Abigail Miller
Post count: 5

Oop! I know the assignment said it was a “post,” but I didn’t see the “Class Forum” on the site and just uploaded this to my Google Drive folder as a reflection. Judith’s email today drew my attention to the class forum. Sorry 🙁

Anyhow….Reflecting upon my work with educators through the lens of SPT, I can see that the educator will communicate how they are feeling through the setup. The way that they behave will be based upon their perceptions, and internal working models of relationships, and is not about me. As a result, instead of taking it personally, I can attune to how they are feeling, model a regulatory response, and name the feelings (“I feel nervous,” “I feel overwhelmed,” “It’s so frustrating,” “I’m worried about what you will think of me,” “I’m doing my best, but I feel exhausted,” “This feels really hard”). Since nervous systems impact one another, modeling a regulatory response, will assist the educator in regulating. This is one aspect that is unique to SPT.

In most modalities, one important mechanism of therapeutic action is the therapeutic alliance. Having someone observe the educator’s work (their classroom, their teaching) and provide feedback/support, in many cases at the request of an administrator and not because the individual requested assistance, possibly at times that are not convenient for the educator, and often with little expectation of confidentiality, may cause an individual to feel vulnerable, fearful, resentful, or defensive and may not be conducive to creating a strong therapeutic alliance.

My experience is that educators are often natural caregivers who come to the field because of idealistic beliefs (wanting to make a difference, anticipating easy positive relationships with all students, believing that one year of student teaching experience will be adequate to feeling competent in all situations, sometimes underestimating the impact of trauma and developmental challenges) and often hold many (sometimes unconscious, and often unrealistic) expectations and beliefs about their work (“I should like all of my students,” “I should never feel frustrated, angry, or upset with a student,” “I should be able to manage all types of challenging behavior and developmental challenges,” “I should have ‘good’ classroom management,” “The children should be making x rate of progress,” “The classroom should be calm, quiet, peaceful,” “My relationship with each student should be transformative and have a protective, buffering, effect on their development,” etc. Educators are often like parents, seeing their students and classroom as a reflection of them personally. I can be aware that may feel discouraged and experience enormous shame, guilt, helplessness, and inadequacy (or resentment, anger, and blame) when they do not feel that they are meeting these expectations. Often, because of these expectations, there is a culture of shame and silence (or blame) surrounding these feelings (some educators do not feel comfortable acknowledging them or discussing them with colleagues, therapists, or support staff). Sometimes these beliefs are socialized through teacher education programs and laws/regulations which suggest that all types of developmental challenges and challenging behavior ought to be able to be successfully addressed in a typical, inclusive, classroom environment, and in school systems with many competing priorities, extremely limited differentiation of students (students of all backgrounds are supposed to be performing at the same level and meeting the same standards), prioritization of narrow academic outcomes (teachers are often evaluated primarily on the basis of test scores), with little emphasis on relationships (teachers work with many children, often seeing the child only a few hours a day, for 9 months, and then the children are moved on to a different teacher in different peer groupings), access to minimal biographical and developmental information about an individual child (educators are often not privy to “the story” of a child’s life, have minimal parental interactions, and lack a complete history which might allow them to contextualize student behaviors), and an American culture which primarily sees education alone as the key to reducing rampant inequality and social injustice (a tall order for a teacher). Finally, every teacher approaches teaching and comes to the relationship with the supporting therapist with a different history (different beliefs and expectations, levels of education and experience, relational histories, life stressors, sensory systems, interest in social emotional development, and understanding or “buy in” of the ways in which this affects cognitive development) and finds themselves working with different populations of students, with different needs (a novice Teach for America graduates in a Title 1 school, a veteran with no training put in charge of an Arizona classroom during COVID) and different levels of “goodness or fit.” Instead of feeling helped or supported, an educator may feel like an outside expert has been called in to evaluate, criticize, judge, fix, or improve their classroom or job performance. Since “shoulds” (judgment) are perceived as a threat by the brain, and dysregulating, this is not helpful. Without establishing a credible belief that they are “safe” in the interaction (a neuroception of safety), a therapeutic alliance is unlikely to be established and the educator is unlikely to engage authentically and honestly with the process, or experience integration, transformation, or personal or professional growth. In some cases, especially if there are many competing priorities and initiatives or the educator does not see the intrinsic value in the therapist’s support, it may also be necessary to make a compelling “case” to the educator that this will make their job easier, their classroom better, or result in other tangible benefits (improved academic and cognitive outcomes), although SPT theory would suggest that the (bottom up) “felt sense” of relational attunement, the neuroception of safety, and the therapeutic alliance might be more important than a compelling intellectual argument on the merits of the program/intervention. Having said that, investments in social emotional programming are often “justified” along the lines of these types of arguments (not for its own sake).

The SPT lens impacts my thinking and behavior by prioritizing (especially initially) relational attunement over evaluating/passing judgment on the social emotional climate of the classroom or imparting specific information and interventions. Creating a neuroception of safety (which includes maintaining confidentiality as appropriate) and acting as an external regulator (co-regulating the educator, allowing them to ‘borrow’ a more regulated nervous system) creates a supportive environment and allows the educator to “check in” with themselves, to become curious about how they are feeling (facilitating interoception), expand their own window of tolerance, improve their own regulatory capacity (since ‘neurons that fire together, wire together,’ with repetition this literally ‘rewires,’ or creates new pathways, in their brain) and increases their receptivity to support. As a result, the intervention is largely enacted (not didactically explained) and ‘The therapist is the intervention’ (in the same way that the therapist is the most important toy in the playroom). This is another aspect that is very unique to the SPT approach.

For a therapist, or an educator, the idea of being responsible for simultaneously co-regulating 20-30 nervous systems, and cultivating supportive relationships and a holding environment for 20-30 individuals from widely varied backgrounds with developmental capabilities (not including parents and colleagues), amidst the need to perform pedagogical and other classroom maintenance/caregiving/record keeping/custodial tasks, may seem daunting, if not impossible. As a result, validation of the educator’s feelings and the SPT understanding of the mirror neuron system, that modeling a regulatory response, allows one individual to serve as an external regulatory support for others (the idea that in remaining regulated myself, and attuned to my own feelings, I can remain available, within my own window of tolerance, and assist others in doing the same and allow them to “borrow” my nervous system; ultimately, the only person I am responsible for regulating is myself- staying connected to myself, irrespective of what is going on, and modeling regulation), and that SPT’s mode of action does not require a complete history or knowledge of the child’s “story, may be quite a relief to educators and also a significant change from the way they are used to thinking of interactions with students (many educators focus is on cognitive development, “behavioral modification plans,” or top-down regulation strategies, their attention is often directed outwards, toward serving others, and toward their students reactions, behaviors, and emotional states). Honestly considering their own feelings and emotional states (interoception) during classroom interactions may be a new, difficult, and underdeveloped skill. Being willing and able to honestly share and reflect upon these feelings with another person may feel especially vulnerable. Additionally, many educators have been taught to manage student behavior with classroom management “systems” and models (behaviorism, functional behavioral analysis, token economies, PBIS and Pyramid SEL models) that focus on granular, transactional, classroom interactions/routines, focus almost exclusively on the child’s behavior and gaining compliance, reinforcing the idea that if the teacher just avoids the antecedent/trigger for problem behaviors or responds in the correct way, with the correct consequent, the challenging behavior should reduce in frequency or extinguish entirely (a somewhat coercive model), or more relational models that vaguely suggest that if the teacher just succeeded in creating a positive relationship with the student, the challenges and conflicts would vanish and dysregulation would not occur. The SPT model differs significantly and may be a bit of a paradigm shift, or even incompatible with these other approaches.

Finally, tracking starting points and shared goal setting (that is related to the educator’s values and motivations) is important in providing a sense of perspective. Documenting starting points is also important in understanding where the work is headed, tracking progress, and celebrating successes.