Even before the pandemic, researchers estimated that as many as two-thirds of students had experienced some form of trauma. Trauma is an emotional response to a situation, such as substance abuse, poverty, violence, homelessness, bullying, loss or ongoing illness in the family, or fleeing a war-torn country. How do teachers meet students where they are at when they come from a place of trauma? Read on to find out.
While we might think of trauma as a single event, it’s more likely to develop due to ongoing events. And while there are some similarities, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and trauma are not the same. (Although trauma can turn into PTSD, a mental health disorder that follows a traumatic event, PTSD severity and treatment can vary.)
Just as everyone is different, an individual’s response to trauma can also differ. Something that leaves one person feeling completely debilitated might not impact another person as much. Or something that seems “minor” can significantly impact someone.
For example, some students have thrived during the pandemic, while we’ve seen others suffer. In my own life, two of my children performed better than ever in school and college while learning from home, while one dropped out of college and the other effectively failed the 6th grade.
Typically, people recover from a traumatic event after some time has passed. But chronic trauma can cause hypervigilance, which is a condition that causes a person to be on high alert constantly. Some signs include jumpiness, irritability, inattention, and over-reactions to seemingly minor or inconsequential issues. Other signs of trauma include:
- Distracted or inability to focus
- Difficulty with relationships
- Physical symptoms, such as stomach or headaches
- Needing more time than usual to complete tasks
- Behavior issues
It’s essential to recognize these symptoms and be able to adapt your instruction for students who might be experiencing trauma. However, it’s equally important to note that some students might not exhibit any signs at all.
While it might be the latest educational buzzword, good teachers have been practicing trauma-informed learning for a while by adapting their instruction according to the needs of their students. If you think your student might be experiencing trauma, here are four tips for using a trauma-informed approach in the classroom: Take Perspective, Teach Self-Regulation, Thoughtfully Promote Relationships Skills, and Transition with Predictability.
Take Perspective; Don’t Judge
When you know a student has experienced trauma, try using empathy. But don’t just put yourself in their shoes. Show compassion. Before disciplining a student that snaps at you during a lesson, pause to consider what they’re going through. Ask the student questions privately, such as: “Your reaction during the lesson today wasn’t typical. What’s going on?”
Show them you care and be careful not to judge. For example, you might know a student is living with a parent who has a substance abuse problem, so refrain from judgemental comments about the parent to the student. The student is going through enough outside the school without feeling like they have to defend themselves at school, too.
One more thing to note: Trauma-informed instruction comes naturally to some; the catch is that you have to know a student is experiencing trauma. If you see symptoms but aren’t sure, you can try practicing compassionate curiosity. This requires some vulnerability on your part, and that can make people feel uncomfortable. You can try talking a little about yourself to build trust and then asking students questions to help figure out what might be going on.
If necessary, get the school counselor involved. Be mindful that students experiencing trauma may push caring adults away, but don’t give up!
One of the most important things we can do for all our students is teach them healthy ways to self-regulate. That is especially true for students who are experiencing trauma. Self-regulation helps students to acknowledge what they are feeling and why. Once they’ve identified those steps, they can move on to healthy ways to manage those feelings.
In the PATHS® program preschool and kindergarten curriculum, we teach the Turtle Technique to help students self-regulate: Stop, take some deep breaths, and then say the problem and how you feel. In grades 1-5, we use the developmentally appropriate Control Signals self-regulation strategy. In the Emozi® program for middle school students, we teach the SCOPE Strategy to promote self-regulation.
Other self-regulation strategies include doodling, coloring, journaling, creating zentangles, or coloring mandalas. Yoga, meditation, and mindfulness are also popular techniques for self-regulation. Of course, modeling self-regulation yourself also helps!
Thoughtfully Promote Relationships Skills
When students have experienced trauma, they learn and behave best when they feel like they are in a safe environment with a caring and supportive adult. Building a caring and safe classroom community takes work—and it’s at the heart of what we do here at PATHS Program LLC. Be aware of other childrens’ reactions to the traumatized student and the information they share. Protect the traumatized child from other students’ curiosity and protect them from gossiping about the details of the trauma.
Transition with Predictability (but be Flexible, too!)
Being in a state of hypervigilance (not knowing what is coming next) keeps students impacted by trauma on constant high alert. You can help reduce this incessant stressor by being predictable. Of course, you’ll have times when you need to be flexible, but stick to a routine whenever possible and keep the schedule posted where students can see it for a visual reminder. Let students know as soon as possible when a change is anticipated (a fire drill or indoor recess due to weather). Similarly, traumatized students frequently feel a loss of control and will benefit from having choices. When possible, let students make decisions to help build their confidence.
Self-Care is Vital
Make sure to take time for yourself to practice self-care. If you’ve experienced trauma yourself, working with traumatized students might be a trigger for you. In addition, people who regularly work with traumatized students can experience “secondary traumatic stress,” also called “compassion fatigue.” Some signs include:
- Feeling emotionally worn out and tired
- Increased irritability and/or impatience with students
- Difficulty planning classroom activities and lessons
- Decreased focus or ability to concentrate
- Intense feelings, including feeling numb or detached
- Thinking constantly or dreaming about students’ traumas
Be aware of the signs of compassion fatigue, and make sure to seek help or support if needed. You can’t put out a fire if your fire extinguisher is empty.
For More Information About Trauma-Informed Teaching, check out these resources:
- Anxiety & Depression Association of America: How to Prevent Trauma from Becoming PTSD
- Child Mind Institute: How Trauma Affects Kids in School
- District Administration: Deploying a trauma-informed approach: Use the 4 Rs
- KQED: Four Core Priorities for Trauma-Informed Distance Learning
- National Child Traumatic Stress Network: Child Trauma Toolkit for Educators
- Prevent Child Abuse America: Making the Case: “The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study: Child Abuse and Public Health” by Dr. Robert Anda
- Understood.org: How to Show Empathy to Your Students with Compassionate Curiosity