Fit to Learn: September 2022
With rates of depression and anxiety in children at an all-time high, and so many of our students having experienced trauma, classrooms across America are changing. Educators are left carrying the tremendous responsibility of addressing mental health needs, incorporating social and emotional learning, and of course, teaching and differentiating the curriculum. For school leaders looking to strengthen the ways they support classroom teachers as trauma-informed educators, this article provides helpful reminders for building trauma-sensitive classrooms.
To that end, it’s important for principals and assistant principals to support teachers in (1) seeking out opportunities to learn about trauma and how it affects the developing brain, (2) recognizing the ways in which trauma manifests in the classroom, (3) creating a safe learning environment by establishing positive relationships and building a sense of community, and (4) looking for opportunities to build students’ self-regulation and self-management skills.
Teachers can develop their skills as trauma-informed educators by participating in training that includes discussion of case studies, provides time to collaborate with colleagues, includes the use of a self-assessment checklist of trauma-informed practices, and provides time to create action plans for implementing new strategies. One-time trainings are insufficient to change behavior, so training is most effective when coupled with opportunities for coaching, book studies, and discussions by vertical and horizontal teams.
All of this work, of course, is grounded in positive relationships with students. It is through such relationships that we can reach and teach students for whom trauma has been a part of their young lives.
Relationships Lay the Foundation for a Healing Classroom Environment
Focus on Strengths
It is not always easy to connect with students who have experienced trauma. The nature of traumatic experiences or circumstances often leads to walls being built for protection, hypervigilance and scanning for danger, and an overall mistrust of adults in authority. When educators recognize and make a concerted effort to focus on and develop students’ strengths, schools can teach in a way that will be more effective.
In their book, Raising Resilient Children: Fostering Strength, Hope, and Optimism in Your Child, Robert Brooks and Sam Goldstein write about building a student’s “islands of competence” to increase resilience. Thomas Armstrong, who wrote Neurodiversity in the Classroom: Strength-Based Strategies to Help Students With Special Needs Succeed in School and Life, shows educators how focusing on a student’s strengths increases self-esteem, self-efficacy, engagement in school, and strengthens relationships. When educators explicitly look for the good in students, they are more likely to see students’ potential and connect more deeply.
Engage in Collaborative Discussions to Address Challenging Behavior
Engaging a student in a collaborative discussion is an effective way to help the student meet a behavioral or academic expectation. Such a discussion seeks to involve the student in finding a solution to a problem, and the chosen solution must work for both the adult and the student. When a student regularly exhibits challenging and disruptive behavior in school, educators often react by using an authoritative approach and attempting to deter the behavior.
Behavior plans are developed and designed to reward the wanted behaviors and dole out consequences to extinguish unwanted behaviors. This behavioral approach often works temporarily, but it fails to durably solve behavioral problems for two reasons: (1) the student doesn’t have the cognitive skills required to maintain the wanted behavior, and/or (2) the incentives aren’t addressing the root cause of the behavior, so the reinforcement is a superficial, temporary fix. Another unintended outcome of using an authoritative approach is that through the exertion of power and authority, the student is often left feeling misunderstood and further alienated from the school. This approach damages relationships and breaks down trust.
A collaborative approach to discipline is much more effective because it builds trust and improves the relationship between the adult and the student. Students are asked to explain their perspective, to listen to how this issue is impacting the adult, and to share ideas about how the problem could be solved. Through the collaborative problem-solving process, the student also builds the cognitive skills needed to meet behavioral expectations and solve the problem for good.
Lead With Empathy
All human beings have a universal need to be understood. Taking the time to really listen to a student’s perspective (even if it is very different from the adult’s perspective of the situation) shows the student that their thoughts and feelings are valued. Empathy, as defined by author Brené Brown, is “feeling with people.” By showing empathy, an educator is communicating the incredibly healing message that the student is not alone. It is helpful to be curious, to ask questions, and to listen with the intent to see the issue through the eyes of the student. The challenge with showing empathy is that it requires one to recall or reflect on feelings that may be uncomfortable, but when educators are willing and able to do this, they can connect in deep and meaningful ways with students.
Using Opportunities to Build Cognitive Skills Helps Students Succeed
Once a positive relationship exists and trust is established, educators are in a unique position to have a powerful impact on students’ emotional growth. There is important work that must be done to help students develop the skills they need to self-regulate and manage their behavior.
The first step in self-regulation and management of one’s behavior is for the student to identify and understand their triggers. A trigger is something that leads to a spontaneous, undesirable reaction or behavior. When identified, triggers are important clues that can help educators understand how to respond in ways that will be most helpful to the student. Because there are many types of triggers, and anything can be a trigger, it may be difficult to determine. It can be an internal trigger that can’t be seen, or it can be something very unusual such as a particular color or a sound that the student has associated with a traumatic experience.
When trying to determine a trigger, it can be helpful to:
- Ask the student to describe what happened just prior to the acting out behavior, and what they were thinking.
- Look for patterns of acting out behavior, such as the time of day, day of the week, or a particular subject.
Once a student’s trigger(s) are determined, the educator can work with the student to prevent, avoid, prepare for, or provide support during any future occurrences of the trigger.
The goal for self-awareness is for students to gain an understanding of individual triggers and how their bodies respond to stress. Some helpful questions educators can ask students to help them gain self-awareness are:
- What happens in your body when you become angry/worried/embarrassed? Where do you notice these feelings in your body?
- What thoughts were you having at the time?
- What were you feeling?
- What behaviors do you typically engage in when you are in fight, flight, or freeze mode?
- How can you tell when it’s time to use one of your calming strategies?
One way to help students develop self-awareness is by having them practice paying attention to their breath during brief periods of mindfulness. This can be done as a whole class activity, but students can also be encouraged to pick one time of day when they will pause and observe their breath: Is it shallow or deep, slow or fast, warm or cold? Having self-awareness allows students to avoid being hijacked by strong emotions and to develop the skills to respond to challenging situations with adaptive coping strategies.
It is common to react to challenging behavior by (1) managing the crisis in the moment by using calming strategies, (2) issuing a consequence, and (3) incentivizing wanted behavior. The problem is that many educators are left feeling as though they are on a hamster wheel of reacting to crises. This negative cycle of behavior can often be interrupted by proactively meeting the student’s sensory needs BEFORE their behavior erupts. For example, a middle or high school student who struggles with sitting still and focusing on work for extended periods of time would benefit from short breaks to take a walk, do some calisthenics, or do some heavy work by lifting or pushing something. Sensory stimulation can also be provided to students while they are at their desks working. Some examples of helpful tools are:
- One earbud to listen to music to help with focus while working independently
- A stability ball that the student can sit on, engaging the core muscles
- Gum, a stress ball, or hand putty to help maintain focus
Identify when a particular student tends to struggle behaviorally, then build in short sensory breaks just prior to these times to fulfill these sensory needs. As a result, the behavior will improve, and the student will begin to make the connection between taking these breaks and feeling calmer and more regulated. Many of the behavioral issues will be prevented, and the educator will have more time and energy to devote to teaching rather than constantly reacting to crises.
For students who have experienced trauma, learning and managing behavior may be extremely challenging. Understanding trauma and its effects on learning and behavior is more important than ever, but there is no rule book or script to follow to create a trauma-sensitive classroom where students feel emotionally safe and understood.
Principals and assistant principals can make a commitment to leading a trauma-informed school by infusing their language, strategies, and systems with trauma-informed practices. Form a trauma team so there is a central place to raise questions and challenges with students. Research shows that it takes three to five years to change a school culture, so use a planful approach in training and implementation. Acknowledging that such change takes time is just as important. Using these guiding principles and best practices will help educators create safe spaces where students are able to grow and thrive.
Jennifer L. Bashant, PhD, is an educational consultant and the founder of Building Better Futures. She is the author of Building a Trauma-Informed, Compassionate Classroom: Strategies & Activities to Reduce Challenging Behavior, Improve Learning Outcomes, and Increase Student Engagement.