Hearing Trauma’s Voice: A Conversation With Lesley Koplow (Part 2)

Lesley Koplow is the Director of the Center for Emotionally Responsive Practice (ERP) at Bank Street College of Education in New York City. I recently spoke with her about efforts to help children who are living with the effects of trauma and toxic stress. Here are excerpts from our conversation, edited for brevity and clarity.      

What kinds of stories are helpful for children who have suffered from trauma?   

There’s a workshop around emotionally responsive literacy, where we have teachers use books that reflect their students. It can’t be a “happy only” classroom with stories showing “happy only” children, because children have a range of emotions. You’ve got to value all affects equally and read stories that resonate with children’s experiences, so that they’re not alone with their difficult feelings.      

Children learn that literacy is a voice. When they hear a story about something that resonates with their own feelings, they can dictate, write, draw, or play about it, fostering authentic communication. That way, school isn’t distracting them from their experiences. Learning becomes a vehicle for self-expression. It helps children makes sense of what they have been through, and it helps them connect with others around their experiences.

How do transitional objects like teddy bears play into that?

We’ve done a lot of work with teddy bears from the toddler stage through fifth grade. It’s proven to be a powerful technique that enhances the teacher-child attachment and children’s ability to be empathic to themselves and others.

When I was the director of the Karen Horney Therapeutic Nursery, we worked with children who had traumatic histories. Some kids would bring in their teddy bears, and we saw how powerful it was for them. We decided that we were going to get teddy bears for everyone and work with them on all levels.

At the time that I came to Bank Street, we were doing a project in the Newark Public Schools. There were several abused, traumatized children in one classroom with a brand-new teacher—and it was disastrous. I thought, “Let me get them teddy bears. I think it will help.”

The teacher thought I was nuts, but things got so out of control that eventually she let me do it. We put the teddy bears up high on the shelf, and then during morning meeting, we said, ‘What do you notice about our classroom?’

The kids said, ‘There’s bears!’

‘What do you notice about the bears?’ we asked. (The bears were identical, and we thought the children would say, ‘They all look the same.’)

A kid raised his hand and said, ‘They’re not pushing each other off the shelf.’

We said, ‘You’re right. They’re not pushing each other off the shelf. But in this class, children push each other all the time, and we have to keep the teddy bears safe. They’re going to be with us all year. We have to figure out: How do you make a safe home for the teddy bear?’

The anxiety and aggression in that classroom went down substantially. Since then, we’ve done the same work in hundreds of classrooms.

That strikes me as somewhat different from playing with dolls.

It’s particularly powerful for boys, who have less invitation to play that way. Having teddy bears in the classroom makes it all right to need affection and nurturing.

A doctor in Israel who worked with war-affected children found that kids who had transitional objects had less post-traumatic stress than those who didn’t. When we’re using teddy bears at bad times, as we did after the hurricane, we do a two-pronged approach. We say, “That was hard, and everyone was scared. Now we have these teddy bears to help us feel safer.” But we also say, “The teddy bears might remember the storm, and they might need you to help them feel safer.”

That was part of the Israeli study. Giving kids an invitation to be the caregiver empowered them in the face of feeling so helpless.

With the doll, you’re caring for something, whereas with the teddy bear, you might identify more with it as you, as a mirror.

Yes, and both things happen.

I can see how this would be helpful to teachers, too. 

It is. We do a parallel process where we give teddy bears to members of the staff before we have them participate with the kids. We say, “This is going to be yours forever. What is it like to have someone give you something?” People have all kinds of childhood associations with stuffed animals. They name the bear, and we ask, “What name did you choose, and where did you get the name?”

You learn all about the people in the room that way. It brings a sense of community.

What are some other ways to help children cope with trauma?

There are many approaches. Kids need to have someone with them to make sense of their experiences. There’s a technique called “News of the Day.” Little kids come into a classroom, and they want to share news. They dictate it to the teacher who writes it down. Then, in morning meeting, if the “author” wants her to, the teacher will read the news, and other kids can ask about it. One child will say, “Yesterday, I got a goldfish.” Another will say, “I saw someone shoot my uncle.”

There’s a huge range of what gets said. But the fact that there’s a technique to hold all kinds of feelings and experiences, and a place in school for those experiences to live, as well as a reliable routine that children can count on, results in less emotional isolation.

We also encourage teachers to put Interactive Feeling Charts in the classroom, with several positive and negative emotions pictured. Children put their names or symbols on those pictures if they want to say how they’re feeling. If this is done at the beginning of the school day, teachers can tune into where children see themselves. The routine can be preventive in allowing kids to connect around those feelings, then making sure that they’re not alone. During adverse moments in the classroom, children need to be comforted before they can self-comfort.

There are so many interventions that are not only best practices for early childhood development, but also serve as powerful preventive mental health measures. We put those two things together.

Read Part One of my interview here.