Trauma-informed education: Teaching the whole child
Monday, February 26, 2018
The National Institute of Mental Health defines trauma as "the experience of an event by a child that is emotionally painful or distressful, which often results in lasting mental and physical effects." The term adverse childhood experience (ACE) refers to a range of events that a child can experience that lead to stress and can result in trauma and chronic stress responses.
Chronic or persistent stress can impact a child's developing brain and has been linked in numerous studies to a variety of high-risk behaviors, chronic diseases and negative health outcomes in adulthood, such as smoking, diabetes and heart disease. According to the CDC, adverse childhood experiences are broken down into three groups, including abuse, household challenges and neglect.
The presence of ACEs can lead to risky health behaviors, chronic health conditions and low life potential or early death. Each child will handle various ACEs uniquely. The Child and Adolescent Health Measurement Initiative cites: "In 2016, 34 million children, nearly half of all U.S. children ages 0-17, had at least one of nine ACEs, and more than 20 percent experienced two or more."
We need to use a multisystem approach and be prepared to support students who have experienced trauma, even if we don't know who they are. Children are resilient, and within positive learning environments where we teach the whole child (academics and social emotional), they can grow, learn and succeed.
Here are my top six strategies to become a trauma-informed educator and create a trauma-sensitive classroom.
1. De-escalation strategies
Youth in a triggered state need help to calm down from the "there and then" triggers to become more present in the "here and now" reality (in which there is no actual threat). Notice signs of distress, connect with the young person, and redirect behavior with choices and options for alternative activities.
After the youth is calm, discuss what happened, and determine consequences as a team. A powerful strategy to build rapport with an agitated student is to find points on which you can agree (agreement with a student's perspective, point of view or limitation in response.)
2. Preventive strategies
These include teacher empathy, relaxation techniques, prearranged signal and emphasizing student choices and responsibility in clear and simple language. Avoid escalation responses (getting in the student's face, discrediting the student, engaging in power struggles, raising your voice).
Shape behavior by helping youth recognize the impact of their actions on themselves and their communities. Use check-ins or zones of regulation so students can self-manage their emotions. A few great websites to evaluate if your classroom is trauma sensitive are TraumaSensitiveSchools.org and RestorativeJustice.org.
3. Build relationships with students
Survey your students to learn about their interests and experiences and include "get to know you" questions on warmups, exit tickets, etc. Use unconditional positive regard: Provide students attention and positive highlights just for being "human," not tied to academic accomplishments.
Call on students equitably and allow wait time. Allow students to create group chants, team names and class mottos. Provide circle or check-in time for students to discuss how they feel and how they are building resilience through the day.
4. Practice mindfulness
Provide mind-brain-body breaks. Moving stress from toxic to tolerable involves increasing the number of protective relationships in children's lives and helping them learn how to regulate their nervous system, which is where mindfulness comes in.
This skill allows children to manage their internal world regardless of what comes at them externally, which is a concept that even young children can understand. Consider the analogy of a glitter ball or snow globe to convey the concept, explaining that the brain under stress is like a shaken snow globe — with the glitter swirling, they cannot see clearly.
Breathing and other mindfulness techniques, which the children practice several times each day, help them "settle their glitter" so they can do their best thinking. A couple of great organizations that support mindfulness are MindUp and Conscious Discipline.
5. Foster resilience and grit
Correct students in a constructive way, fostering a growth mindset and high expectations: "You have the ability to do well." Provide opportunities or "productive struggle" and support students with scaffolds as an option. Teach students about their brains and the power of mindsets. Use data to disprove negative thinking.
For example, writing is a common barrier for kids with anxiety. But one way to begin getting students past this hurdle is to ask them how hard a task will be before they start and again after they've completed it.
The perception of the task is almost always worse than the actual task. With several weeks of data, you can show students the pattern in their responses. A great website with hundreds of lesson to facilitate students' growth mindset is MindsetKit.org.
6. Create a safe and positive classroom community
Provide explicit preparation for changes and transitions. Create time in the schedule for community building and circles for dialogue (see my list of community builders). Allow students to step outside of the classroom or put their head down.
Use restorative practices language. Provide positive reinforcement and individualize feedback (3:1). Utilize UDL and differentiate instruction to account for students' interest with various learning modality options. A few helpful websites on creating positive learning communities are ASCD's Whole Child Initiative (with a free school assessment) and Tolerance.org.
The work of a trauma-informed educator isn't about using a special "trauma" curriculum; it's about giving students the support they need to access the rigorous curriculum. Teach the whole child, and you'll see even bigger academic gains!
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