Childhood Trauma Sensitive Approaches to Education
I am currently working in a self-contained behavior classroom as a Special Ed. Instructional Assistant in Milwaukie, Oregon. We currently have eight students in K-2nd grade. Our district divides the behavior classrooms into two levels: Elementary K-2nd grade and Intermediate 3rd-5th grade, and they are housed in various elementary schools in the district. In our district, some of the challenges we are facing are many of our schools are at or over capacity, and our behavior classrooms are being moved to different schools due to the increase in class sizes. The class that I work in is located outside the main building, which is problematic, especially when our students have a history of being violent and leaving school grounds.
This advocacy plan will focus on how to effectively help our students, teachers, and support staff learn when dealing with trauma. Trauma affects everyone differently in our classroom, and because no two individuals are alike, we will need to have a toolbox of strategies ready that we can pull from when supporting our classroom community.
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Part 1: Assessing Students’ Needs
When our students walk through the doors of our classroom, we are faced with several different traumatic experiences. We have students who are in foster care, one who has a parent who is incarcerated, one who is homeless, experiencing poverty, food insecurity, and many more. The school that I work in is a Title I school and is diverse, which means the students are exposed to different things. During the past five weeks while completing coursework, my eyes have been opened to the daily struggles our students deal with in class or before they arrive at school. We just had a student start on Thursday, and he has experienced a significant amount of trauma in his young life; he is only 5, has never been in a school setting, is on the autism spectrum, and has just moved to our state.
I am excited that this course has given me the tools to better understand where they are coming from or what they may be going through and provide them with different strategies to start helping them build resilience skills in order to succeed both now and in the future. According to the article, 10 Things About Childhood Trauma Every Teacher Needs to Know, “there’s a direct connection between stress and learning” (WeAreTeachersStaff, 2018, para 9). When students experience stress brought on by trauma, they have a tough time concentrating and difficulty learning. As educators, it is our job to get our students ready to learn and give them the tools they need to be successful. It is even more important when teaching students who are dealing with trauma; we must first understand their situation to be able to help them and then develop a plan.
The formal assessment we use in our school district is called “STAR Reading and Mathematics.” We sometimes can’t get a true assessment of what our students know because they are resistant to test taking due to their limited reading and math skills. Half of the students in our class are special needs, which makes formal assessments almost impossible and very impractical. We often use Informal assessments and gather information from families as a way to gather data for our students.
One way we assess our students is by gathering information from their families, having them fill out questionnaires, looking at their Individualized Education Plan (IEP), and periodically having meetings. Also, at the beginning of the year, the students are sent home with a paper for parents to fill out telling me about their child and return during back-to-school night. The information is then put into a binder for each student, including their family make-up, who lives with them, what pets they have, and their strengths and weaknesses from their parents/guardians’ point of view. I even have a section asking for any other information that would be good for me to know.
This information is very important, and it provides me with what I need to build relationships with my students. A couple of students are not able to tell us about their lives outside of school because of speech delays, traumatic brain injuries, etc., so having this information filled out already by the parent is crucial. Based on the information that is obtained from their families, we can better understand what may or may not be causing their behaviors. Also, by having the information about their experiences readily available, I can better understand where they are coming from and know what tools and strategies they need to be successful.
- WeAreTeachers Staff. (2018, February 22). Ten things about childhood trauma every the teacher needs to know. Retrieved from https://www.weareteachers.com/10-things- about-childhood-trauma-every-teacher-needs-to-know/
Part 2: Instructional Strategies to Meet Students’ Needs
Trauma can affect each person differently. Therefore, it is important to remember as an educator that a child’s ACE score doesn’t define who they are or what they can do. The negative effects of traumatic experiences can be helped by building resilience through positive experiences early on in life. According to Starecheski (2015, para 4), “Having a grandparent who loves you, a teacher who understands and believes in you, or a trusted friend you can confide in may reduce the long-term effects of early trauma.” As an educator, it is my goal to help my students succeed; by understanding the effects trauma and toxic stress have on my students and myself, I need to have my tools and strategies ready to support them and provide them with the help they need to be successful later in life.
When a student is experiencing trauma, it will show up differently for each student in the classroom, and sometimes, students’ behaviors or symptoms are misdiagnosed because it may look like something else. According to Starecheski (2015, para. 9), “reactions to trauma are sometimes misdiagnosed as symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder because kids dealing with adverse experiences may be impulsive—acting out with anger or other strong emotions.” Although this puts more stress on us as educators, it will help make us better and more effective teachers. We need to approach the challenges that our students face and come up with more efficient ways to help them. Instead of forming our own judgments, conclusions, and diagnoses, we need to form trusting relationships with our students and help their families figure out if it is truly a medical issue like ADHD or if the behavior we are seeing is caused by a traumatic experience.
Trauma can alter one’s brain, and students who have experienced trauma will function differently than those who haven’t experienced trauma. “Stressed brains can’t teach, and stressed brains can’t learn” (Souers & Hall, 2016, p.29). Souers and Hall (2016) highlighted that when a child has experienced trauma, they function out of their downstairs brain, unable to regulate their emotions, in a state of fight, flight, or freeze; in general, they are stressed just trying to survive. Our job is to teach them strategies that they can use to help them get back into their upstairs brain so that they are able to learn.
One strategy I will continue to use to support my students, especially those experiencing trauma, is to form safe and positive relationships with my students. Students who have experienced trauma look at school as being a safe place; therefore, I create a safe and comfortable space in my classroom for them and continue to build a trusting relationship with them. One way I start building a good relationship with my students is by greeting them with a smile each day, getting to know their likes and dislikes, and showing genuine concern for them and their well-being. This strategy supports my student’s social and emotional development while building a relationship with them. It is important to model expected behaviors, as students will pick up on your body language, tone of voice, and attitude toward others in the class.
Social skills are another vital component for students learning as well, “children who have strong social and emotional skills perform better in school, have more positive relationships with peers and adults, and have more positive emotional adjustment and mental health” (Jones & Bouffard, 2012, p. 3). The negative impact of traumatic experiences can be helped by teaching our students how to build their resilience and have a growth mindset. According to some psychologists, “Having a grandparent who loves you, a teacher who understands and believes in you, or a trusted friend you can confide in may mitigate the long-term effects of early trauma” (Starecheski, 2015, para 4). As educators, our goal is to help our students succeed; by understanding the effects that trauma and toxic stress have on our students, we can better support them and get them the help that they need to be successful later in life.
The first strategy I will implement to help my students is to develop the basic skills needed to explain their own emotions and to recognize the emotions of those around them. When introducing these concepts to the students in my class, it is important that they understand their own emotions and also the emotions of others. One way to introduce this skill is through the use of picture books during community circles. The book I would start with is Glad Monster, Sad Monster: A Book About Feelings by Ed Emberley and Anne Miranda (1997). I have used this book with my own children, and I feel it would be great to use as an introduction to emotions. The book also gives examples of what causes the monsters to feel each emotion: glad, sad, loving, worried, silly, angry, and scared. There are also questions at the end of each emotion that students can answer, such as “What makes you glad?” (p.4) and “Have you ever been sad, too?” (p.7). This book will help my students develop the skills needed to build relationships with others while understanding where they are coming from.
- Emberley, E., & Miranda, A. (1997). Glad monster, sad monster: A book about feelings.
- Boston: Little, Brown.
- Jones, S. M., & Bouffard, S. M. (2012). Social and emotional learning in schools: From
- Programs to strategies. Society for Research in Child Development, 26(4), 1-33.
- Souers, K., & Hall, O. (2016). Fostering Resilient Learners: Strategies for creating
- Trauma sensitive classroom. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and
- Curriculum Development Starecheski, L. (2015). Take the ACE quiz – and learn what it does and doesn’t mean.
Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/sections/health- shots/2015/03/02/387007941/take-the-ace quiz-and-learn-what-it-does-and- doesn’t-mean
Part 3: Self-Assessment and Self-Care
When a student in my class is having a challenging time, it directly impacts my mood both in and out of the classroom, as well as the mood of the other students in the class. When my students are sad, I feel for them and want to make them better. As stated by Souers Hall (2016, p.29), “stressed brains can’t teach, and stressed brains can’t learn,” and because teachers are compassionate and empathetic when it comes to our students, we sometimes take on the emotions of our students and feel what they feel. We are with our students 7 hours a day, and they become our children. Therefore, we carry their feelings and emotions with us when we leave school and when we go home for the night. When a teacher is stressed, it impacts the way we teach; we are not prepared, we react to small situations, and our ability to effectively teach will negatively impact our student’s ability to learn.
As part of my continued self-care plan, I will start taking more time for myself and focus on how I am feeling at the beginning of the day to be a better teacher and mom. My goal is to continue starting my day off with meditation, assessing my stress level daily, and recording it. Practicing mindfulness, such as breathing, 5-minute meditations, or going for a walk to help regulate my stress and emotions. Over the past five weeks, I have realized that adding a personal self-care routine to my already busy schedule has made me realize that my time management is very important, especially if I want to avoid getting burnt out.
By checking in with myself and my students each day, I can get a better sense of where the class as a whole is at and what they need. If they are fidgety and have an increase in negative behaviors, then that is my cue to take a brain break, do yoga, go outside, or complete a breathing exercise.
One self-care strategy focuses on getting more sleep and building new friendships since I don’t have many friends outside of my work circle. I am also more conscious about my own health since my family history of diabetes has increased recently. I have started cooking more meals at home and really focusing on what I am putting in my body. I have also increased my workout plan from a couple of 2-3 days a week to 5 days a week, which has been great for me because I feel more energetic and can get more done.
Another self-care strategy I want to implement is doing yoga. I feel that it is something that will help me de-stress, relax, and increase my flexibility. Yoga is a fantastic way to decompress; it is more popular now, and now more schools are using it as part of their physical education curriculum. I recognize that there are times I am not very motivated to carry out a self-care task for myself, but I now have designated days and times that I have set to get it done.
Self-care is important, and I need to make sure I am consistent with taking care of my own well-being before I can help anyone else. Because it not only impacts me but also impacts my family, friends, and students. To make sure I am consistent and using my self-care strategies, I will have a notebook or calendar where I can record each month what I have done for myself. By taking the time to recognize where I am with my personal self-care, what I need to work on, and what changes need to be made so that I can start off the next school year fresh and ready to go. Personal self-care can be hard to implement and change, but if I make it a part of my daily routine, it will become second nature. “It takes 21 days to create a habit and 90 days to create a lifestyle.”
- Souers, K., & Hall, O. (2016). Fostering Resilient Learners: Strategies for creating Trauma-sensitive classrooms. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.