The Faces of Trauma in our Classroom
I must admit when I first began to hear the use of the term trauma, my thoughts went to soldiers who have experienced war or adults who have faced severe physical or emotional harm at the hands of another. I pictured faces of hardened and hurt adults who had been scarred by the dangers and hardships of life.
I did not picture children.
I now know that trauma impacts more than just adults. Our children, whose brains are the least prepared developmentally, are often exposed to traumatic situations and they are in our classrooms every day.
The National Institute of Mental Health (USA) defines childhood trauma as: “The experience of an event by a child that is emotionally painful or distressful, which often results in lasting mental and physical effects.” One study showed that nearly half of all children in the United States are exposed to at least one traumatic social or family experience (Bethell et al, 2014).
There are a variety of experiences that might be considered traumatic. Check out this list from the Child Traumatic Stress Network and ask yourself: “Might any of my students have experienced any of these?”
- Physical, sexual, or psychological abuse and neglect (including trafficking)
- Natural and technological disasters or terrorism
- Family or community violence
- Homelessness/severe poverty
- Sud d en or violent loss of a loved one
- Substance use disorder (personal or familial)
- Refugee and war experiences (including torture)
- Serious accidents or life-threatening illness
- Military family-related stressors (e.g., deployment, parental loss or injury)
What Does Trauma Look Like?
The effects of trauma cannot always be seen with the eye, and it does not manifest the same way in every child. It is possible for two children (even in the same household) to experience the same traumatic experience but respond in very different ways. With trauma, the symptoms can also go unrecognized because it shows up looking like other problems.
Children in general that suffer from traumatic experiences can find that they have increased anxiety, trouble concentrating, increased thinking about safety, and can find themselves reacting to “triggers.”
In the classroom, trauma can manifest itself in situations that seem relatively simple or harmless. If a teacher yells at the student in front of the class or if a child with trauma is accidentally pushed by other classmates, it can trigger a post-traumatic response that leaves the student highly emotional and reactive.
Without an understanding of the impacts of high stress and trauma, a teacher may view
a student’s behavior as out of line or unnecessarily difficult to deal with. With an understanding of trauma, we begin pausing to consider that the student may need more support with how to respond and demonstrate self-regulation.
What Can Educators Do?
There are several ways that teachers can approach their students who suffer from trauma with calm and compassionate solutions and strategies.
- Recognize triggers and help students cope with them. Offer them supporting statements like “I am here if you want to talk,” or “You seem to be getting very frustrated with this assignment, do you want to work with a friend, or can I help with something else?”
- Provide structure in your classroom that helps ease the worries of what’s going to happen next. Children who have experienced trauma feel more secure in predictable environments with few surprises.
- Remember how the child feels matters. We might not see the impact or the “big deal” about something, but how the child feels is important. Even if they might be safe and secure, the fact that they might not feel that way still matters.
- There’s a strong and direct connection between stress and learning. Avoid behaviors that may “trigger” students. Minimizing stress in your classroom is a strategy that supports student achievement. Student work and performance will improve when they feel cared for and secure.
- If you’re unsure, ask. We often feel like we need to go around or phrase things differently with our students and children. But simply asking “How can I help you get through the day?” can be an effective strategy for giving someone exactly what they need at that moment.
- We don’t need to know exactly what caused the trauma to be able to support. Sometimes, we may not be privy to the specifics of what has occurred with one of our students. Privacy is important and often the details will only be available to identified personnel. What’s important is that we respond to what we see.
Our children need us, and as educators, we can help improve their experiences inside (and outside) our classroom by providing all children with the compassion, support, and learning that they need.
More than Good Job: Effective Use of Praise in the Classroom
We would agree that all students should learn in safe, encouraging classrooms. One of the ways to help that happen is by using praise, one of the most powerful tools that any teacher can use. When used effectively in the classroom, praise can actually increase the social and academic performance of students and improve the classroom climate.
Consider some of these simple yet effective tips that can help you use praise effectively so that your classroom is even more welcoming, safe, and encouraging.
1. Be Specific. Most educators believe in the benefit of a “Good Job” or “Well Done” directed towards their students. The truth is, the benefits are much greater if the praise is specific. When students recognize that you are acknowledging their efforts toward a single goal, or how hard they work, they feel more validated in their efforts.
Instead of a simple “Great Job”, try it with something more specific, such as: “Great Job! You wrote so much for our writing session. That’s two paragraphs more than last week. I appreciate how dedicated you are!” This is both praising and encouraging, plus acknowledges improvement.
Specific feedback can also use open-ended questions to cue learners to reflect. Example: “Julian, your classmates were really focused on you as you presented. What do you think you did to grab everyone’s attention?” This question not only positively reinforces what a great job Julian did on his presentation, but invites him to reflect on what specifically he did that helped him perform well.
2. Be Subtle. There are moments when public recognition is appropriate but there are also times where remaining private is better. Studies have shown that young students often appreciate being complimented publicly, while adolescents “prefer private praise.” Likewise, a 2016 survey conducted by the University of Massachusetts Amherst revealed that 73 percent of students ranked “quiet verbal praise” as a “top 3” instructor response (p.157).
Quiet, subtle praise could mean eye contact and a smile from across the room. It could also mean PBIS Buck or a note folded over and left waiting on a student’s desk for them to find. Perhaps a subtle “I knew you could do it” reinforcer. Whatever it is, these small, subtle commendations feel less like praise and more like sharing a special – albeit quiet – celebratory moment.
3. Be Sincere. If you don’t feel it in your heart, they won’t feel it either. Don’t patronize. One time, one of my high school teachers commented to me, “Shauna, I always look forward to hearing what you have to say.” Alone, the statement sounds encouraging yet I knew that she was not sincere. As a student who talked quite a bit during class, her sarcasm was evident. Avoid forcing yourself to give positive praise if it is not sincere to that student and what that student brings to the classroom. For a talkative student, praise their ability to always communicate what is on their mind, but don’t praise them with insincerity.
Reminder: Utilizing praise in your classroom is an effective way of improving the climate and helping your students’ performance. Stay specific with your praise and stay sincere, and think about how each student could benefit from praise that you give.
Fefer, S., Demagistris, J., & Shuttleton, C. (2016). Assessing Adolescent Praise and Reward Preferences for Academic Behavior. Translational Issues in Psychological Science, 2(2), 153–162. doi: 10.1037/tps0000072
Visit my Free Resources section on this website at https://shaunafking.com/free-resources/ to download 25 Positive Responses to Negative Student Behavior. This free resource helps to focus on the positive while maintaining a level of respect and dignity for both teacher and student!
Looking for a staff development or training to promote student engagement or positive, equitable learning environments? Shauna King provides sessions that are educational and motivational. Visit King Professional Development Services website for more information or email us to learn more.
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