It’s been reported that one out of every four children attending school has been exposed to a traumatic event that can affect their learning and/or behavior. Educators need the right information, with the right tools, to be prepared at the right time.
When children have experienced chronic and pervasive trauma, their thinking skills are literally hijacked by their emotional brain, shutting down their ability to focus, initiate tasks, follow directions, organize work, and control impulses. Everything a child needs to be successful in school.
How do parents and educators work together to help hurt children and manage their classrooms?
The first step in becoming Trauma-Informed is to understand the effects of toxic stress on the developing child and recognize the signs and symptoms of trauma.
Children and youth may not always verbalize that they are going through a traumatic event. It is up to the adults, in their lives to recognize the warning signs and know how to help. If you know what to look for, the child’s behavior will be speaking “loud and clear!”
Young children, ages 0-5 can demonstrate activity levels that are much higher or lower than peers. They can startle very easily and be difficult to calm. Their play may reveal traumatic events over and over again or come up in little snippets of conversations. Clinginess, extreme irritability, reluctance to explore the world and long, frequent tantrums are also possible signs of trauma.
In elementary school children, they may complain about frequent headaches or stomachaches with no apparent cause. They can regress to earlier developmental stages with thumb sucking or bed wetting. It can be difficult to transition them from one activity or another. Emotionally, they can verbalize scary feelings and ideas, burst into tears over little things and/or be extremely withdrawn and quiet. There might be reports of eating and sleeping problems. They might get into trouble more than usual at home and school. And, they could have poor attention, distractibility and be unable to follow directions.
All of this results in low school performance…
Older children may talk constantly about their traumatic situation or deny that anything is wrong. Behaviorally, they can refuse to follow rules, be oppositional and defiant, disrupt classrooms, and act anxious or depressed. It is also possible that they are tired all the time, have physical complaints without any medical reasons, fall asleep in class, or engage in risky behaviors, like alcohol, drugs, and physical fights.
Understanding these signs of trauma will empower parents and educators to be more sensitive and resourceful in helping children in the classroom.
One of the most challenging symptoms of trauma to manage is emotional dysregulation.
This occurs when a child or youth is unable to control or regulate their emotional responses to stimuli in their environment. Their reactions can be extremely exaggerated with bursts of anger, crying, defiance, passive-aggressive behaviors, frequent interruptions, and chaotic disruptions in the classroom. Unfortunately, children and educators often engage in power struggles that no one can win.
The Regulated Classroom:
Educators can model emotional self-regulation for their students.
They can demonstrate how to notice, name, and respond to intense feelings instead of reacting to them. Doing so, will build resilience within and beyond the classroom.
Educators can use classroom design to prepare a space that promotes self-regulation. Classrooms should, generally, be well organized, clean, well-labeled, and provide resources for overwhelmed students.
Many of the principles and techniques used to interact with students with trauma are broadly applicable to conversations with all students.
Clear, assertive, comfortable communication can establish trust and provide structure.
However, it is important for educators to realize that the emotional and social needs of students with trauma are different.
Students should be made aware, in a clear, specific fashion, what their teachers and staff expect of them.
School discipline policies should be communicated at the beginning of the year to all students, faculty, and staff, and should be consistently described.
Allowing students an opportunity to inquire about, and even challenge, rules, will increase their sense of procedural justice.
If students perceive the procedures as basically transparent and fair, they are more likely to go along with an individual decision or policy they do not agree with.
Regulation Strategies for the Classroom:
One strategy to regulated the classroom is called “Two Before Me.”
In a group discussion, a student may initially speak up whenever they have the opportunity & are called on.
However, after speaking, a student must wait for at least two other people to speak before they can raise their hand or contribute again.
This prevents conversations from being dominated by a limited few people and can reduce conflict/arguments.
Another strategy is the “Suggestion Box.”
Students with trauma often find it scary to communicate their needs or express displeasure.
Students who have been neglected may not be used to identifying or sharing needs at all.
To encourage these students to express their needs, supply them with a suggestion box or cubby hole in a circumspect place in your classroom.
Set aside a weekly or monthly time where the contents of the box are discussed or provide written answers to students concerns on a bulletin board.
You can name this box something other than a suggestion box. Perhaps call it a comment box or question box or come up with a name the class decides together. Remind students that it is OK to write feelings they are uncomfortable to say out loud as long as the feeling is not directed at a specific person, or intended to cause harm.
In the “Ouch/Oops” strategy, the classroom learns how to manage hurt feelings and resolve conflicts.
If your class adopts this rule, anyone is free to say “Ouch” if something a peer or teacher says rubs them the wrong way.
For example, if someone said something hurtful, accusatory, or generally offensive, the person who caused the “Ouch” is required to say “Oops”. It is then up to the person who said “Ouch” to determine how the conflict should be resolved, like having a private discussion or a mediation with the teacher or other peers.
Educators will need to watch for misuses of this strategy, such as a student using “Ouch” frequently to derail a conversation or target a disliked peer. Also, students may “Ouch” something benign a teacher says that they don’t like, such as assignment due date. And students may refuse to respond with an “Oops” if there are no firm rules on it.
If necessary, educators may want to restrict this strategy to personal discussions to prevent misuse. Generally speaking, older students are somewhat more likely to use “Ouch/Oops” strategy correctly but with some practice, it can be a useful regulation tool for all ages.