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PBL is a Powerful Trauma-Informed Approach

PBL is a Powerful Trauma-Informed Approach

A friend/colleague of mine, Rebecca Lewis-Pankratz pulled me to the side a couple months ago and asked me if I knew that my work in Project Based Learning was literally saving kids. I laughed and half-joked, “that’s what I’m trying to do!” But I saw her wide eyes and heard her urgent voice. She wasn’t smiling. She wasn’t joking. She was existing in that sliver between panic and excited realization. You know it, right? Like you’re just realizing something GIGANTIC and no one else knows about it? Yeah. And apparently, she’d already started putting me in a category of awe-inspiring super-genius.

When I saw she wasn’t just making a passing comment, but that she was serious, I became confused. Sure, I’d seen some serious changes in kids and teachers when they were in a PBL environment, but Rebecca meant more than that. She literally meant saving kids’ lives. Knowing she works with a deep passion and knowledge of poverty and how to pull communities out of poverty (and her work actually does — you have got to check this woman out), I got a little panicked she was mistaking me for someone else (who? Me?). So I paused and asked her what she meant.

This started a close collaboration for us as we started digging into action research and literature review about how PBL might actually rewire the brains of kids who’ve experienced trauma and poverty to begin making smarter, calmer, more rational decisions. 

One of the first things we want to realize is that kids who’ve experienced trauma, and to be sure that a life in poverty includes plenty of trauma too, have brains that don’t develop in the same way as kids who haven’t experienced trauma. Adverse Childhood Experiences, found in a long-term study done by the Center for Disease Control and Kaiser Permanente, cut across all socio-economic boundaries. ACE’s impact people in ways we’ve not considered before, including significant health and social problems.

I can spend a lot of words trying to describe this, but instead, watch this 2 minute video:

So knowing that brains impacted significantly by trauma can be stuck in the fight, flight, or freeze reaction, we can start to find ways to create an environment where kids can find resilience. We can use the natural neuroplasticity of the brain to recover, but only if we create lasting, loving, and personalized relationships with the children.

In June, NPR wrote an article sharing how we can leverage resiliency to literally bring kids’ brain functioning forward from their amygdala into their prefrontal neocortex. They reported not only on an improvement on social functioning, but also academic success.

And as I’ve dug deeper into various success stories, I keep seeing the same PBL-familiar approaches that I have been using with students and teachers for the past 11 years.

So what am I seeing? How can we do this? How does developing a strong PBL approach work?

In PBL classrooms…

  1. Kids get to work in areas of strength
  2. …in a caring & safe classroom community (PBL is all about community) where
  3. …relationships are built, and
  4. …confidence is built in self-view and
  5. …in a student’s personal world-view.
  6. Students get to try on different roles, career & otherwise.
  7. Students get to learn how to prioritize time, materials, decisions, group work, etc.

And the really great thing about Project/Problem/Passion-Based Learning is that it doesn’t have to be unnatural. Or a scripted curriculum that costs $20k.

If you want to know more about bringing PBL to your school and community, let me know

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Written by GingerLewman

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