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.