Students experience trauma for all kinds of reasons, including natural disasters, school emergencies or a death in the family. These events can severely impact students’ ability to learn and succeed at school. For teachers, working with students who have experienced trauma can be both stressful and frustrating — especially when they don’t know how to help.
Here’s how you can prepare for these difficult situations and help students cope using trauma-informed teaching skills.
How Trauma Impacts Learning
Trauma is a widespread challenge faced by many students across all backgrounds and geographies. According to the Data Resource Center for Child and Adolescent Health, nearly half of the nation’s school children (35 million) have gone through at least one adverse family experience.
But how do these tough experiences impact a students’ emotional state and ability to learn?
“Experiencing traumatic events directly impairs the ability to learn, both immediately after the event and over time. Children are particularly vulnerable to these consequences as their brains are still developing,” explains clinical psychologist Dr. Elizabeth Studwell.
She says traumatic events put the brain into a heightened state of awareness, triggering the toxic stress hormone cortisol and damaging the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex. Since these areas are critical for memory and executive functioning, students can struggle to “process new information, objectively analyze complex data, and engage in memory consolidation.”
Trauma can also have a negative impact on student behavior, explains psychologist Professor Joyce Dorado and Vicki Zakrzewski, Ph.D., education director of the Greater Good Science Center. Dorado co-founded HEARTS (Healthy Environments and Response to Trauma in Schools), a whole-school prevention and intervention program, which helps schools understand the signs and symptoms of trauma-induced behavior.
Specifically, this organization helps teachers and administrators understand that a misbehaving child is scared and that “the child’s behavior is the result of chronic exposure to traumatic events beyond his or her control.” When teachers can understand the root cause of behavior, they’ll work towards mitigating the issue, rather than punishing the actions.
Trauma can also make it harder for students to trust the adults in their lives, explains researcher and psychology professor Dr. Seth J. Gillihan. He says that when someone is attacked or deliberately made to feel scared by another person, they might be afraid to trust anyone again. It’s normal for those in this situation to create a wall between themselves and everyone else, in order to feel protected.
This can be difficult for teachers to get through to students, both in the context of learning and social and emotional support. Students who have experienced trauma might also believe that the world around them is too dangerous to live a normal life.
Helping Students Process Trauma
While trauma recovery can be a frightening and mysterious process, human beings have an innate need to feel happy and whole, says Mary Jo Bolton, clinical director at Klinic Community Health Center in Winnipeg, Canada. Coming to a place of healing after experiencing traumatic events takes a number of phases and a great deal of time.
Teachers play a critical role in helping students process trauma — and that influence is bigger than you might think.
“Kids who’ve never developed that early template that you can trust people, that you are lovable and that people will take care of you need support to form that kind of relationship,” explains Dr. Jamie M. Howard, a clinical psychologist and director of the Trauma and Resilience Service at the Child Mind Institute.
Many of the children who’ve faced intense trauma haven’t found adults in their lives they can trust. Teachers have the opportunity to step into these important trusted roles with students, thereby changing the long-term outcome of their lives.
Changing Your Approach to Trauma
To truly make a difference, however, teachers must learn to work with students who are acting out to change their behavior, rather than punishing them.
How can teachers gently discipline students who are acting poorly at school due to trauma? Child trauma and behavior intervention specialist Ricky Robertson, who co-wrote “Building Resilience in Students Impacted by Adverse Childhood Experiences: A Whole-Staff Approach,” explains how to master this balance.
“For a stern teacher to be understanding, there is only the need for a willingness to build relationships and listen. It is not about compromising expectations, but assessing where a student is and what supports they need to be successful.”
He adds that when teachers and students can build trust and identify strengths together, it helps all parties succeed at reducing the negative impacts of trauma.
Being more sensitive and empathetic to what children are feeling also makes it easier to detect when students are undergoing trauma. Episodes of school violence in other states and districts often brings about conversations of trauma in schools, for example. Students who have heard the news might worry about their own safety, says health and education writer Jennifer L. W. Fink, R.N. says. This is true even if the shooting happened far from where your own school is located. Students associate themselves with students of other schools, and will wonder if this same kind of thing could happen to them.
Tools for Trauma-Informed Teaching
Understanding the nuances of trauma can make teachers more equipped to support students during difficult times. According to University of Texas Psychology professor and social psychological researcher James Pennebaker, reflective writing activities can make it easier for students to build emotional intelligence and resilience. Pennebaker developed a trauma relief activity to help students deal with trauma in this way.
His three-step model starts by recognizing the different ways in which people process things. This activity acknowledges diversity in coping by allowing people to write whatever it is they want to write about. Then, give students time to reflect and heal; these weeks should include lots of sleep, allowing them time to recover and process events when they’re ready. The final step is to create a space that feels physically and mentally safe for reflection and discussion.
Another resource for trauma-informed teaching is from Peace Over Violence, written by Dr. Brenda Ingram, Ed.D., clinical assistant professor at USC’s Keck School of Medicine. This workshop guide approaches the subject from a classroom management viewpoint, helping educators learn how to mitigate the impact of trauma and improve educational outcomes. She also discusses how teachers can incorporate self-care techniques both for themselves and for teachers.
She suggests a number of trauma-informed interventions for teachers, including how to create a safe environment at school, behavioral strategy ideas and how to host trauma-informed interventions with affected students.
Classroom activity ideas can be found in a resource from Emerging Minds Australia, an organization dedicated to advancing mental health and emotional wellbeing. They outline a number of strategies teachers can use to help students recover after trauma. One suggestion is to provide safe time-out spaces, where students can rest and recharge when they’re feeling overwhelmed. This can help them create a healthy coping mechanism where they remove themselves from stressful situations to find peace.
Re-establishing routines to anchor kids in stable environments can also create a feeling of safety. Moreover, these routines can help incorporate new curriculum that’s adapted to meet the specific needs of children who have experienced trauma. It’s always important to invite students to talk about the event, including how they feel and how it impacts them and their family. Having these open conversations shows students that someone cares for them and their wellbeing.
Child psychiatrist Dr. Joanna Lindell also believes that traumatic events are opportunities to discuss feelings and emotions. She suggests starting these conversations by asking students questions. Asking them what they’ve heard, what their friends are saying and how they feel can help teachers assess levels of fear and anxiety. Then teachers, school counselors and administrators can devise a plan for moving forward.
Learning healthy coping strategies are valuable long term too, reinforcing positive behavior after the actual event and teaching children how to respond to any future crisis.