“Trauma results when things happen that shouldn’t and
things don’t happen that should.” Gaber Mate
All of us hold some level of trauma through our own direct experience as well as through the impact of intergenerational trauma or epigenetics, which purports that we hold trauma in our cells. There are some students who have experienced an overwhelming amount of trauma which profoundly influences how they navigate the world.
These vulnerable students live in their emotional brains more so than their thinking brains. They can be triggered in response to people or situations more quickly than others who may see a situation as neutral or nonthreatening. An overactive emotional brain from trauma can lead students to see danger where there is none, and to notice subtle changes in voice tone or facial expression.
Students with early childhood trauma have had to rely on themselves to survive. They may not have had an adult, or attachment figure, who was dependable and trustworthy when they felt scared or in need of food, love or safety. This foundational base of insecurity can have a deleterious effect on the future development of social relationships in terms of emotional exchanges, intimacy and resiliency. Accordingly, the priority for a teacher is to provide an emotionally supportive classroom so these vulnerable students can calm their emotional brains to engage their thinking brains in learning and growth. Unfortunately, information must go through the emotional brain or amygdala before it gets to the prefrontal cortex or thinking brain.
Becoming trauma-informed or aware is not learning a program, but rather adopting a philosophy or lens towards vulnerable students that understands the effects of violence and trauma on these students' daily functioning and well-being.
Relationships are tricky for traumatized students. One day they may want to be close or intimate and another day they may push you away and completely avoid you. They may inappropriately want affection or completely withdraw and be frightened by offers of support or friendship. Given that clear boundaries may be difficult for them, it is even more important that teachers' own boundaries are firm and professional.
The most important tool for helping others is our relationships with them. Relationships that are positive, healthy and compassionate. Students learn how to behave by watching how teachers solve problems and communicate with others. By teachers not reacting or directing students, but rather by being responsive and reassuring, calm and listening, and not getting into power struggles, teachers can model effective functioning and engender trust and respect.
Teachers must demonstrate a genuine interest in understanding students, and if that is difficult then they must fake it until they make it. There can be no blame, no focusing on consequences and no forcing of behaviours, but rather a gentle guiding towards new ways of acting. Providing choices so that students can gain a sense of agency, and providing opportunities for success and to feel valued will allow all students to flourish.
The following 12 classroom strategies are effective when working with traumatized students:
Help minimize distrust and fear of others: Provide a safe environment so students can learn how to trust and believe that they will not be hurt. Small gestures such as listening to a student's interest, sharing a snack, providing a personal anecdote, and doing what you say you will do all build trust in a relationship. Assuring these students that ‘we’re’ in this together and that you have their back is key to a solid relationship. While you may not see responsiveness immediately, keep saying ‘hello,’ keep reaching out to these more vulnerable students.
Alleviate the chaotic lifestyle: Provide a predictable environment. Be consistent in your behaviours. Develop routines, give warnings of any changes and explicitly explain what will happen step-by-step.
Maintain status quo and equilibrium: Anything novel is risky and uncomfortable. Think of it like individuals who won’t even sit down before they are permitted to do so. If it is new or different, no matter how simple, explain it, make it safe and welcome for them to participate.
Soften the push and pull: These students test us to see if even when hurt we will continue to connect with them. They may like you one minute then hurt you the next. That is the only way they know how to cope in the world. This is not about you, and don’t take it personally. However do let them know that you are hurt, while still reaching out to them.
Provide supports for high alertness and tension: These students find it difficult to calm their physiological systems. Determine effective self-regulation and soothing strategies for each student. Through observation deduce what behaviours the student displays when s/he becomes agitated such as tapping a foot or a voice change. Determine what the stressors or triggers are: challenging task, sensory trigger (lights, sounds), biological deficit (sleep, food or water), and collaboratively determine effective reset strategies such as drink of water, rock on a chair, walk outside, or a well practiced deep bellying exercise.
Ensure all staff know the students who are most at risk: Teach the entire school staff about each student's triggers and effective soothing strategies as these vulnerable students must be known by everyone and must be shared and cared for by all school staff.
Provide a calming space: Develop and practice an exit strategy. What is the agreed upon cuing system used by both student and teacher to indicate when the student needs to leave and go to a calming space with cushions, drawing and reading options, soft lights, and rocking chair.
Prevention is the key: Every strategy must be repeatedly practiced to be proactive and avoid a full blown escalation. When there is a full escalation there is very little that can be done. Being in an emotional brain (right brain), language is ineffective as the left brain (verbal brain) is not available. There is one exception to the no-language rule to deescalate and that is to choose a brief, restorative and caring phrase and repeat it such as 'I am here, we are safe' (avoid 'you'). Directing students towards what they need to be doing or consequences is ineffective. Listen and remain with the student. Belongingness is an innate need. All students want to be part of the group these students just don’t know how.
Provide adaptations for students to understand information: Repeat information and check for understanding, as the emotional brain, not thinking brain is the default. Alternatively, these students may repeat statements numerous times, as they don’t feel heard, and thus feel anxious and unsafe. They must feel heard to know that you are there to support them. Acknowledging them when you can is a habit to build for yourself. Praise every small step forward that these students make.
Help students connect with their own and others’ emotions: Often they may under or over-react and withdraw when stressed. There can be quick mood swings from calm to anger. They can also be overly angry or pleasing and compliant. It is critical that lessons on emotional literacy including gradients of emotions (not everything is either black or white, angry or happy, but rather there is gradient such as frustrated and annoyed as well as contentment and joy), as well as perspective-taking. Teaching corresponding facial expressions (eyebrows and mouth are clues) is required as these students see anger when it doesn't exist.
Strengthen empathy: Studies have proven that we are innately helpful. To not help others and show empathy comes from getting off course to natural development. Providing opportunities to help those more fragile or contributing to something larger than ourselves through community volunteering builds empathy.
Use visuals or cuing systems rather than your voice: Visuals provide structure and complement any verbal directions. Go to www.lessonpics.com to create your own visuals or seek out already created ones on pinterest.
Above all, be there for these students. Be still for them. Create a peaceful and supportive environment for your most vulnerable students and you will ultimately create a peaceful and supportive classroom for all.