The Power of Trauma

This website is not an ordinary one; this is a website that speaks of something that is very dear to my heart: the hurt of another human being. Our students come to us with their own history, and it is a guarantee that somewhere in their lives they have been hurt. This website is for you, so that you hear my personal stories and the stories of others such that you become attentive to the cries and hurt of another person through an intimate understanding of what it means to go through or have trauma. Here in this website you will find stories, strategies, resources, and hope. Because trauma is something that can be healed by a simple yet profound awareness of our students’ hearts, literally and metaphorically. I hope you take something away from this inquiry, and I pray that you, by the end of this inquiry, become more attentive to the hearts and aches of others!

 

In becoming teachers, a number of potent facts begin to settle into our consciousness, one of which is that teachers will powerfully impact the lives of so many students. The primary topic of this website is trauma and how it manifests itself in the classroom and by extension: how do teachers help students make sense of or move beyond the trauma that they may have experienced? Furthermore, what are we to do if students experienced trauma, are unaware of it and are unable to identify them? My inquiry into this topic began with a concern about family situations and how negative familial relationships may manifest and communicate themselves in the classroom setting. It was a very real circumstance for me because my School Advisor quickly brought to my attention hard family situations in my own practicum classroom: divorces, relocation, absent parents, “traditional” parents, and parents focused on producing results as opposed to growth. Upon reflection it became more clear that my concern was not strictly with negative family relations, but the somewhat darker topic of trauma. Darker, not in the sense that it is “more bad”, but it is a situation that is easily overlooked and circumvented because identification of trauma requires a trained eye to see it. Yet trauma is a fearfully powerful thing.

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Trauma is fearfully powerful in that it will hold onto our lives if it is left unaddressed. The soul, emotions, figurative heart does not move forward when the literal heart and nervous system cages you. Your physical body is literally working against you, and your brain does not let you process things properly. Research has shown that emotions have “an anatomical mapping in the brain necessary for survival” (Levine & Kline, 2007, p. 10). What happens then if these neurological responses are put off? For example, “In PTSD the frontal cortex is held hostage by a volatile amygdala. Thinking is hijacked by emotion. People with PTSD are very sensitively tuned to respond to even very minor stimuli as if their life is in danger” (Kolk, 2002). What happens then in a person’s life and perception of reality if their brain reframes every daily experience in fear, trepidation….. disappointment?

A Story from the North West Territories

During the summer of 2017, I was honoured to be coordinating a team of workers for a Church restoration project in the community of Tulita, NWT, the population of which was approximately 600. I worked for the Diocese of Mackenzie-Fort Smith, and resided in the community’s Church, which more often than not also served as a relief centre of emotion. On a number of occasions during late hours, I kept an Aboriginal man, whom I will now refer to as Charles, in his mid 30s company when he came to visit in a drunken stupor. It was partly logistical -preventing theft- and emotional, listening to his pride in his father and his love for the primary care-taker of the Church, Sister Celeste.

Over cups of tea and leftover bannock, he told me again and again, how much he loved his father, who had passed away a few months ago. His father was a caring man, who loved his family. Not only his family, but specifically Charles. He was certain that he was beloved by his father. Furthermore he told me how Sister Celeste was such an amazing person. Sister Celeste was like a second mother to him, a mother who took care of him, let him stay with her, and protected him; he was going to name his coming child Celeste.

I finally asked Sister Celeste about his past and his history, the initial response to which was a sad sigh. When Charles was a young child, he would be hiding under the bed, whilst his father let out shouts at his mother and beat her; he suffered the same consequence when he was found. On many occasions, Charles’ mother would quickly send him to Sister Celeste to avoid the family violence, and eventually Sister’s home became his as well. Sister Celeste provided him a new safe space, but that would never remove the abuse, violence, and trauma that he had already suffered… Nevertheless, the Church, through Sister Celeste, at least allowed him a place to run to and grieve. As a man in his 30s the emotional and neurological burdens, intensified by his father’s death, pained him to such a degree that he would drink himself drunk, come to the Church to cry and bless people like me with his presence… I do not know if he has moved further on in his process of healing, but this trauma of abuse and violence has plagued him for over three-quarters of his life. Yet, why did he say that his father loved him, whilst he was beaten is this denial, or did his father genuinely love him? Sister Celeste says that he is painting a picture of the father that he prayed and wished that he had. The last I heard of this situation was when Charles was in the church by himself praying aloud that his father’s soul would find peace and that he has gone to a better place.

In this story we hear how trauma confuses his cognitive processing and leads to a distortion of reality. Trauma is fearfully powerful; It allows a situation where the body or substance abuse may literally “be on your mind” all the time.

What is Trauma? – Lessons from Dr. Levine and Maggie Kline

So, what is trauma? A few things are certain: it involves the emotions, our thinking processes, and our bodies. Dr. Peter Levine and Maggie Kline write, “Trauma is the antithesis to empowerment” (Levine & Kline, 2007, p. 4). Where empowerment gives one the ability to do something, trauma inhibits and stops; where empowerment allows one to move through hardships and trials, trauma prevents; where empowerment provides response, trauma freezes. The understanding of trauma that Dr. Levine gives is something that “happens when any experience stuns us like a bolt out of the blue; it overwhelms us, leaving us altered and disconnected from our bodies” (Levine & Kline, 2007, p. 4). However, he makes sure to specify that “trauma is not in the event itself; rather trauma resides in the nervous system” (Levine 1997). When our bodies are placed into a situation of danger or perceived danger, our nervous system responds providing immense energy and adrenaline to our bodies which in turn elicit strong sensations and physiological responses (Levine & Kline, 2007). With the build up of this energy, our bodies literally need to expend the energy in either a fight or flight response: trauma thus occurs when the body freezes. “We are biologically programmed to freeze (or go limp) when flight or fight is either impossible or perceived to be impossible. Freeze is the last-ditch, ‘default’ response to an inescapable threat, even if the threat is a microbe in our blood” (Levine & Kline, 2007, p. 5). For adults, with our rational processing power and developed bodies, it is more difficult to enter into the ‘freeze’ response. Children and infants on the other hand are highly susceptible to freezing because they can only defend themselves so much; thus their nervous systems are automatically put on high-alert, but there is no way in which they can process the overwhelming physiological responses within their bodies… unless there is a safe adult attachment figure to whom they can run (Levine and Kline, 2007). Imagine the horror, being in a heightened state of alert, fear, anxiety, and trepidation for no apparent reason because it is all triggered by your nervous system. Sometimes, when these patterns are not resolved, certain behaviours may remain through life.

That is the beast that may emerge in our classrooms: Trauma, the imprinting of neurological patterns that elicit physiological responses of heightened alert caused by unresolved fight or flight responses. It is vitally important to be able to recognize situations of fight, flight, or freeze.

A Story from a Child who was Tickled

Many years ago, when I was a grade 1 student, I underwent a transformation that continues to shape my experience of laughter.

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Centre: Douglas Pham, Kindergarten

I vividly remember running and laughing in the parking lot of our school with a number of my friends during recess. We were chasing each other and somehow we turned to tickling. Eventually I became the target. It was no big deal that a friend of mine was restraining me while I was being tickled, I was comfortable with my friends. Soon enough, I was put into a headlock, while another friend was tickling me… My friend was tickling me. He was tickling… still tickling me. “Stop,” I laughed, “that’s enough now!” He was tickling me…

At that point my grade 1 brain realized that I had to escape because this tickling was becoming unbearable. Fight or flight? Why not both? I bit my friend who had me in a headlock and I ran away. Apparently he had started crying and had informed the supervisor that I bit him. The supervisor then informed my teacher.

After recess we sat down on the carpet and to my surprise I was called to stand in front of the class. My friend who I had bit was also named. My grade 1 teacher angrily asked me, “How would you feel if I bit you!?” She then demonstrated that action by grabbing my arm and pretended to voraciously bite it. I do not remember what I did in response, but I did not cry, I did not yell, and I did not defend myself; I was disappointed that she did not understand why I had bit my friend, why I needed to free myself from something unbearable.

Now, when you tickle me, I do not laugh, I do not react; there is nothing despite feeling the physiological sensations that are elicited. The proper response to stop tickling is to not laugh, because the whole point of tickling is to get someone to laugh. My body did this. I made no conscious effort to not laugh at tickling.

Trauma in the Schools: Identification

My story was not one of trauma, but the story of possible trauma as a consequence of tickle torture. The significant thing to take away from this is the responsibility of the teacher: My teacher did not recognize what was happening. I was carrying out the natural rhythms of fight and flight in the way that was most accessible through what I knew; it just happened to involve biting instead of kicking and flailing. The consequence of her reprimand was that I received a new understanding of how to act and behave with regards to experiencing the physiological effects of being tickled, which was essentially to not let anyone tickling me hear my laughter. Perhaps I would still be laughing if my teacher had redirected my behaviour beginning with the simple questions, “Why did you bite your friend,” or, “Could you not have called out to a supervisor for help?”

Teachers need to be vigilant about what is happening in the classroom: students have behaviours for reasons, and those who have experienced trauma will elicit various kinds of physiological responses. Dr. Peter Levine and Maggie Kline provide this worksheet in order to help educators and guardians be mindful of symptoms of trauma: Worksheet for Listing Symptoms. The universal symptoms of trauma can be isolated to four categories (Click on each category for a deeper understanding and thorough read).

  1. Hyperarousal
  2. Constriction
  3. Dissociation
  4. Feelings of numbness and shutdown (or “freeze”)

It is important to note however that “The heightened arousal energy together with shutting down (when there is no escape) are biologically hard-wired survival mechanisms. However, this protective system is meant to be time-limited; our bodies were designed to return to a normal rhythm soon after the danger ends” (Levine & Kline, 2007, p. 41). When our students act out against each other, it is something to be expected. What is of great significance is what we decide to do after the initial event and response. Do we have strategies for assisting our students through difficult situations? Luckily, time is on our side. One aid that we can provide our students is our cognitively developed brains: we, unlike our children, are able to provide reasons for why things occur, we can help our students make sense of what is happening to them (Levine and Kline, 2007). Unfortunately this sense making process is difficult when family members and trusted adult figures are related to the process of trauma. Teachers are thus easily drawn into highly emotional situations…

A Story of Non-Optimal Family Life

Like many other children of my generation, I was raised in an age where using video games and consoles as entertainment was commonplace. I have many fond memories of hours spent playing Super Smash Brothers with a good family friend of mine, classmates, and alone by myself. My story of numbness and shutdown/freeze begins with my translucent blue Gameboy Advance. I played with that device often. In hindsight, I think on why I played it so often, and honestly, it was because that was all I knew; my parents never introduced me to the things I take so much joy in now as an adult… hiking, snowboarding, archery, hockey, rollerblading, calligraphy, and etc. It was not my parents’ fault; they were busy building material stability for me and my sister, because they had escaped to Canada as refugees who brought and had nothing.

Yet, one day, as I was playing with my Gameboy Advance on the couch, my father came home-I do not remember if he was already home-, and aggressively took my Gameboy Advance amidst my objections. He then proceeded into the kitchen and placed it on a cutting board. He took out a butcher’s knife, and dealt my Gameboy Advance a number of hefty blows. I recall asking him angrily, “What are you doing,” but there was nothing else. He finished his business and he left. Where he went, I do not remember, nor did I care. I did not cry, but what I do remember is that I presumed that my dad was under the influence of alcohol. In that moment, I somehow mustered the miracle to hold nothing against him. I picked up the pieces of my Gameboy Advance and checked to see if it was still working; it was still functional. It was as if I tried to pick up the bits of my emotional life, fragmented and indefinitely left in pieces.

Up to this day, I can honestly say that I have no emotional dependence on my family. From my past experiences, my physiological experiences have stated that I can get no respite from my family. As I am older now, I do have a few friends with whom I share my emotional concerns, which I can only say genuinely started roughly three years ago. I was blessed however to encounter my spiritual director almost a decade ago now. He is someone with whom I share and describe my socio-emotional and spiritual life in as much detail and analysis as possible. After my description, he assists me in reframing or contextualizing my view. In many ways he stepped into my life as a constant and secure adult with whom I could confide in. Furthermore, we are similar in that we process our lives primarily through reason as opposed to emotions. I can speak for myself, that my process of making sense of my life could only be done through reason, because it failed in emotional respects.

Humans are not Rabbits.

An inevitable consequence is that trauma in the classroom often finds its roots in familial contexts. For teachers, trauma is an immensely complicated situation: What exactly can teachers immediately address when we are confounded by trauma, a physiological process, that elicits such powerful emotions? A look at rabbits are a good example for more deeply understanding ourselves.

In the wild, rabbits may face death everyday. Their situation is a good representation of the need for physiological resolution. Levine writes that wild animals have a regular diet of danger (Levine, 1997). “They literally ‘shake off’ the residual energy through trembling, rapid eye movements, shaking, panting, and completing motor movements. As the body is returning to equilibrium, the animal can be observed ‘taking’ deep spontaneous breaths” (Levine & Kline, 2007, p.13). That is a rabbit’s regular mechanism for self-regulation and homeostasis, which humans also have (Levine & Kline, 2007). The funny thing is that, according to Dr. Levine and Kline (2007), we humans with our thinking capabilities, literally overthink things and inhibit our bodies from, metaphorically, riding through the emotional and physiological tunnel. However, our cognitive faculties, despite compromising the nervous system’s processes, can also facilitate it when we are able to rationally process out a situation, as it was in my case with my father.

Nevertheless, I serve as a good example of one who has not fully resolved my own physiological experiences of trauma through shutdown/freeze. When I was buying the Gameboy Advance for my inquiry demonstration, I went on my trusted source: Craigslist. I quickly found the same model that so vividly reminded me of my childhood… including the chopping block ordeal. I did not expect the incoming sensations of dumbfoundedness upon first seeing the device in person. How much of it was my nervous system responding to the past? Perhaps more than I realized at the time. Nevertheless, this was an intentional decision I undertook for my inquiry: to relieve a past trauma by enacting it through role-play… Throughout the entire morning, my body was in a state of angst, and I found it difficult to focus and be intentionally present to my colleagues’ presentations, though they may not have been aware of it. When I had completed the demonstration, I felt my body reaching a state of anxiety and reluctance to move forward that I do not get (for comparison’s sake, I have literally held my life in my hands doing climbs on mountains and have felt no significant discomfort… chopping a Gameboy Advance was different).

My research and reading immediately made sense of my sensations, and I cognitively found closure for my physiological response. However, I am an adult. “Most young mammals, and that of course includes human children, rather than running away from threat will run towards a source of adult protection, usually to the mother (or to other adults)” (Levine & Kline, 2007, p. 14). What we teachers can directly do is be powerful first-aid responders.

Traumatic Response: First-Aid

One of the first things that we must do in responding to our children and students’ trauma is what I term holding another’s heart. Again, this holding of the heart requires an attentiveness to the physical and emotional heart. Dr. Levine and Kline, (2007), provide a step-by-step guide that proves helpful in holding our students’ hearts.

FIRST AID FOR TRAUMA PREVENTION: A Step-By-Step Guide
(Levine & Kline, 2007, pp. 101-105)

  1. Check your own body’s response first
    “Take time to notice your own level of fear or concern… The time it takes to establish a sense of calm is time well spent. It will increase your capacity to attend fully to your child.”
  2. Assess the situation
    “If the child shows signs of shock (glazed eyes, pale skin, rapid or shallow pulse and breathing, disorientation, overly emotional or overly tranquil affect, or acting like nothing has happened), do not allow her to jump up and return to play.”
  3. As the shock wears off, guide your child’s attention to his sensations
    “Softly ask your child how he feels ‘in his body.’ Repeat his answer as a question-“You feel okay in your body?’-and wait for a nod or other response. Be more specific with the next question: ‘How do you feel in your tummy (head, arm, leg, etc.)?’ If he mentions a distinct sensation, gently ask about its location, size, shape, colour, or weight (e.g. heavy or light). Keep guiding your child to stay with the present moment with questions such as, ‘How does the rock (sharpness, lump ‘owie,’ sting) feel now?’ If she is too young or too startled to talk, have her point to where it hurts. (Remember that children tend to describe sensations with metaphors such as ‘hard as a rock.’)
  4. Slow down and follow your child’s pace by careful observation of change
    “This may be the hardest part for the adult; but it’s the most important for the child. Allowing a minute or two of silence between questions allows deeply restorative physiological cycles to engage. Too many questions asked too quickly disrupt the natural course… This process, [the release of energy], cannot be rushed… Keep your child focused on sensations for a few more minutes just to make sure the process is complete. Wait to see if another cycle begins or if there is a sense of enough for now. If your child shows signs of fatigue, stop. There will be other opportunities to complete the process.
  5. Keep Validating your child’s physical responses
    “Resist the impulse to stop your child’s tears or trembling, while reminding him that whatever has happened is over and that he will be OK. Your child’s reactions need to continue until they stop on their own. This part of the natural cycle usually takes from one to several minutes… crying and trembling are normal, healthy reactions!
  6. Trust in your child’s innate ability to heal
    As you become increasingly comfortable with your own sensations, it will be easier to relax and follow your child’s lead. Your primary function, once the process has begun, is to not disrupt it! Trust your child’s innate ability to heal… Your job is to ‘stay with’ your child, creating a safe container… to avoid unintentional disruption of the process, don’t shift the child’s position, distract her attention, hold him too tightly, or position yourself too close or too far away for comfort. Notice when your child begins to re-orient to the environment. Orientation is a sign of completion.
  7. Encourage your child to rest even if she doesn’t want to
    Deep discharges generally continue during rest and sleep. Do not stir up discussion about the mishap by asking questions…If a lot of energy was mobilized, the release will continue. The next cycle may be too subtle for you to notice, but the rest promotes a fuller recovery, allowing the body to gently vibrate, give off heat, go through skin colour changes, etc., as the nervous system returns to relaxation and equilibrium.
  8. The final step is to attend to your child’s emotional responses
    Later, when your child is rested and calm-even the next day-set aside some time for her to talk about her feelings and what she experienced. Begin by asking the child to tell you what happened… Help your child to know that those feelings are good and that you understand… Let the youngster know that whatever she is feeling is OK and worthy of your time and attention…

After we have done our job as frontline responders when trauma manifests itself in our classroom, we have the task of mitigating any further damage. Mind you this mitigation is distinct from the role of trained therapists who will take a deeper and more focused approach at systematically arranging proper activities to reset a traumatized child’s nervous system. However, we can aid this process through various types of play.

Healing through Games and Play

Play is powerful for the prevention and healing of trauma in that it empowers children and students, and they are able to:

  1. Model Healthy Boundaries: No one gets to touch, handle, or look at me in a way that feels uncomfortable.
  2. Develop Good Sensory Awareness: Teach children to trust the felt sense of “Uh-oh” they may feel as dread in the gut or rapid heartbeat, which lets them know something is wrong and they need to leave and get help.
  3. Know What Sexual Violation Is, Who Might Approach Them, and How to Avoid Being Lured: Teach children how to use their “sense detectors” as an early warning sign.
  4. Practice their Right to Say “No.”
  5. Know What to Say and Do: Also, let them know that they should always tell you so that you can keep them safe and help them with their feelings.

(Levine and Kline, 2007, p. 243)

In order to convey the power of play, here is a story that is directly from Dr. Levine and Kline’s work.

                                                             The Story of Sammy
Sammy has been spending the weekend with his grandparents, where I am their guest. He is being an impossible tyrant, aggressively and relentlessly trying to control his new environment. Nothing pleases him; he displays a foul temper every waking moment. When he is asleep, he tosses and turns as if wrestling with his bedclothes. This behaviour is not entirely unexpected from a two-and-a-half-year-old whose parents have gone away for the weekend-children with separation anxiety often act it out. Sammy, however, has always enjoyed visiting his grandparents, and this behavior seems extreme to them.

They confide to me that six months earlier, Sammy fell off his high chair and split his chin open. Bleeding heavily, he was taken to the local emergency room. When the nurse came to take his temperature and blood pressure, he was so frightened that she was unable to record his vital signs. The two-year-old child was then strapped down in a “paediatric papoose” (a board with flaps and Velcro straps). With his torso and leg immobilized, the only part of his body he could move was his head and neck-which, naturally, he did, as energetically as he could. The doctors responded by tightening the restraint and immobilizing his head with their hands in order to suture his chin.

After this upsetting experience, mom and dad took Sammy out for a hamburger and then to the playground. His mother was very attentive and carefully validated his experience of being scared and hurt. Soon, all seemed forgotten. However, the boy’s overbearing attitude began shortly after this event. Could Sammy’s tantrums and controlling behaviour be related to his perceived helplessness from this trauma?…

We all gathered in the cabin where I was staying. With parents, grandparents, and Sammy watching, I placed his stuffed Poo Bear on the edge of a chair in such a way that it immediately fell to the floor. We decided that it was hurt and had to be taken to the hospital. Sammy shrieked, bolted for the door, and ran across a footbridge and down a narrow path to the creek. Our suspicions were confirmed. His most recent visit to the hospital was neither harmless nor forgotten. Sammy’s behaviour told us that this game was potentially overwhelming for him.

Sammy’s parents brought him back from the creek. He clung frantically to his mother as we prepared for another game. We reassured him that we would all be there to help protect Pooh Bear. Again he ran-but this time only into the next room. We followed him in there and waited to see what would happen next. Sammy ran to the bed and hit it with both arms while looking at me expectantly.

“Mad, huh?” I said. He gave me a look tat confirmed my question. Interpreting his expression as a go-ahead sign, I put Pooh Bear under a blanket and placed Sammy on the bed next to him.

“Sammy, let’s all help Pooh Bear.” I held Pooh Bear under the blanket and asked everyone to help. Sammy watched with interest but soon got up and ran to his mother. With his arms held tightly around her legs, he said, “Mommy, I’m scared.”

Without pressuring him, we waited until Sammy was ready and willing to play the game again. The next time grandma and Pooh Bear were held down together, and Sammy actively participated in their rescue. When Pooh Bear was freed, Sammy ran to his mother, clinging even more tightly than before. He began to tremble and shake in fear, and then his chest opened up in a growing sense of excitement, triumph, and pride. The next time he held on to mommy, there twas less clinging and more excited jumping. We waited until Sammy was ready to play again. Everyone except Sammy took a turn being rescued with Pooh. Each time, Sammy became more vigorous as he pulled off the blanket and escaped into the safety of his mother’s arms.

When it was Sammy’s turn to be held under the blanket with Pooh Bear, he became quite agitated and fearful. He read back to his mother’s arms several times before he was able to accept the ultimate challenge. Bravely, he climbed under the blankets with Pooh while I held the blanket gently down. Then he grabbed Pooh Bear, shoved the blanket away, and flung himself into his mother’s arms. Sobbing and trembling, he screamed, “Mommy, get me out of here! Mommy, get this thing off me!” His startled father told me that these were the same words that Sammy screamed while imprisoned in the papoose at the hospital. He remembered this clearly because he had been quite surprised by his son’s ability to make such a direct, well-spoken demand at two-plus years of age.

We went through the escape several more times. Each time, Sammy exhibited more power and more triumph. Instead of running fearfully to his mother, he jumped excitedly up and down. With every successful escape, we all clapped and faced together, cheering, “Yeah for Sammy, yeah yeah! Sammy saved Pooh Bear!” Two-and-a-half-year-old Sammy had achieved mastery over the experience that had shattered him a few months earlier.

The Power of Hope

Trauma is a difficult situation to handle and be in… But it does not need to end in sadness! Healing is possible. That in itself provides so much hope for the educator, for the student, and for us as budding teachers. We are never alone in our teaching, and there are so many resources for us to access. Furthermore we must keep in mind that we are not surgeons, let alone therapists. However, we are first-responders and guides for our students. On that note, I have included amongst the resources in this website a whole set of games and strategies for healing and understanding.

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This inquiry project has taken me through ups and downs, but has ultimately reshaped what I know and think of trauma (initially I was focused on the psychological and emotional side of things). When I first encountered Dr. Peter Levine and Maggie Kline’s work, Trauma Through a Child’s Eyes, at the amazing educators’ Super Conference, I was intrigued and fascinated. I wanted the book and returned a few hours later intending on purchasing it… but it had already sold out. Eventually getting my hands on it, I dove into it in the hopes have finding that Ordinary Miracle of Healing (Levine & Kline, 2007): I certainly discovered how fearfully powerful trauma it was, hijacking our bodies… but there was healing. Healing that was so natural to our bodies that the traumatized “only” needed proper coaxing in order to begin healing. This, we teachers can do: be sensitive… attentive… caring… The recipe for healing was something that could be developed with a little practice.

I hope my little inquiry brings you hope, strategies, and also eagerness for becoming a great model for your children and students’ lives!