Q. In a time when school’s are facing unique situations, what can we do to teach our children to remain calm during a soft lockdown?
On Jan. 14, the children of Kaneland Harter Middle School experienced a “hold in place” measure in response to a serious threat posted on social media. The procedure differed from a hard lockdown, where children are asked to be still, or even hide in a room during the emergency. The “hold in place” lasted about two hours as students were confined to their classrooms, only allowed to leave for bathroom breaks, parental dismissal or to retrieve their lunch. The situation was handled skillfully. Parents were kept informed and the principal, Sugar Grove police department and the Kane County Sheriff should be commended for how quickly they defused the situation.
During the event, Kane County Sheriff Sergeant Ron Hain went in uniform to several classrooms to speak to as many children as possible. He told them calmly that the “hold in place” was a precaution because of a student’s unfortunate actions. “I saw a lot of scared looks on the children’s faces, that perhaps could have been avoided through redirection,” he said.
As a former school counselor on the crisis team, I know firsthand that such a situation is anxiety-producing and nerve-wracking not only for the children, but for the staff as well. Redirecting the children is a good strategy to distract them from their worry but it is also scientifically proven to help alleviate the harmful emotional and physiological effects of stress, especially when the redirection involves physical movement.
It’s common knowledge that when humans face danger, they typically exhibit the “fight or flight” reaction. However, when a danger seems so overwhelmingly hopeless that there is no chance of survival, we may freeze, like the deer in the headlights.
Especially for children in a big, scary world, freezing is often the adaptation of choice, which allows them to dissociate from the trauma and protect their emotional state. A 1989 study by van der Kolk and van der Hart showed that dissociation or “freezing” in wake of an event is a precursor to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), along with phobias, panic attacks, obsessive-compulsive behaviors and various anxieties that may be traced to a “freeze” state that never had the chance to “let go” or “thaw out”.
When we are voluntarily asked to “freeze”, or mimic the freeze response when we are physiologically ready to flee or fight, we cannot benefit from dissociating from the event. Instead, our body’s heart rate races, our muscles tense, etc. in preparation for the fight or flight. If we can’t do either, our levels of cortisol, the “stress hormone” that regulates our body for the response, builds up within us. Without a release, the cortisol can wreak havoc on our minds and bodies.
During the “hold in place” the children could have released their high levels of cortisol through breathing exercises or light stretching. This would have reduced some of their physiological reactions to their natural “fight or flight” response.
Breathing is a known relaxant, from managing pain during childbirth to handling cases of shocking news. Psychological experiments have proven it as well. A recent study of nurses from the University of New Mexico Hospital with positive PTSD symptoms were asked to participate in 16 sessions of 60-minute mind body intervention (MBX) sessions led by a trained instructor over a 8-week period. The program consisted of stretching, balancing and breathing with a focus on mindfulness. The group was asked to attend to their breathing, concentrating on inhalation, retention and exhalation. At the end of the program, the MBX group showed significant reduction in PTSD symptoms, serum cortisol and “improved sleep, stress resilience, energy levels, better emotional regulation under stress, and resumption of pleasurable activities that they had previously discontinued”.
So in a “hold in place” measure, could children have a protocol of physical movement to release their cortisol and calm themselves? Kaneland Superintendent Todd Leden said it could be something to try in the future. “As a district, we are always looking at new safety procedures and researching new strategies to manage emergency situations in the best interest of the children,” he said. “The district would possibly consider this type of program for our students and staff after more details have been gathered.”
THIS ARTICLE APPEARED IN THE MOST RECENT ISSUE OF GLANCER MAGAZINE
ask an expert Jada Hudson (M.S., LCPC), is a licensed clinical counselor and owner of Hudson Clinical Counseling who has helped individuals heal, grow and live for more than 20 years. Jada counsels individuals like firefighters who have experienced occupational stress and trauma, as well as women, children and adolescents struggling to manage life’s transitions or emotional challenges. Jada employs client-centered therapy, which means clients take an active role in employing strategies for healing. She creates a safe, non-judgmental, and open experience to guide clients to resolution or adaptation to their life challenges. Most insurance accepted. Three suburban locations: 102 S Washington, 2nd Floor, Hindsdale, 630-815-3735; 263 Main St., Sugar Grove, 630-815-3735; 1333 Burr Ridge Pkwy, Suite 253 Burr Ridge, 630-815-3735; www.hudsonclinicalcounseling.com