As an administrator and educator in New Jersey for twenty years, I have had the opportunity to work with students and families who have experienced trauma. I have gone to the hospital via ambulance with students who needed crisis intervention, and sat with them in the hospital waiting for the next medical steps .
One incident stands out like it was yesterday. We went via ambulance and, although it was only a few minutes, the ride felt like hours. As I sat there waiting for the medical professionals, holding the hand of an 8 year old and looking in her eyes, I could not help but think: How can we help this child and her family as a school? What can we do better and how can we do this?
We know students learn best when they feel safe; we also realize as educators that many classrooms in America are touched by trauma. Life at this moment looks quite a bit different for everyone. As difficult as the current changes are for adults, children are dealing with their own feelings coupled with the emotions from the adults around them. We may start to see significant changes in a student's mood, tone of voice, facial expressions, or behavior in general. We need to ask ourselves, did the student suddenly become more sad, manipulative, aggressive? What is this telling us about our classrooms?
As we try to keep our physical and/or virtual classrooms safe havens, we are faced with identifying how to help our students be successful while creating positive outcomes. Keeping all of this in mind is difficult as a teacher.
Trauma sensitive practices have come to the forefront in the education field with events like Hurricane Sandy and, most recently, the COVID-19 pandemic. Since life is now more different than ever, we need to change the way we embrace these changes in our classrooms.
THE POWER OF A TRAUMA-SENSITIVE TEACHER
Let’s take a quick moment and think about what in our lives can be considered trauma. Have you dealt with a divorce, death of a close family member, living with someone with mental illness or severe depression, living with someone with an alcohol/drug problem, witnessing violent behavior in the home or community, experiencing economic hardship regularly? If you answered yes, then you have dealt with a traumatic situation. Consider, what percentage of your students may have experienced trauma?
FACT: One out of every four children attending school has been exposed to a traumatic event that can affect learning and/or behavior.—NCTSN Child Trauma Toolkit for Educators
Let’s look at some signs of what these experiences mean and, specifically, what are Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE).
ACEs are characterized by severe, frequent stressors or traumatic situations, such as abuse, neglect, and household dysfunction, all of which can be detrimental to children’s long-term health and well-being.
As educators, it is important for us to have an understanding of ACEs, as it will directly help us deliver instruction with positive outcomes. As educators, we are often the first line of defense for students coping with traumatic events.
Understanding how trauma can impair learning will help us grow our own practices. Single exposure to traumatic events may cause jumpiness, intrusive thoughts, interrupted sleep and nightmares, anger and moodiness, and/or social withdrawal—any of which can interfere with concentration and memory. Chronic exposure to traumatic events, especially during a child’s early years, can:
- Adversely affect attention, memory, and cognition
- Reduce a child’s ability to focus, organize, and process information
- Interfere with effective problem solving and/or planning
- Result in overwhelming feelings of frustration and anxiety
Think about a time when you were stressed about something, and then had to attempt to pay attention or learn something. WAS IT SUCCESSFUL?
Learning how to cope with adversity is an important part of healthy child development. When we are threatened, our bodies prepare us to respond by increasing our heart rate, blood pressure, and stress hormones; we often hear this response referenced as the Fight, Flight or Freeze response. The body responds with an emotional, physiological, and cognitive response.
How do I know if my student may have had an ACE? Here are some signs to look for in the classroom:
- Decreased executive function skills (planning, problem solving, organization)
- Decreased attention, distractibility (can mimic disinterest)
- Poor memory
- Poor social interactions (misreading cues, difficulty taking on other perspectives, overreacting)
- Poor self-regulation skills (self-control, inconsistent or unpredictable behavior)
- Poor communication skills (limited eye contact, limited verbal skills)
- Limited classroom engagement (withdrawn)
BUILDING A TRAUMA SENSITIVE CLASSROOM ENVIRONMENT
As educators, we need to have flexibility to de-escalate a situation rather than administer a specific consequence. Ultimately, students need to learn how to de-escalate situations themselves and regulate their emotions.
How do we do this? A trauma sensitive classroom is set up to meet students where they are. It’s a shift in thinking. We used to assume that, because a student met the age requirements to be in a certain grade, they came in ready to grasp that grade level content and behave in that age-appropriate way. When that isn’t the case academically, we tailor the teaching (differentiate) to help them learn at the level they are at currently.
A trauma sensitive approach means the teacher recognizes where students are emotionally through how they behave, and meets their social and emotional needs. Strong trauma-informed education focuses on helping to teach and support self-regulation and to build relationships.
So what are some of the things that we actually DO in our classroom to make it trauma sensitive?
As trauma sensitive teachers, we can offer a “quiet or cozy zone” to our students, a safe space where students can retreat and calm down. Sometimes it’s as simple as a beanbag chair. Tying into this calm atmosphere, our classrooms should be neat and uncluttered.
There are some teaching strategies we can include in our daily practice:
- Creating predictable classroom routines with advance warning to students of any changes
- Asking students to repeat verbal instructions
- Having a sensory station in the classroom which can help us teach the children how to use it and when to use it, developing a regulating activity
- Using more written instructions
- Using visual prompts for multi-step directions, like a sticky post-it note on a desk
- Utilizing short “movement breaks” to refocus
We also need to take a moment to think about things like Monday mornings. They can be particularly challenging for some of our students who may have experienced trauma and its consequences (limited sleep, food, etc.).
Using a low and slow tone of voice might be more conducive for students who have had these experiences. Working in an urban area for over twenty years, I personally have seen the Monday mornings impact or the Tuesday effect especially after a long weekend. Keeping this in mind, we can help foster a calm and supportive atmosphere. Some key things to keep in mind when creating a trauma-sensitive classroom include:
- Focusing on relationships
- Incorporating social emotional learning activities
- Teaching alternative behaviors
- Focusing on engagement activities
- Embracing a student-centered approach
- Utilizing student-centered discipline
- Creating a safe place for all students
The process through which our students acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to understand and manage their emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions is embedded in the New Jersey Social and Emotional Learning Competencies and Sub-Competencies, along with the recently adopted 2020 New Jersey Student Learning Standards (NJSLS). As educators, we can address these essential points daily and prepare individuals to face life’s challenges.
Interested in learning more? Check out the trauma sensitive and SEL workshops we offer!
Maura McInerney, Esq. Senior Staff Attorney Amy McKlindon, M.S.W., Unlocking the Door to Learning: Trauma-Informed Classrooms & Transformational Schools