According to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN), approximately 25 percent of American children will experience at least one traumatic event by the age of 16.
According to a recent ruling from U.S. District Judge Michael W. Fitzgerald on a class-action lawsuit filed against the Compton Unified School District, students who have experienced trauma are entitled to the same services and supports that other students with special needs receive. This precedent is saying that trauma is as impeding on education as a special need can be for students.
So what are the effects of childhood trauma? NCTSN says that students who experience trauma may lead to:
- high levels of emotional upset
- disruptive behavior
- lower grade point averages
- behaviors that lead to more negative remarks on progress reports
- more absences than other students
- difficulty concentrating
- unusually reckless or aggressive behavior
All students exposed to traumatic experiences have a chance of presenting any of these behaviors — and thus schools must make an effort to provide students and staff with additional information and services. With the amount of time students spend in school every day, the school system serves as a key component in preventing effects of trauma from interfering with the student’s quality of life. For some students, the school system may be their only support system.
So how should teachers intervene if students are showing signs of trauma? In “How to Help a Traumatized Child in the Classroom,” Dr. Joyce Dorado, Co-Founder and Director of UCSF Healthy Environments and Response to Trauma in Schools (HEARTS), suggests educators use these four strategies when students in the classroom are struggling with trauma.
- Recognize that the student is going into survival mode and respond compassionately. When students start to display symptoms, it’s easy for the teacher to get frustrated. However, the teacher should verbally reflect the student’s feelings back to the student. For example, if a student is getting frustrated with a math problem and breaks his pencil, say “I see you are having trouble with this math problem,” and offer choices for moving forward and gaining control. The long-term goal is to get the student to recognize these feelings and make the appropriate choices, or to simply ask for help when struggling.
- Create calm, predictable transitions. Transitions between activities can make students who have experienced trauma vulnerable as they are unsure of what will happen next. This uncertainty may be too similar to a situation that has happened at home. Dr. Joyce suggests creating a class-wide cue for the end of one activity and the start of another, such as a bell or relaxing music. This builds routine so students know what they should be doing and what will come next once they hear or see the cue.
- Praise publically and criticize privately. Praising students when they behave properly will create a sense of self-worth and pride – something students may not always get at home. However, if the student misbehaves, teachers should address this privately. Using a calm voice, the teacher can redirect the student’s behavior.
- Use appropriate mindfulness practice in the classroom. Practicing mindfulness with students helps self-awareness, which is important, but can stir up images of traumatic events for some students. With some simple tweaking, all students can still benefit from mindfulness exercises. For example, instead of having students close their eyes, students can focus on a spot at the front of the classroom. Or instead of focusing on how their body feels, students can focus on a ball or other object in their hand and how it feels and looks in their palm.
Bonus: Take care of yourself. Intervening with students who have had traumatic experiences can be taxing. Therefore, taking care of yourself ensures that you can then take care of your students.