Editor’s note: Learning in the Time of Coronavirus is a multi-part video interview series where, in each episode, we interview folks with a unique perspective on how Covid-19 is affecting education across the world – and how we can keep learning in spite of it.

In this episode, Jody Johnson, Early Childhood Specialist, talks with us about the importance of self-care, particularly in our present world and how we manage constant changes to find peace. “What do we do when our normal, everyday self-care plan goes awry?” And what about the news?

Click or tap here to see the full transcript.

Patrick: Welcome to Learning in the Time of Coronavirus. I am Patrick York, Head of Learning Design for SHARE professional learning. In each episode we interview folks with a unique perspective on Covid-19 is affecting education across the world, and how we can keep learning in spite of it.

My guest today is Jody Johnson, who has a master’s in early childhood education as well as an MEd in Curriculum and Instruction with a concentration in Trauma and Resilience in Education PreK-12. She’s been teaching in higher education for eight years and is an associate professor at Santiago Canyon College in Orange, California. And she’s on two subcommittees for the California Essentials for Childhood Initiative.

I want to get into that in your experience, Jody, but first I want to start with something that came out of another conversation we had, which is – you said, self-care is a very important thing all the time, but especially so now. Can you say a little bit more about that?

Jody: Sure, absolutely. Taking care of ourselves enables us to take care of other people. When we, ourselves, aren’t grounded and feeling safe, when we can’t manage our own emotions, then we’re not really in a place to go help others or even relate to members in our family as well as we can. We’re distracted constantly by what’s going on in the media, and that influences how we feel.

And you’ve heard about the trauma response. There’s a tendency for people to, when they’re stressed, to either fight, flight, or flee — or, as other people say, freeze. And so, I’m noticing in my own household, for example, my husband is freezing right now. He goes to bed, and he just goes to sleep. And he’s cutting off the world. And other people react differently, but a lot of people are reacting that way. With the freezing or flight, they’re going out and gathering the essentials that they need, or think they need, to survive. Like toilet paper! That makes them feel safe. That’s what they need to feel safe. And if that’s what they need to feel safe, or if that’s how they think, even the hoarding part of it is – they feel safe because that’s how they think they’re going to make money.

These are just gut reactions, just jumping to something. But when you have a self-care plan, you can activate that self-care plan on a regular basis to take care of yourself. Just as important is having an emergency self-care plan. And that’s where we’re at right now. What do we do when just our normal everyday self-care plan goes awry?

A self-care plan can be, “I’m going to meditate. I’m going to go for a walk everyday. I’m going to read something inspirational. I’m going to make time for myself. I’m going to do what I need to do to be healthy on a regular basis, and be fully available for other people.”

An emergency self-care plan, which I think is where a lot of people are right now: “What do I do with my normal self-care plan? Is it enough? Who do I turn to for a support system? What can I do that is going to help me become regulated when I feel like my life’s out of control; I don’t have choices? I no longer have the choices that I normally have when I go to the grocery store; how I meet.” Things like that. So that’s why there’s self-care plan, and then there’s a need for an emergency self-care plan, which is so important right now.

Patrick: Right. I know that I’m someone who, even if I can’t go to the gym at the same time every day, I just kind of abandon my plan because even those small oscillations that, when you have the time to do something, it has a huge impact on me. So what kind of advice would you have for people in developing their emergency self-care plan to control for those kinds of changes that are outside of all of our control right now?

Jody: As humans, we are wired to be connected to other people. I think, first and foremost, know who you can go to for that extra reassurance, that will be a comforting source in your life. And make use of that. And talk to them. It can be through your faith, it can be through your friends, networks, your work. So much of our work – our friends, and who we rely on – are people within our work environment. And now, we’re being asked to work from home. That source of where we can interact – that’s gone now.

So now we have to stop and think, okay, in this situation now, where are my resources that I need to help me feel safe and to get me back? Even if it’s somebody who can listen and be that sounding board. Someone who can offer reassurance. Someone who can say, “That must be hard.” Sometimes we just need acknowledge meant that we’re having really strong feelings and feeling really unsafe right now. So when someone just acknowledges those feelings, it can cut the anxiety level by as much as half! I think that’s important to know.

Patrick: Let’s get into some of the particulars of your own personal life; how you’re being affected by Covid-19.

Jody: Certainly, it’s disrupted family. I planned to go visit two of my grandchildren in the next month. Those [plans] are put on hold. It’s affected my teaching in that, my hybrid class is now going to be all online.

And I really worry about my students who are in that class because students pick a learning format that is comfortable for them. Now we’re thrusting students into learning environments that they may not be comfortable with. And they want that check-in with their professor or with their peer groups in a classroom environment. But a hybrid gives you an opportunity to do some of the checking-in and being present with their peers, but doing a lot of the reading, writing, assignments, and discussions online. It’s an unknown for some students, so there’s a lot of verbal support going on. And I’m really working with my students to reach out to them.

Patrick: And you’ve been teaching in higher education for some time; have two master’s degrees in some very unique fields. How do you feel that kind of education and experience is preparing you for times like these?

Jody: It’s kind of interesting that, at least to me anyway, I was an instructional coach for early childhood education for five years. And I saw the trauma that the children were experiencing and the way that the trauma affected their behaviors in the classroom. These kids, especially kids living in poverty, who then came to the school and were totally dis-regulated from the time they walked in the door. They were acting out. And then they’d just about get settled, but any little change in the program would send them off. It would trigger them, and they would feel they weren’t safe or they were unsure. And so they’d act out.

And then I started really looking at the teachers during my coaching. And I saw the same behaviors in how teachers were reacting to the students, and the way they were reacting was actually making the children more stressed. So it’s a cycle of interactions causing children to be more dis-regulated, not less. Then I go into my classroom at night and I’m teaching, essentially, seeing the same thing – only the students were 15-20 years older. But it was the same thing happening! And I said, “Wait a minute!” You can see how, it didn’t get better during that period. It was the same or even sometimes worse. And so now that we have dis-regulated adults who aren’t turning in assignments; they can’t find time to read because they can’t concentrate because they’re feeling the effects of trauma. Their concentration goes out the window. And I thought that’s an interesting correlation.

So I knew about trauma. When I saw the program at Concordia University-Portland come up for the Trauma and Resilience in Education PreK-12, I said, “This is it! This is what I need to go do.” I may be a year or two ahead of where programs are actually going to be out in place where we’re dealing with this. We’re coaching teachers in the classroom. We’re modifying how we treat students in higher education. We’re doing a lot of things in the K-12 system. We’re working with social-emotional programs to help students have self-regulation and to concentrate in school. But nothing for that in higher education. So I thought, “Wow, that’s crazy. We have to do something about that.”

I was really glad I was able to take the master’s program and finish that. And now I’m putting that in place and going to offer training for faculty at my campus. This is something we have to think about.

Patrick: You gave me some good advice in our last conversation, which was, “In order to protect yourself and stay sane in times like these, turn off the news!”

Jody: Oh, absolutely!

Patrick: I’m curious, I’m a bit of a news junkie. So I’m always looking for the newest update and reading the most recent articles. Why is it that you gave me that advice, and why would you give it to others?

Jody: Think about.. you witness a horrible car accident. It’s something that’s in your brain and comes up over and over and over [again]. What are the feelings that come up when, every time you replay that in your brain? You go through that same trauma response and gasp, ” Oh my gosh!” And you start thinking, “I wonder what happened!? Oh, that was terrible.” Same thing happens when we hear the news. Over and over, we’re essentially re-traumatizing ourselves every time we get on the news because it’s increasing our level of anxiety. And what happens when you have all this anxiety in your system, your body gets flooded with stress hormones, cortisol, and adrenaline.

And research has shown that, when you have long periods where your body is constantly full of stress hormones, it has a major impact on your health – immediate health and long-term health. And to be able to think logically is reduced. The thing is, if you’re constantly watching the news, hearing these developments over and over and over, are you really hearing something new every time you watch the news? Or is it just a different take on the same thing you’re already hearing; what you’ve already heard?

Patrick: It sounds kind of like, we need to stay informed but there is a point of diminishing returns.

Jody: Exactly!

Patrick: The more we hear, the more we’re traumatizing ourselves. Once we reach the point of understanding what’s going on for the day, that’s sufficient.

Jody: Right! And then what happens, you’re now in the stress response mode and you go into that fight, flight, or freeze response. You can lash out at people who you live with that never intended to say things, do things; but you do it because [your brain instinctively does] things that you need to stay alive – looking for shelter, looking for safety, looking for food; protecting yourself. You can’t get to a point where you can’t think logically to solve the problem. Those neurological pathways are closed down because everything is focused on survival. Your body is like, “Okay. I’ve got more hormones going to my muscle. I’m stronger. I’m ready to run. Or fight.” You’re not thinking as clearly.

One of the areas that is really impacted, especially for kids, is language. Not only your verbal language and ability to articulate how you’re feeling; but being able to receive information as well and really understand it. How does receiving that information really help you survive? It doesn’t necessarily always offer protection. It’s not a food source. It’s not going to make you run stronger or quicker. It’s really just going to make you spin in circles. You can find yourself walking around in circles trying to get something done, and you can’t because you feel like, “I’m stuck!”

Patrick: Oh yea. Every day.

Jody: And that’s what’s happening to a lot of people right now! They’re stuck in this fight, flight, or freeze response – I call it F cubed – because I get my tongue all twisted up. It just comes out better F cubed, in my opinion. It’s the engineering geek that comes out in me.

[Listening to the news all the time] isn’t healthy. I might listen to the news in the morning, I listen to it in the evening. I know there are people in my house that listen to it more often. And if there’s something that’s really important, they’ll share it with me.

My stress level over the coronavirus is very low compared to a lot of people. I know that it’s something we’ll get through. My mindset is that of a growth mindset. I know that we’re going to get through this. New challenges bring new opportunities – instead of looking at this as doom and gloom. Just in the newspaper today, I saw that restaurants were turning to sell [raw ingredients as groceries]. And I thought, “Now there are some people who figured out how to survive amidst what’s going on. That is awesome!”

Patrick: You’re saying they’re selling the raw ingredients to make food?

Jody: Exactly! Not just selling what they make, like a bakery selling their baked goods; but they might be selling eggs as well, or just the raw ingredients. I haven’t been able to find eggs in my city for two days! I don’t care about toilet paper, but I would like some eggs, hahaha. And it’s taken two days to get eggs! My husband went out, very sweetly at 7:30 this morning, and got eggs during senior hour. And, you know what, that actually was very relieving because, now, you know, I have eggs. It wasn’t toilet paper for me; it wasn’t water. We’re still going to be able to turn on the tap and get water.

When you’re in this freeze mode when you can’t think logically – those are the kinds of thinking processes and ideas that you just can’t get to.

Patrick: Right. So let’s end today with one other piece of advice that you have for people struggling in this time of need.

Jody: We have to understand that our way of life is going to change. There will be a new set of normal. This won’t be the last time this happens. And we have to be able to adjust. And we have to be able to think about.. we’ll learn a lot from this; what’s happening right now, and how the government and how everybody’s handling this. I’m hopeful there will be some ways that we can coexist with communicable viruses that spread rapidly.

And be kind to people. Put yourself in other people’s shoes. What might they be going through that’s causing them to act this way?

And [remember] to give yourself a break. This is tough for everybody. It’s going to take a while to sort all this out.

Patrick: Thank you for joining me today, Jody. It was a pleasure talking with you, and really appreciate the advice that you have to give.

Jody: Okay, you’re welcome!

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