Trauma in the Classroom

“He just won’t sit still, always trying to escape to the bathroom or sharpening his pencil or something.” “She cannot keep her hands to herself!” “We caught him stealing again.”

Thanks to ongoing training in many school systems – Findlay City Schools, to name one – teachers have come to understand that the negative behaviors experienced in a classroom setting, specifically among younger children, are often the direct result of traumatic experiences. More and more, we find teachers able to vocalize that a student’s challenges aren’t simply due to intelligence or even poor decision making. Science has strong evidence to show that early exposure to emotional abuse, neglect, or other adverse childhood experiences shape the development of young brains and bodies differently than those of children raised in healthy and well-resourced households. 

Recognizing the impact of trauma is a large and sometimes arduous first step in the journey toward helping children find health, and it necessitates its own training. (For more info on adding that to your school’s professional development, contact us.) As teachers and community members, we can – and should – offer empathy and support to these young people. 

We can use our roles as leaders to offer students something beyond sentiment and referrals (both of which are critically important). We can offer them learning spaces that emphasize autonomy.  We can teach them tools for self-regulation, and we can help them acknowledge the messages that the body sends to the brain in an attempt to protect it from future harm. 

Holly Schweitzer Dunn, LISW, who has worked with teachers and in numerous school systems throughout her career has found several elements to be helpful for the personal and professional development of our society’s nurturers.  

Don’t take it personally. It sometimes may seem as if a student is deliberately testing your boundaries – and she/he might be!  But this is crucial in his/her ability to build trust in you as a caretaker.  It’s possible to be loving and firm at the same time, and the best way to do that is to remember that this has nothing to do with you as a person or as a qualified educator. Testing boundaries is typical behavior for students, especially from those who have experienced inconsistency with the adults in their lives. If you focus on the student-teacher relationship, learning will happen. In clinical language, we’re focusing on healing the disrupted attachment the child has experienced with caregivers.  Once the child knows you can be trusted the ABCs and 1-2-3s will fall into place.  

Prepare the container. The brains and bodies of individuals who experience trauma work differently than those who are more accustomed to healthy environments. A traumatized brain signals more quickly and more often that it is in potential danger.  This is the body’s way of keeping the person safe. This is helpful when there is an actual threat; however, the body reacts even in non threatening situations when there is only perceived danger.  Among other behaviors, this presents as test anxiety, acting out, shutting down, and hyperactivity in the classroom.  There are several simple mindfulness-based interventions available to assist children (and adults!) in returning the learning center of the brain to full functionality.

Self-regulation is key. Biologically, we’re wired to follow the energetic and emotional lead of those around us. We’ve all had non-classroom examples of situations where we can sense a person’s anger and feel our own physical reaction to it: perhaps listening to a patron berate an apologetic waitress or walking into a room where a couple has just had an argument. Our own throats go dry and hearts beat a bit stronger, right?  We are, as Brene Brown teaches, creatures wired for connection.  Young people are especially sensitive to the emotions of those around them.  Interacting with individuals who have experienced trauma requires calm and centered responses.  As a leader, your work is to be aware of your triggers so you can respond to challenges instead of react out of habit.  Simple mindfulness exercises, when practiced outside of challenging situations, are more easily accessible in times of stress.  When you do become emotionally activated, knowing what helps bring you back to a place of centeredness is essential to maintain your own self-regulation. 

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