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Oprah Winfrey & Dr. Bruce Perry in Conversation | SXSW EDU 2021

Jun 06, 2021
I am so delighted to be participating in South by Southwest Edu online this year and speaking to such an incredible community of teachers, administrators, university professors, business leaders, policy makers, students, all of you who know as lifelong learners, I applaud you. everyone for the work you are doing to impact education today and in the future and I believe and know for sure that teachers have always been my heroes and I believe that many people are appreciating teachers differently now than ever before with children who are homeschooled and e-learning parents have really come to see and experience what you do, so I think it's a good thing.
oprah winfrey dr bruce perry in conversation sxsw edu 2021
This has been an extraordinary year from the moment our lockdowns began last March. What's really been on my mind is how we process all of this and more importantly. How do we help children process it? So today I'm delighted to be here with someone who I know can help answer those questions. Dr. Bruce Perry. So I'm here in my garden. You'll be joining me from Nashville, Tennessee, my old stomping ground. Hello. Hello how are you? I'm so good, you know, the truth is that you and I have been thinking about talking for a long time about working together for 25 years on issues related to what makes people behave the way they do, specifically trauma. childish and me.
oprah winfrey dr bruce perry in conversation sxsw edu 2021

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oprah winfrey dr bruce perry in conversation sxsw edu 2021...

I'm really excited right now because have you seen the book we did together? Well, it's a beautiful thing to see through deeply personal


s with Oprah Winfrey and Dr. Bruce Perry exploring how what happens to us in early childhood influences the people we become. challenge us to move from focusing on what's wrong with you or why that guy is behaving that way to asking what happened to you. This is such a critical question and the reason I wanted you to do a book about it, I can sit down and ask questions is because several years ago, I think it was 2017 or 18, I was doing a 60 minute story about childhood trauma based at this place in Milwaukee called Saint A Clinic and I interviewed you for that and although I've been talking for over 30 years about the effect of trauma on children's brains, it was in that moment that I had the biggest aha of all time.
oprah winfrey dr bruce perry in conversation sxsw edu 2021
In fact, it changed the way I see people, it changed the way I see myself, it changed the way I operate in business and it changed the way I operated my school because the question is not what's wrong with you. but what happened to you allows us to look at a person not from a place of judgment but from a place where we try to understand what happened before and what is causing that. behavior, so this is a long introduction to why that change is important. One of the most important things about that shift in frame of reference is that we know that the experiences you have growing up, both good and bad, shape the biology of your life. brain and that prepares you for the way you see the world, the way you process experience, the way you interact with other people, the way you manage the physiology of your heart, your intestines, your lungs, so that these early experiences literally have a major impact on their physical health, their mental health, their social health, and really, every aspect of our society is affected by developmental experiences and, in particular, developmental experiences that are toxic, traumatic, it's okay, because many people say that they know what happened to them, they carry it with them.
oprah winfrey dr bruce perry in conversation sxsw edu 2021
Childhood is what happened to you when you were a child and it shaped the way you really saw the world and your view of the world determined your personal view of yourself and that is why you grow up with a sense of worth or not based on what you It's all around you, that's what I hear you say exactly, exactly, you know and one of the things I believe is that anyone can sit back and think about the influences in their life, whether it's a coach, a teacher or their parents, and I think that people intuitively understand their life experiences. they influence who you're right, but what I don't think they connect with is that those experiences literally change the biology of your body, yes, particularly the biology of your brain, that's what we didn't realize until you came to tell us that we know that those experiences The experiences influenced the way we see the world, we didn't know that it changes or has an impact on the brain, so let's start with the word trauma because I know it's a term that is used a lot today and Would you like to be very specific, so how do you define trauma?
Because the book that we co-authored, you authored most of it and I was a co-participant, it's


s about resilience and healing from trauma and we're going to talk specifically about that. Three things today because I know you have a different view of resilience than most people, that's fascinating, so let's start with trauma so everyone uses that term correctly, you're going to talk about how, oh my gosh, I was traumatized by something that Somebody told me. at lunch, you know, yeah, and when we talk about trauma in this book and when I talk about trauma, you know, in my work, I'm actually talking about an experience that can literally influence the way your trauma response systems work. stress and, as a result, have a long-term impact on the person and this is an important thing because the experience itself is not necessarily the trauma.
Two people can go through the same event and one will be completely overwhelmed and have long-term problems with sleep anxiety, impulsivity. an example, another person, give me an example, a car accident, a fire, because most people think that traumas are major disasters in your life, a crisis, so you are saying that two people can walk into the same event and come out completely different because exactly in part because they are both going to have a slightly different ability to handle that event, yes, that they bring with them, so there may be someone who has a history of inconsistent and unpredictable life experiences and who is more fragile , so when you're in a school fire, for example, they're going to have a much harder time than a child who comes from a stable, consistent, predictable environment and they'll both have some initial response, but the child who has that stable environment will have a greater chance of returning to a healthy baseline the other child is more vulnerable so interesting also that most people associate the word trauma with big dramatic events like we're talking about fires or hurricanes or big disasters, but there are also silent traumas or silent traumas like silent problems, I think you call them that also have a lasting impact, an equally lasting impact, exactly and I think this is an area that I hope the book helps people understand better.
You know, one of the things that we've been talking about this last year in our society is racism and the inequalities of poverty and the inappropriate maldistribution of wealth in our society and one of the things that we know is that stress response systems in our body, which is predominantly housed in the brain, these systems are very, very malleable, they change in response to the pattern of stress that you experience and if your stress, your experiences with stress are unpredictable and inconsistent and not you have control over them, you can you have changes in the biology of that stress response system that seemed like a big trauma with a capital T even though you never had any major events and examples of that are, let's say you're a minority child in a community. majority, you are continually receiving these small doses of like why are you here microaggressions we call them migrations people may be right people have labeled them as microaggressions but when they happen, your stress response is activated and since it is unpredictable, these small activations throughout the day they slowly transform your stress response system to become what is called sensitized, it is too active, it is tuned in and then it is too reactive, then what will happen is that someone who has a stress response system like that will have predisposition to have hypertension, diabetes, asthma and, of course, if you look at children of color and young people of color in our society, their rates of asthma, heart disease, diabetes are higher than the general population and everything is It goes back to that, it all goes back to the question of what happened to you, what was your early childhood development like.
So, this is what it really is: If I can convey this message to the world, I will be so pleased that people may be surprised or even shocked to learn that our brain development and decision-making patterns are shaped by the early years of our life. experiences and you know, when I started talking to you 30 years ago, we were always talking about how we were doing a program called zero to six, what happens in those zero to six years, what I've learned since then from our discussions is that it's neither It's not even zero to six, but those first two months explain how it happened which makes sense because anyone who has had a baby and been around a baby knows something about the baby's nose in those first few months. just taking it all in, they're like a sponge and you're saying in this book that if in the first two months you continue, explain it well, so this is the moment bing bing bing, attention everyone, okay, first.
Everything, I think you know there's a lot of work that has shown that adverse or traumatic experiences during development change your biology and put you at higher risk for heart disease, you know, mental health problems, substance abuse, all kinds of bad things, but if you really start By observing when those adverse experiences occur, it turns out that the most important moment seems to be this first, the first beginning in life, the first few months, and so on, when we look at children who have a lot of adversity and few relational supports. in the first two months of life and then enter a healthy environment after only two bad months, have worse outcomes than children who have two good months, receive consistent and predictable loving care in the first two months of life, and then something happens All kinds of bad things happen, a lot of trauma, a lot of adversity.
Those children are doing better than the ones who had you. They know all kinds of wonderful things for years and years and years and that's why often when people adopt a child and the child is six months old, let's say, and that child went through a lot of trauma in the first few months and they are from zero to two months and then that child is put in an environment where everything is wonderful and they are being nurtured and supported and you I can't understand what because I know someone who had this with their child who is now in their 20s and still struggling and you can't understand why all the things that I'm doing aren't really working because what happened, what happened to that child, what happened to you in the first few months, because in those first few months are really crucial, That means if you're zero or two months old, horrible things are happening, chaotic people?
They are cursing all around you, all kinds of manifestations of darkness are appearing around you and you don't have the language to explain it, which is another point I want to get to when terrible things happen to you as a child and you don't have the language to explain it, it's more damaging than if it happens to you, and at least you can process it through language, you have more tools, you know, the older you are, the more tools you have to understand and make sense of it. of what's happening to you, but a baby doesn't have their brain not yet developed to the point where it can really understand what's happening and, furthermore, these key regulatory systems, these key stress response systems that we write about , they are organizing. very quickly early in life, as you said, it's kind of a sponge-like response to what they're experiencing and so if those stress response systems experience a threat of chaos and all kinds of extreme things, It will literally be these genetic changes in the way that those systems are organized and they will literally see the world as a threatening place and that initial signal from the world that you are going to live in a threatening place, so you need to be prepared for danger, so you have to activate your stress response and you walk around in a state of fear all the time and what that means is that even in a safe environment your brain is prepared to respond to everything as if it were a threat, a teacher that is coming to you. reach out and try to be kind to your brain. you're going to go for what you want from me instead of letting me listen to you and that leads to this cascade of problems that just magnifies as you get older and the key is we wrote about this in the book, the key is that the older the more the child with these things, the more the adult world misinterprets his behavior, so instead of saying that your lack of attention and your aggressive behavior are due to what happened to you, it is because you have some other problem, so we are going to punish you and exclude you and that literally leads to this kind of negative vicious cycle of misunderstandings and then actions by the adult world that further traumatizes the child, so don't explain this to us that you wantthat we imagine. the brain like a four-layer cake because you say the key question, uh, is not just what happened to you, the key question is if you want to understand someone, it's the key question if you want to understand the brain as well, to explain this.
You want us to imagine the brain as a four-layer cake, right, and again and again, I think one of the reasons I wanted to write this book was that I think the more science-literate our population becomes, not just about what we are talking about. about but about many other things, but I think the more we all understand a little bit about how the brain works and how it changes, the better off we will be, we will be better parents, we will be better teachers. best in law enforcement and one of the simple fundamental tools that we use to help teach people these things is to have them imagine the brain as this inverted triangle and down at the bottom there are these kinds of regulatory systems that control the heart rate, blood pressure and so on and as you go higher and higher in the brain, you get to the cortex, the top part of your brain which is the most uniquely human part of our brain, so if you look at all the capabilities that We have as a species, the most unique Human capabilities arise from systems in our cortex and that is at the top of the brain and those capabilities are the things that we are basically trying to foster and incorporate into a child's brain when we teach them. right and wrong when we teach them language we teach them geography we teach them the history of our people all those things go to the cortex but the dilemma is here in the lower part of the brain we We have these regulatory networks involved in the stress response and when They activate and when you feel threatened, the first thing that happens is you turn off the upper part of your brain, and if you want to teach a child who has trauma-related dysregulation you will have to figure out how to regulate them before you talk to them about geography you will have to figure out how. regulate them before we talk to them about math all the things we are trying to do in education parenting therapies that aim to get to the top of the brain, they will never get there if we don't first deal with the stress response systems altered by the trauma originating in the lower part of the brain.
So that's why you also say that you can never in an argument, if so, if you are in an argument with someone and this applies to if you are arguing with a child or if the child is really angry and upset, if someone is angry , you will never be able to reach it. them through more anger and that's just not philosophical or social, that's actually the way your brain works, biology, it's biology, our brains are exquisitely attuned to the relational signals that other people are giving, we are contagious to other people's emotions so if you're in an argument someone is if you're in an argument with your spouse interrupting here if you're in a uh if you're in an argument with your spouse for example and you're escalating and you're escalating and you're trying to reason with them, there is no reason that can really be received because the brain doesn't allow it, so you are saying you can't train, you can't reason, you can't.
It teaches that you can't exactly get someone to agree with you when they're in the middle of their anger period, it doesn't exactly work and the reason is because this is something that's just simple biology and everyone can learn this and once people learn this , it really opens a lot of doors to the way that you understand the people around you, yes, and yourself, and the key to this is that when I talk to you, Oprah and when the people who listen to us when they listen to us, that information It goes first to the lower part of your brain, yes, it doesn't go directly to the cortex, it has to go through this kind of lower reactive part of our brain and then it has to go through the emotional part of our brain and then finally it reaches the reasoning part of our brain, so there are a lot of places where you can short circuit and that's why we use this term that we talk about, you know the compromise sequence if you really want to get to someone's cerebral cortex, first of all, it has to be regulated and then you have to connect with that person as a person that you know, who uses those kind of relational super highways, you keep using the term regulated, you keep using the term regulated and I don't think.
Many people are familiar with that term. I know in your world you all regulate all the time and I now teach this in my school so I knew it was being implemented when I went back to school. In 2019 was the last time I have seen all the girls and they all talk to me about their regulation practices and tell me, one girl actually told me mom what do I do when someone clicks their pen to regulate themselves But is that deregulating me? everyone likes to be regulated, so explain what that means, what it means to be regulated, generally speaking, it means to be in balance, it means to be engaged, to be in balance and we know that your body has all these systems that you know, your lungs can help.
Somehow you manage and maintain the imbalance of your oxygen levels, so if your oxygen level drops because you are working very hard climbing steps, you will breathe more deeply and that deregulates you a little by running out of air and your body will work to regulate yourself and regain balance, so we have all these systems that we have, uh, the systems that have to do with sleep and wakefulness, the systems that we have to do with, you know, oxygen and sugar in our La Blood, for example, is always trying to keep us in balance, so these stress response systems that I talked about, which are in the lower part of the brain, are continually receiving information from the outside world and the inside world. and one of the main sets of signals that your brain receives is the relational environment, by which I basically mean the signals that come from the people around you, so if you receive signals from the people in your class, for example, from that you belong, you feel safe, you feel regulated, but going back to these microaggressions that I talked about before, if you get signals that you don't quite belong, you're not one of us, you literally feel dysregulated and it's a stressor and any thing that makes you feel marginalized minimized demoted unheard activate your stress response well, since you have to listen, you just have to read the book because we only have this time, okay, what happened to you?
Very valuable for anyone who wants to know more. about their own behavior and the behavior of the people around them and particularly educators and since we are talking to educators today, one of the concerns that I know for parents and educators, you just mentioned that many children are experiencing setbacks Important not only in terms of their education, but also their social-emotional development and their sense of isolation during the pandemic, the CDC reported that from March to October 2020 I believe the proportion of emergency visits related to mental health increased by 24 percent for children ages 5 to 11 and 31 among adult adolescents ages 12 to 17.
So is it possible to heal from the damage that has been done in the past year? It's going to take time. It's possible. Healing is always possible. The question is whether the educational community and the people who support the community will be willing to do the things that we know will help these children be better regulated and recover and somehow restore their resilience, but right now what we know It's just that this last year has been exhausted, it's like exhausted. the reserves of all the educators have been depleted the reserves of the children the reserves of the health workers have been depleted health workers and I think one of the things that is really important is that you know there were people who started in this pandemic that are already empty and so those families and those children are really going to have a difficult time returning.
How do we make up for lost time? Should we think of it as making up for lost time or just starting where we are now? I think we're trying to catch up. It's going to cause a lot more stress for people instead of this is where we are now and now this is what we have to do. You're right. I mean I think the most important thing is that people remember what we talked about before. The sequence of participation is correct, so if you are dysregulated, the top part of your brain, the cortex, shuts down and therefore it doesn't matter how much you teach, if you go to summer school, if you do twice as much. educational instruction, you won't get any. more changes in the cortex, so the first thing we need to do with these kids and with the teachers is help them regulate, regulate, get back into routines, reconnect with each other and then basically stick to regulate, relate and then reason if we do this the right way if we create an environment if school is about play you know if we go back to school it's about play physical hygiene like how's your sleep how's your nutrition are you getting enough exercise let's lay our foundation so once the cerebral cortex is open, learning can go very, very, very fast, but if you try to teach children or pressure teachers when they are dysregulated, you will make things worse, we will fall further behind and what.
There are ways to regulate ourselves as adults and ways to regulate children. If you work with children, you know that one of them is two things that help people regulate themselves. One is to be with other people you know. you are in the presence of people with whom you belong and with whom you feel connected you feel safer you feel regulated these children need to play with each other you know that teachers like to have their well-being they will be happy to have their class full when everyone can be safe and healthy, one thing is to reconnect and encourage relational interactions and the second is to harness rhythm, you know, rhythm is a kind of fundamental regulatory gift that our brain has that comes from our first experiences in the womb, where our brain made associations. between maternal heart rate and not being hungry, not being cold, not being thirsty, and that's why we were talking about these memories that we have in the lower parts of our brain, one of the first primary sets of memories that we have, which has to do with the power of repetitive patterns. rhythmic activity and being regulated and things like letting the kids run make you know how to dance to music uh oh there's a whole range of activities that are hard to do


when all the kids are still wearing their masks and everyone's supposed to be social distancing, that that's part of the challenge yeah, yeah, that's part of the challenge, but it is, but I want all the educators that are listening to us right now to hear what you're saying, it's regular first before you can have any kind of reasoning, period, yes, exactly exactly.
You know, several years ago I interviewed Shaka Singh Core, who, for Super Soul, as a teenager got involved with gangs and drugs and ended up spending 19 years in prison. He is now free and doing extraordinary things, but at one time he was heterosexual. a student of about nine years old who wanted to be a doctor and he came home one day and his mother threw a pot with something at him and broke the kitchen tiles when he came in to tell her that he had gotten an a and he said his mother always had this type of episodes and after that moment his grades started failing, he started hanging out with the wrong people and all that, but all that time, from when this kid went from being A's to wanting to be a doctor, life begins. to break down, no one ever asked what happened to him, what's going on in his family that would cause him to spiral like that, so I'm wondering what are some of the signs of trauma that educators should look for in a child? . to let them know something isn't right, how do educators start asking that question and can we get people, especially, not to ask when their brain is thinking what's wrong with that kid and wants to take them to the principal's office?
I should say what happened to this child, let's find out what exactly is happening. You know, one of the things that is a very common manifestation of trauma that you see in classrooms is inattention and a lot of times these kids who aren't really paying attention OR are hypervigilant, you know they're scanning every little noise because of their trauma-related changes or they are disengaging because they are dissociating and both adaptive responses are labeled as attention deficit disorder, yes, and that is why they are mislabeled and mischaracterized, these children often end up taking medications that don't help much and that is one of the main ways you see it.
One of the other things that people see a lot in educational settings is what I would call type. of a passivity and submission on the part of students that teachers misinterpret as quiet little learners or who follow good instructions, they are very good girls, good boys, but if you look carefully, what you discover isthat these kids are doing everything. of these conforming behaviors just because they want the teacher to leave them alone, yeah, and they back off, so why please, try to be overly obedient and try to please the teacher not always, I mean, it's great if a teacher has a child who wants to please you but if it feels excessive sometimes it can be a manifestation of trauma.
Okay, you mentioned dissociation and I think this is one of the great learning experiences that I had to go through in my school in South Africa because we are only taking in girls who have been traumatized and what we learned is that dissociation was part of their mechanism. of coping and many teachers before we were in tune with your way of teaching, I thought: What is wrong with this girl? I'm saying you're standing in front of the kid and you're giving him an electric lecture and you're giving a lecture and the kid is. People who daydream and who have been through traumatic situations tend to dissociate to protect themselves because if you grew up in an environment where people yell and yells and there is noise all the time, you have to dissociate just to stay centered and regularly regulated and yes and in balance and when things come up that are uncomfortable like a science explanation or a math test that is uncomfortable for you, which the brain automatically search is dissociation and then the teachers say: what's wrong with you?, but that's your decision. normal way of coping, so it's important to understand that dissociation is usually the first thing that appears in people who have been traumatized, that's exactly right, and the interesting thing is that it's kind of a confusing presentation for educators because One of What happens is that many children who dissociate come to love reading, that's why they read very well and do well on their reading tasks because reading is a kind of dissociative experience, you can go to a different world and it's , it's, it's a very positive form of dissociation, but what happens is these same kids do well with reading when they try to do math, they just don't do it, they can't do it, and part of it is because math requires this. this linear sequential approach and these kids are kind of weaving in and out of care and then teachers see a kid who's getting all A's in reading and they're getting D's in math and they're thinking that, oh, that's because you're not trying.
It's that I know you're smart, I know you can do it, you're just choosing not to do it because you're lazy or you're passive-aggressive or whatever comes to mind with some negative interpretation and very few of them understand that that's really dissociation, how do you understand What happened to a child brings clarity to why a child intentionally misbehaves. Many times when a teacher has a child who misbehaves in class, it feels like it's personalized, like the bad behavior is directed at them. and in fact, it is very rare that if a child has a history of trauma, it is because the behavior is a kind of manifestation in moments of the fight or flight response, you know if it is physical proximity becomes an evocative signal every time any other adult came up to me and came after me, they were going to hurt me, so when the teacher comes up to my shoulder to try to help me and they explode and say, get away from me, that's basically completely defensive behavior. predictable on the part of the child, but completely confusing aggressive behavior for the teacher, so the teacher misinterprets it and, again, one of the things that we have been able to do with educators is that if we teach them about trauma and about these responses , they begin to change the way they understand. the child no longer takes it personally they ask you what happened to you sometimes they may not know what happened but they realized something happened yes and then they can change the way they treat them they don't kick them out of class they don't They don't punish or make it worse, they actually try to make some kind of adaptation and over the years, when that happens, over the years, the children have been punished, they have been excluded, they have been um condescended to, they have been They make you feeling ashamed about behavior that only makes it worse, tell me this if you know that the traumatic things that happen to you between zero and two months are embedded in the brain, if those first six years have a major impact on how you see the world. and seeing the world and in the formation of your personality, how can you then even begin to change the things that happened to you at a time when you had no control over it?
Well, that's a big, big, big question that we start with. to answer and what happened to you, okay, exactly, you don't have enough time here, Mr. Scientist, to explain it, but go ahead, try, I want to explain it to you, I'll try, so basically what we know is that all parts of the brain are malleable , changeable, the key is actually hitting the parts of the brain with enough repetition to cause changes, so children who suffer these insults in early life result in these profound abnormalities during development if they end up having opportunities to achieve consistent results . stable predictable relationships over time you will get better even if you got off to a bad start you can get better yes it just takes time all it takes is one person who believes in you that's why every time I see a picture of Mrs.
Duncan or a tape of Mrs. Duncan from when we had her on the show. I burst into tears because I was saved by Mrs. Duncan, my fourth grade teacher, and other teachers around me, that's why I love teachers so much, because all it takes is one person who believes in you. and for many children in this world that is all they have is the people who are in their churches or communities or you know, schools, they are schools for most children. Thank you very much, Dr. Bruce Perry, for writing this book. What happened to you to become enlightened?
I and hopefully now will be able to bring that enlightenment to many other people to understand themselves and in particular understand how what happened to you shaped the way you see the world and what you can do now if you want to change that. view of the world what happened to you will be available on April 27 wherever books are sold thanks to everyone at South by South South Edu for joining us

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