Healing circles can help learners deal with trauma

Recent times have intensified the reality that well-being and healing needs to be at the forefront of any agenda related to education. Dagbreek and Mmampatile primary schools in Limpopo’s Waterberg district have taken on this challenge by conducting surveys about teacher and learner mental health.

Through these surveys teachers at Mmampatile Primary School suggested creating healing circles. These are envisaged as spaces created by teachers in everyday situations with learners where life stories can be shared. 

For children in rural settings, survival is their primary concern because many do not have their basic needs met. 

Recent crises such as the Covid-19 pandemic have exacerbated life’s struggles and losses have overwhelmed many children. The provision of trauma support is often not possible given their remote locations, therefore the healing circles would offer a group therapy session as part of their school day. 

In their book, What Happened to You? Conversations on Trauma, Resilience and Healing, Bruce Perry and Oprah Winfrey write that “personal history — people and places in your life — influences your brain development … a lifelong set of beliefs and behaviours can emerge when trauma is experienced at a young age”. 

It is therefore important that children who experience trauma get an early intervention that provides the coping skills and self-regulation they need for healthy brain development.

Teachers take on many roles beyond the curriculum and they, too, would need support to facilitate healing circles. Although there might be formal ways and many resources that teachers can draw on to develop expertise, we decided that by empowering teachers to design and learn through creating the circles in ways they believe suit their context we would stimulate their agency in finding solutions to their own problems. 

The starting point would be for principals to task their teachers with brainstorming and experimenting with structure and processes that they believe could work for the children they serve. In developing these spaces, principals are able to develop their own trauma-informed leaders. “Healing while being healed” could be the antidote that school leaders could use for in-house expertise. 

In searching far and wide, we might neglect to explore what’s right on our doorstep. It brings to the fore the value education leaders can stimulate when ownership is handed over to those who touch learner lives directly, every day. In this way teachers can enable reflection by allowing children to “spend time in their heads, making dissociative disengagement a key part of daily life. [Hence], in a developmentally informed, trauma-aware school, there is an understanding that downtime plays a crucial role in memory consolidation,” as Perry and Winfrey point out. 

In healing circles, dissociative reflection is encouraged because it serves as a coping mechanism. As Perry says: “If you are a child and your family has a lot of conflict, you don’t have many options. You can’t say: ‘Hey, I’m moving out.’ Very young children can’t fight or flee.” 

It is easy to be overwhelmed and discouraged by the many problems in society and to be demoralised by inequalities and adversities. But our history bears witness that the overall trajectory for people is positive. This country is filled with capable, creative children who can discover, invent and learn. A healing circle is one way we can expand the bonds of human connection and make our world a safer, more humane place.

Professor Kathija Yassim works in the department of education leadership and management at the University of Johannesburg and Joyce Pilane is the principal of Mmampatile Primary School

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Kathija Yassim
Professor Kathija Yassim works in the department of education leadership and management at the University of Johannesburg
Joyce Pilane
Joyce Pilane is the principal of Mmampatile Primary School

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