The first step is to understand the effects of toxic stress on the developing child is to 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 Emotionally, they can verbalize scary feelings and ideas, burst into tears over little things and/or be extremely withdrawn and quiet.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 at 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 educators to be more sensitive and resourceful in helping children in the classroom.
You can learn more about toxic stress and trauma, in children, by taking FREE classes at http://TraumaToolbox.com
Many of the principles and techniques used to interact with students with trauma are broadly applicable to conversations with all students.
However, it is important for educators to realize that the emotional and social needs of students with trauma are different.
Clear, assertive, comfortable communication can establish trust and provide structure.
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.
Safe, Structured, and Sensitive Schools:
Provide consistent rules and structure
Enforce those rules consistently and transparently
Explain why the rules exist
Remain open to criticism and conversation.
Having a class meeting where students can vote on rules, or discuss policies, can help increase their sense of justice and safety.
Many students with trauma histories have not been given much agency or structure.
It can be comforting & affirming for students to see that school or classroom policies have a basis behind them, and can be revised if circumstances change.
Discussion & debate of class or school rules should be limited to certain pre-determined times in the year.
After the rules have been set, they should be consistently applied.
This way, the students learn that rules are open to revision, but that they do provide structure once they are in place.
Reminders of expectations should come on a regular basis.
Can take the form of…
Posters or signs,
Social media posts,
and Monthly or weekly “check-in” meetings.
Newly enrolled students should be briefed upon entry into the school; consider having your class help teach the policies to the new student.
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