When we adopted Stephanie at age four, she was a spitfire. Steph survived her hard start to life by always being in charge. She determined what she wanted by doing the exact opposite of what anyone wanted her to do. She figured out this was usually the safest option, and she learned how to get her own way.
When we became Steph’s forever family, she was attending a preschool for children ages 2, 3, and 4 with anger issues. Sometimes I have to say it again, because the words just don’t make sense. Stephanie attended a preschool for young children with anger issues.
If I’m honest, I kind of liked not knowing there are preschools for two-year-old, three-year-old, and four-year-old children with anger issues. Childhood shouldn’t be spent in anger. Childhood is for make-believe and laughter. When you have a history of hard, it is sometimes difficult to make-believe and twirl around the yard pretending you are best friends with unicorns and butterflies.
We’re grateful that Stephanie is a spitfire. Her strong will and fiery temper kept the girls safe in those early years. When kids experience trauma, especially the kind of trauma that lands you in foster care and leads to termination of parental rights, your brain changes. Your emotional control center , the amygdala, enlarges. When the amygdala is enlarged, it leads to extreme emotions. The primary emotion children from hard places feel is fear. There are three reactions to fear: flight, freeze, or fight.
Stephanie is a fighter.
It used to be believed that once a brain was altered from trauma there was nothing that could be done to change it back. The best option was to learn to live with extreme emotions. It turns out this isn’t the case!
Recent brain research shows that brains can heal and that amygdalae can shrink back to a normal size. It’s not easy, but it’s also not complex. The way brains heal is the same way healthy brains are developed in the first place. They are well-nourished and needs are met.
When we meet the needs of a child from a hard place, we begin to heal their brains. It isn’t instantaneous, and I know first hand that it isn’t easy. Children from hard places can be very difficult to love. Some days it’s so difficult that I wonder if it’s true that brains can heal.
Then I saw Steph go outside with her music, colored pencils, and intricate coloring book. She slammed the door a little too hard, the only sign of her anger. I watched her while the minutes disappeared, and I remembered the little girl who learned in the therapeutic preschool for kids with anger issues to sing as a way to self-soothe. I watched her lips move along with the song. I watched her color and stare at the sky and smile as a bunny hopped across the yard. She took deep breaths and colored more.
I find her remarkable after eight years of learning to love her more. Day after day of ignoring the fight and believing in filling her needs. Offering her hugs instead of what she deserved. Finding grace and mercy in deepest parts of my soul and offering them to her, while the enemy whispered that we enable her and she will never be grateful and she will always be filled with anger.
I step outside, with 12 year old Stephanie. “I’m okay,” she says.
Tears brim past by eyelashes. “I know,” I say.
She turns back to filling the butterfly wing with turquoise. I snap her picture.
She looks at me. “Why’d you take a picture?”
“Because I want to remember what healing looks like.”
She smirks at me and says, “You’re so weird.”
I laugh a laugh that is too loud, and I hug her. She giggles. “Like, really weird, Mom.”
Stephanie is healing as her needs are met again and again. I celebrate this healing.
And there’s an even bigger reason to celebrate — teachers can heal brains too. There are many children who are still in hard places. Their last hope of healing may be in our classrooms. As teachers meet needs, brains heal. As brains heal, the trajectory of a child’s life is altered.
And, I believe, the world becomes a better place.
Here’s to celebrating teachers, because we change the world.
[Just FYI, my new book is a lot like this blog post — only much longer with stories that are told as close to my bones as I can tell them. It is a collection of stories, much like this, and a call to action for teachers to heal brains, help students tell true-er stories and share their messages with the world, by enticing all students to write with practical leaps of faith in writing workshop. (Can just say, it makes me smile to pair the word practical with the phrase leaps of faith!)]
I’m so happy to celebrate with you!