do two things: be better prepared as educators whether the disaster is near or far and add educational lasticity experts to teams from the get-go. The time for doing this is now.
Indeed, I am headed to Puerto Rico to read a childrens book that is particularly effective at bringing out issues of courage, strength and endurance, a book that is translated into Spanish. (Lady Lucy’s Quest and the Saga de la Senorita Sofia.) The program under which I am reading is sponsored by KPMG, and I am grateful for their support in purchasing the needed books. (I am volunteering my time and costs to travel to be clear.) But, bringing Lady Lucy/Senora Sofia (the central characters in the story) and sharing her with some of the children of a nation I care about deeply is one small piece of a vastly larger educational need.
I’d welcome sharing thoughts on the development of lasticity trained educational teams. If they already exist, I’d like to know that. If not, what better time than now to do some disaster preparedness so that students of today and tomorrow are better able to navigate the precarious futures they will face. And for those organizing disaster teams now, if you want an educator trained in lasticity (which includes as described above trauma, reach out. I’m more than willing — I am eager — to help. And, as we enter 2018, let’s do so with a strong commitment to insuring that we are protecting our children – so they can live in a world in which they can progress to adulthood with success and happiness and become the leaders of tomorrow. We owe it to our children to leave them a better world than the one we inherited.
Note: I am deeply grateful to MW who introduced me to the whole field of disaster relief and with whom I share a deep commitment to improving the ever more traumatized world in which we live. He understands me; he understands the power of education; he understands how to make things happen, not in just words but in deeds. Juntos, creamos posibilidades y la esperanza. Permitimos que los sueños.
Karen is an educator and an author. Prior to becoming a college president, she was a tenured law professor for two plus decades. Her academic areas of expertise include trauma, toxic stress, consumer finance, overindebtedness and asset building in low income communities. She currently serves as Senior Counsel at Finn Partners Company. From 2011 to 2013, She served (part and full time) as Senior Policy Advisor to the US Department of Education in Washington, DC. She was the Department's representative on the interagency task force charged with redesigning the transition assistance program for returning service members and their families. From 2006 to 2014, she was President of Southern Vermont College, a small, private, affordable, four-year college located in Bennington, VT. In Spring 2016, she was a visiting faculty member at Bennington College in VT. She also teaches part-time st Molly Stark Elementary School, also in Vt. She is also an Affiliate of the Penn Center for MSIs. She is the author of adult and children’s books, the most recent of which are titled Breakaway Learners (adult) and Lucy’s Dragon Quest. Karen holds a bachelor degree in English and Spanish from Smith College and Juris Doctor degree (JD) in Law from Temple University - James E. Beasley School of Law.