Lori Desautels, left, an assistant professor at Butler University, works with students Tuesday as they perform a few short exercises to get their brains working. Tim Bath | CNHI News Indiana
Lori Desautels, left, an assistant professor at Butler University, works with students Tuesday as they perform a few short exercises to get their brains working. Tim Bath | CNHI News Indiana
A student came looking for Crystal Williams during the school day.

The student was supposed to be headed to their next class but didn’t want to. There had been a prior incident.

Williams, a seventh grade social studies teacher at Belzer Middle School in Indianapolis, called the other teacher and said the student just needed to relax and calm down with her for a bit. She’d get the details of what happened later. Williams and the student talked about that, too.

It was one of three times a student sought out Williams on that particular school day. Sometimes the students want to talk to Williams about something positive, other times they need to work through a challenge they are having.

“They go find safety, someone who makes them feel safe in the moment,” Williams said.

It’s the result of fostering what Williams calls touch points during class each day — times where teacher and student can be vulnerable, and real, together. The practice builds trusting relationships. Ones where students are comfortable coming to Williams when they’re having a moment.

Williams integrates applied educational neuroscience (though she doesn’t call it that) in her social studies classes. There’s also a daily 25-minute planning period each day.

Williams talks about the nervous system, the parts of the brain and what they do, while providing students a space to voice what they feel. The latter is called co-regulation, a psychology term, where children manage their emotions and sensations by connecting with a trusted individual.

Williams co-teaches her planning period with Lori Desautels, an assistant professor at Butler University. She has written extensively on the impact of trauma on the developing nervous system.

The two are big on teaching kids to identify the sensations they feel. Sensations are what comes before a behavior.

Maybe it’s burning ears when a student is getting mad. Maybe it’s a rapid heartbeat when anxiety sets in.

These sensations can send the brain into flight or fight mode. It’s in that moment a child will respond how they’ve responded to previous traumatic incidences. Think of it as the brain going on autopilot.

And those behaviors can be self-destructive.

“Trauma hijacks your body,” Desautels said. “This is why we’re seeing kids externalize pain.”

If a child can recognize a sensation that comes before an outburst, they can develop a healthy way to relieve the stress they’re feeling.

“It’s paying attention to your body and the feeling and sensations that are going on,” Williams said. “You’re learning what your body is telling you.”

That might be taking a walk, drinking some water, shooting hoops or talking to a trust adult. Essentially, it’s practices that help one chill out.

“We teach them the procedures ahead of time,” Desautels said.

Ahead of time is an important caveat. Telling a child mid-meltdown to cool down is futile. In those moments, a child’s developing prefrontal cortex — the part of the brain associated with decision making — is offline.

“You gotta set this up ahead of time,” Desautels said.


Are children more prone to emotional and physical outbursts? It’s a question without an answer.

Shelbi Fortner, the assessment coordinator for Indiana University Kokomo’s School of Education, said children haven’t changed much but what has changed is the world they live in and the adults around them.

Desautels, agrees, pointing to a trend of chronic unpredictability in children’s lives.

Parental separation, drug use in families, the pandemic, death, loss and the rise of children in the foster care system are contributing to more adverse childhood experiences (ACES) in youth.

Those experiences shape how a child responds to trauma. The outbursts seen in school, the behaviors educators are trying to correct, all trace back to previous incidents.

“The nervous system is an experience-dependent system,” Desautels said.

Most children are ill-equipped to handle trauma.

“For many of our children, they are being thrown into this survival state, without a narrative or understanding,” Desautels said.

It’s not the child’s fault, though, because their brains are still developing.

“Part of our job as adults is to help them manage their emotion so they’re not controlled by them,” Fortner said.

Left unaddressed it can have serious consequences. Desautels gave the example of a child who grows up in a loud, overstimulating environment. The child might shutdown or retreat as the nervous system goes into survival mode.

And while it might help in those incidences, shutting down as an overwhelmed adult isn’t ideal. Desautels said it can lead to not paying bills, not showing up for work or getting out of bed.

This can have a trickle-down effect, according to Pipe Creek Elementary Principal Laura Fulton. Poor coping mechanisms by parents get picked up by children.

“You learn what is shown to you,” Fulton said.

School officials at Pipe Creek, part of Maconaquah School Corporation in Miami County, find parents are often dealing with the same issues as their students.

“They tell us they’re struggling with their own anxiety and depression,” Fulton said.

Amy Smith, a retired teacher of 23 years, said parents are also struggling with parenting.

“That has a lot to do with it,” she said. “I think they’re struggling to figure it out.”

Smith said that if parents themselves didn’t grow up with good examples, it’s hard to navigate doing it yourself.

Poverty underlines a lot of the struggles, according to Fulton. She hears from parents facing eviction, worried about keeping the heat on, domestic violence, custody battles and a lack of support in their own lives.

“I’ve had parents tell me, ‘I have no one,’” Fulton said.

These challenges weigh on parents and their children. One way is high absentee rates.

Students who attend Pipe Creek are between the ages of 3 and 7 (the school offers its own preschool). This means a parent or caregiver takes their child to school, if they don’t ride the bus. But if a parent doesn’t have a car or gas money, there might be no way for the child to get to school.

“The vast majority of the time it’s not because they don’t care,” Fulton said. “They’re not able to do for their kids, for whatever reason.”

Pipe Creek officials have taken it upon themselves

to help parents meet some of their basic needs.

Maconaquah used federal pandemic relief money to hire two social workers who help connect parents to resources in the community, including for food, utilities, family doctors and organizations such as the Lions Club and United Way.


A meltdown does not come out of nowhere. There’s always something, according to Williams.

It’s why creating a classroom environment where students are comfortable talking about what’s going on is important.

“People don’t just fly off the handle when they’re having a great day,” Williams said.

Being able to talk — about the good and the bad — helps unpack those feelings and encourages children to not internalize what they’re feeling. Bottling those things up leads to outbursts or just shutting down altogether.

Williams practices what she preaches. She talks about how her neck burns when anxiety creeps in.

There’s inherent value in those conversations, according to Fortner, who previously worked as a social-emotional learning coach for Community Schools of Frankfort.

Applying a label to a feeling can make a child realize they’re not the only ones who feel that way, creating a sense of solidarity.

“If we can label it, we can give it a word,” Fortner said. “If there’s a word for this, other people have felt this too.”

This is part of what guidance counselor Elizabeth Resler does at Pipe Creek.

Resler talks with students about character development and recognizing one’s emotions. Included in that is telling kids it’s okay to feel a certain way and how to vocalize it. She sees all students once a week.

“A lot of kids haven’t heard that,” Fulton said.

Resler knows every student in the building. This leads to meaningful connections that get at the root of what’s going on in a child’s life.

“That’s a huge piece of it,” Fulton said. “There’s so many hidden stories.”

There are also small focus groups for students struggling with the same issue, such as self control. There is time built in to meet with families, too.

Retired from public education, Amy Smith teaches future educators at IUK. Education students learn some of the same coping skills and breathing techniques their future students might need one day.

The benefit is two-fold. Teachers learn how to handle themselves in times of stress.

“You have to be aware of your own reactions,” Smith said.

If an adult responds poorly to stressors, it can have a negative impact on children.

“I can unintentionally escalate a child,” Desautels said.

The other plus for future educators in practicing coping skills is they’ll see the benefit themselves. They can share those experiences in class, leading to meaningful connections.

Williams swears by those touch points. And she pushes back against those who claim today’s kids can’t handle adversity like those of previous generations.

“I don’t think I’ve seen a generation that has handled their emotions (in a healthy manner),” Williams said, adding that she hopes to change that.
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