If At First You Don't Succeed
David* has been coming to Fortress since he was four years old. It sometimes takes me a little while to get acquainted with our youngest students – I work primarily with our older kids as they have the more serious behavioral issues – but this was not the case with David. That boy and I became very good acquaintances very quickly. In fact, he was probably my most frequent visitor during his first year with us. Usually prompted by a violent outburst in the classroom, my time with David was spent mostly keeping him from hurting himself and destroying my office. We were all in over our heads with him. After being enrolled for just a few months, we had to dismiss David from our program with the promise of “we’ll try again next year”. This happened three years in a row.
See, David has had more than his share of hardship in his short life. Born to teenage parents and raised by an ailing grandmother, David has never had a stable relationship with a caregiver or authority figure. At a very young age, he figured out that he had to look out for himself. That meant fighting against every threat, real or perceived, and trusting no one else to fight his battles for him.
David’s second grade year was the toughest one we’d had. Second grade has historically been a big year for Fortress kids; they move from a confined “little kids’ class” into a larger group setting where they participate in more classes, have more responsibilities, and are given more independence. This was a difficult transition for David, and it showed. He spent more time than ever in the office, melting down and unable to explain why he was upset or what prompted him to have an outburst. We were still as unsure of how to help him as ever, but this year, we were determined that we would find a way to keep him in our programs. This meant many very long days of being David’s figurative and sometimes literal punching bag. There was more than one occasion where all I could do was hold him and sing hymns, and wait as over the course of an hour he went from thrashing and fighting me to sleeping in my arms. It was unsustainable, but we were committed to David and at the time, we had no better options.
Toward the end of that year, I was cleaning out our resource library when I saw a DVD called “TBRI: Putting Together the Pieces”. To this day, I cannot tell you why I put that disc into my computer and opted to watch a 40-minute video of something I’d never even heard of. A happy coincidence, a divine intervention – whatever it was, nothing at Fortress would ever be the same. In that video, I saw footage and heard stories of kids who had benefited from trauma-informed care, and in every one of them, I saw David.
TBRI, or Trust-Based Relational Intervention, is an attachment-based, trauma-informed intervention that is designed to meet the complex needs of vulnerable children. TBRI uses Empowering Principles to address physical needs, Connecting Principles for attachment needs, and Correcting Principles to disarm fear-based behaviors. While the intervention is based on years of attachment, sensory processing, and neuroscience research, the heartbeat of TBRI is connection.
I signed up to attend my first TBRI training just a few months later. At that training, they asked us to write the name of a child who we most hoped to help, and of course David was my only thought. This spring, I became a certified TBRI Practitioner through the Karyn Purvis Institute of Child Development at TCU, which has allows me to bring it back to Fortress and share the techniques with our teachers here. We use those techniques with all of our kids, because TBRI is, at its essence, just a researched and guided way to love kids better, and that’s what we’ve been doing.
Now, about 15 months after initially hearing about TBRI, we have radically re-envisioned the way we work with our kids. “Self-regulation” and “engine checks” and “settle your glitter” have become part of the Fortress vernacular. Our kids are learning to use their words and to tell us what they need. Our teachers are learning to listen and meet those needs.
And David? We did the hard work with David, and now he is not the same kid he was 15 months ago. Our “visits” have gone from weekly to maybe once every month or two. He’s been empowered to tell us when he is upset or angry or thirsty or tired. He trusts that we’ll take care of him. And that has made all the difference.
-Dani Kocur, Director of Social-Emotional Learning
*Name changed for child's privacy