TBRI: Legacy of Dr. Karyn Purvis

Written by Carol Strychalski

On April 12th, cancer won the battle for the body of Dr. Karyn Purvis, but no evil, no matter how dark or despairing, could ever claim her legacy. As Founder and Director of the TCU Institute of Child Development, she established the Trust Based Relational Intervention (TBRI) method which has forever altered the way we understand and engage children in the foster care system.

Just last week I had the privilege of attending a full week of TCU’s TBRI Practitioner’s Training and was reminded of the importance of this method. While the lessons of an entire week of training are difficult to reduce, there were three concepts that resonated particularly strongly with me. In light of recent events—and Foster Care Month—I think it’s important we take a moment to pay tribute to Dr. Purvis’s work by exploring those three lessons: the heartbeat of the approach, success strategies, and the importance of compassion.

The Heartbeat of TBRI

The heartbeat of the approach is to uncover the need behind a child’s behavior, meet that root need, then teach the child how to appropriately express that need in the future. This process takes hard detective work! It requires looking beyond the tantrums, opposition, or even withdrawal to see a scared child who is unable to express a critical need. To see a child whose voice has been lost through the trauma of abuse, neglect, chaotic environment, and separation from their loved-ones. TBRI seeks to give these children back their voice. By first developing a trusting relationship between caregiver and child, the child slowly learns, understands, and then fully believes they are precious and valued. Fostering this environment is foundational to the next step: providing the tools necessary to regulate emotions and appropriately express needs. It’s tough work, for everyone involved but when achieved, the result is transformative. So, how do you achieve it?

Success Strategies

At training we broke-down the whole process into three goals: connection, empowerment, and positive correction. More importantly, we practiced practical strategies we could employ to achieve these milestones.

Connection with a child can be achieved through eye contact, play, healthy touch, and calming presence.  We learned strategies to empower a child by preparing the body and preparing/creating the safe environment. Having a healthy body is imperative to feeling empowered so we pay intentional attention to hydration, healthy food, physical activity, and sensory interventions. Once a child feels safe in their own skin, it’s easier to recognize and accept a safe environment, but we still reinforce that safe environment through predictable transitions and rituals.  Finally, we learned proactive and responsive strategies for correcting inappropriate behavior. These methods teach the child new skills and ways to get her need met appropriately.  These trauma-informed, evidence-based strategies are indispensable to the practical application of the model aimed at helping children in care. Yet, in order for these strategies to truly improve the lives of “children from hard places” they must be accompanied by one of Dr. Purvis’s greatest traits—compassion.

Importance of Compassion

Perhaps the biggest impression that was left on me through the week was the undercurrent of compassion.  Implementation of TBRI requires great compassion toward the children, caregivers, and ourselves.  It is only when we have grace for our own imperfections that we can relax and calmly and effectively extend that grace to others.  It is within that context of grace that we remember our own preciousness, not based on performance, achievement, or behavior and find the strength and patience to compassionately meet the needs of those we serve, helping them recognize their own value and preciousness.

Thank you, Dr. Purvis, for continuing to show us the way. This is exciting and healing work, a powerful legacy which will extend for generations.