Toward a Trauma-informed Classroom: 5 Things We Can Do To Heal Trauma Now

Trauma is everywhere in our schools. Studies of adverse childhood experiences, which ChildTrends defines as "potentially traumatic events in a child's life that can have negative, lasting effects on health and well-being," indicate that these experiences are all-too frequent. Broken down into categories like divorce; physical, emotional, and sexual abuse or neglect; mental illness; substance abuse; domestic violence; and parental incarceration, researchers estimate that between 44% and 66% of children in the United States have experienced at least one traumatic event in their lives. That's as many as 2 out of every 3 kids.

The prevalence of ACEs in the lives of our children has tremendous implications for the work we do as educators, healers, parents and advocates. High ACE scores are linked to everything from poor health outcomes to increased instances of challenging behavior to higher rates of suspension and expulsion to increased likelihood of being evaluated for special education services. 

Historically, schools and other child-focused organizations have done a poor job of responding effectively to the trauma histories our children carry with them. In tepid defense of systems everywhere, responding to trauma can feel really overwhelming. The manifestation of trauma in our kids can really challenge the ability of our systems to juggle what feel like mutually exclusive priorities. 

And yet we continue to learn that little work can be done if trauma is not addressed before, or at least in concert with, other learning priorities. The experience of trauma can invade so many areas of our children's lives that it becomes difficult or even impossible to attend to things like algebra, humanities, or even waking up on time. If we're going to do better for our kids, if we're going to disrupt systems of education to provide better, brighter futures for our scholars, we must do a better job of bringing trauma to the forefront of our work with young people.

Thankfully, the work of healing doesn’t require years of training, advanced degrees, or even specialized knowledge. Repair begins with five simple steps, which every teacher, caregiver, and child advocate can begin to practice right now. These steps aren't limited to adults, either. With patience, pacing and coaching, we can teach these skills (or maybe, more accurately, refine already-possessed skills) to scholars so that they can be better equipped to respond to the world around them. 

1. Curiosity

We begin the work by practicing curiosity. The first question we ask ourselves and our scholars is, "how did we get here?" How do we understand the pathways that have led us to this moment of turbulence, darkness, or dysregulation? Albert Einstein famously said, "If I had an hour to solve a problem, I'd spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem, and 5 minutes thinking about solutions." So much of the work we do with trauma involves slowing down and holding an experience; by approaching the work with curiosity, we can begin to create the space that allows us to move more slowly and more intentional.

Curiosity supports the scholar to do their work, but it also makes space for us to do ours. An axiom from the world of collaborative problem solving is that our understanding of a problem drives our solution. School staff are often pressed to find solutions to challenging behavior and other crisis situations, and yet we typically spend precious little time thoroughly investigating the problem itself before grasping for possible solutions. Curiosity reminds us to walk through hard moments more slowly, to be more observant, and to be more mindful of all the elements, experiences, triggers, and beliefs that have led us to this moment. 

Starting with curiosity also allows us to begin our work by aligning with our scholars. Time and time again, scholars report that what often hurts the most when they're in crisis is that so few adults take the time to understand where the scholar is coming from. So many of our scholars experience moments of acute stress only to see well-meaning adults spring into action, desperate to mine solutions, often without really understanding the problem that they're trying to solve. 

Finally, curiosity helps our scholars explore the trigger that has brought them to the moment of intense turbulence in partnership with a regulating adult. With practice, we can model curiosity and teach our scholars how to be mindful of the world around them. 

Slow down. Ask questions. Listen to the answers. Ask more questions. 

2. Patience and flexibility

Effective trauma response places demands on our time and resources that often activate our own stress responses. When we lose our patience, we can't be good regulating partners to our scholars: perhaps you've witnessed the tragedy of an adult who engages a scholar in crisis only to further trigger and escalate the scholar, perhaps you've been guilty of perpetuating that cycle yourself. Certainly I can look back through the years and pick out more than a few moments where my response to a kiddo, who in hindsight was obviously hurting and seeking a lifeline, makes me cringe today. 

The turbulence that our kids experience can be a confusing, scary mess of thoughts, emotions, and physical responses. Engaging with a scholar who is dysregulated can be exceptionally challenging: they may lash out, figuratively, with their words or tears; or literally, with their hands and feet. They may say things or do things that feel to adults as a deeply personal and targeted attack. Scholars in crisis are capable of actions that can feel wildly incongruent with the image we've crafted of them. It's tough work for us as regulating partners, but so vital to the wellbeing of our scholars. As difficult as being a regulating partner can be for us, for all the barbs and arrows we may be have to dodge and absorb, the experience of intense dysregulation is much, much worse for our kids.

Being a regulating partner requires immense patience, patience to wait out the storm and its attendant waves, patience to search for the right questions to practice curiosity, and patience in working with the scholar to work toward solutions. The good news, if there is good news, is that even without intervention and support, a scholar will regulate on their own, eventually. The tough news is that even with an effective regulating partner, regulation can take a while, sometimes a really long while. The tougher news is that, while a scholar is on their journey back from the wilderness, they can sometimes be really destructive, setting fires along the way that are hard to put out and hurtful to staff, peers and community. It's our test to see through the chaos and understand it for what it is: a response to a stressful situation that is born of a history with trauma. 

An effective trauma response also demands our flexibility. Sometimes, when faced with intense turbulence, we as adults can get a little stuck, too. We can find ourselves digging into untenable positions or falling back to responses that our better selves just know won't be effective. We get overwhelmed too, sometimes.

I see schools and adults struggle with their own flexibility a lot. We often work with scholars in larger systems: schools, after school programs, community spaces etc., all of which have their own culture and structure and are usually organized around some goal that takes persistence and time to get to. Trauma histories can interrupt progress toward these goals, and can challenge our very ability to move toward our organizational objectives. Intense turbulence forces us to answer difficult questions about pursuit of a goal (say, a high ACT test score) vs. effective response to trauma. The rules of a school may reasonably require that all students sit in their desks and face the teacher. For a student with a trauma history, sitting with their back facing the door may feel wildly unsafe, as might sitting in the middle of a group, or on the edge of a group. Punishments like demerits, detentions and suspensions are also often triggering, and, incidentally, are the number one antecedent to challenging behavior. A student with a trauma history may require a few extra minutes to transition, or access to a bathroom when it would not normally be allowed, or the opportunity to wear a hoodie when the uniform code forbids it. 

Think of it this way: the experience of trauma strips our scholars of their power, sometimes completely. When triggered, a student with a trauma history can relive the experience of being powerless, which is terrifying. Creating flexibility restores some power. At every school I'm at, I tell students, "here, we make sure you get what you need." It's a promise to pursue opportunities to restore power and build mastery, and also invites us to be creative in how we address the varied needs of our scholars, who are poorly served by one-size-fits-all systems. 

3. Staying in the moment

"What do you need right now?" I ask it so often that sometimes I feel silly. When I begin the work with a student, I might start with this question, just to see where they're at (don't be surprised with the standard "I don't know" response, but use it as a measure of progress). When I don't get anywhere, I might shift direction back to being curious about what brought us to this moment, and then revisit the question again a few minutes later, "okay, what do you think you might need right now?" We always want to give the scholar the opportunity to define what might be helpful for them first, before we chime in with our ideas. You can get some ideas that might seem pretty goofy, from going to the bathroom, to running laps on the stairs; to ideas that might challenge our flexibility, from pulling a sibling or peer out of another class for a quick check-in/hug to helping out at a lower grade's recess; and sometimes the ideas just aren't feasible ("no, we probably can't go get pizza right now, sorry buddy."). But still you want to give them the first shot at coming up with a next step, because it helps them build that ever-vital problem solving skill. 

If your scholar gets stuck, it's no problem. We can offer ideas that might help: going for a walk, playing some basketball, coloring, listening to music, etc. As we do the work with the scholar, we'll get better at knowing what's worked before and what might work again, and we can better help our scholars remember their tools for themselves.

The experience of trauma can lead to all sorts of bewildering things, including distortions of space and time. When activated, you may find that a student starts to perseverate, to focus on some slight or injury that seems to have long since passed. You may find that a scholar focuses forward and becomes stuck imagining what ill may befall them or their loved one in he future. You might find that a scholar bounces around in time - worrying about things that have happened while also being fearful of things that might happen. It can get confusing on the outside for us. It's worse for our scholars. Through it all, we can support regulation and healing by staying in the present moment: what does this scholar need right here, right now, to come back from the wilderness?

Staying in the moment also helps us create space to simply be. It's tempting to solve problems quickly, but sometimes what is required of us is to respond to challenges slowly so that we can hold the emotional and physical responses and learn to manage them and so fear them less. As my mentor, Katie Nissly, has said, the work of many of our scholars (and of us as adults!) is to learn to have a big feeling without freaking out. Sometimes that means being present in our fear, our hurt, our worry, etc. 

4. Reflection

Student: "I just don't know how to control it - I feel like I want to stop cutting, but I just get this idea in my head and I can't."

Caring adult: "Yeah, I hear that - cutting is something you're trying really hard to move away from, but it's tough because cutting is also trying really, really hard to be in your life."

Student: "Yeah, exactly." Or maybe, "No, it's not cutting I think about but all the mistakes I've made and they make me wonder if I'm good enough for anyone."

Caring adult, "Oh, I see - I'm sorry, I think I misunderstood you. It's not that cutting has control over your life, but it's this wondering about who you are and what your value is that gets in the way."

Student: "Yeah, exactly."

Caring adult, "Thanks for helping me understand that, it feels really important that I get it right."

Reflective listening is a challenging skill to master. I don't really know if I've done it justice above, but the idea is to reflect the content and the feeling of what the scholar is saying to you, without judgment or any attempt to solve the problem being expressed. It helps us check things out, opens the door to curiosity, and helps our kids feel like they're being heard (because they are!). It's okay to guess wrong, like in the example above, because it gives the scholar the opportunity to correct our understanding and guide the process to a more effective place. 

The part about no judgment is really important, and so is the part about not trying to solve the problem right away. This process is about exploration, about meeting the scholar in the wilderness and walking with them so that they don't have to walk alone. It's about patience.

Reflective listening is a really important regulating tool for our scholars. When we show a scholar that we're working hard on understanding where they're coming from, we signal to them that we are trying to work on this thing with, instead of opposition to, them. We help them feel safe and secure, and that helps them on their journey back from the woods.

5. Knowledge of the normal stages of child development

The final of the five skills is less a practical skill and more a principle that helps us respond effectively and compassionately to the manifestation of trauma that we see in our kids. By learning more about how trauma affects brain development, learning, and the body, we can be better prepared to address the darkness that permeates our world. 

So there you have it, five things we can do right now to respond to trauma. As always, this is meant as a primer, as a guidepost to inform the work we do in and out of classrooms with our scholars. It is not meant to replace quality training or consultation with a professional practitioner, nor are the five steps meant to replace traditional therapy or trauma work. If you have questions about the work, seek answers. Knowledge is the intervention: if you have questions, seek answers; join with others on the same journey and form a trauma-focused learning group. The work is good, but the work is hard. Don't do it alone.

 

Much respect to Dr. Anne Gearity, whose knowledge of child development and trauma seems to extend beyond the known universe, and whose research and teachings are responsible for the "five things," and have greatly influenced my work. Thanks, too, to Katie Nissly, for her persistent and patient guidance and wisdom. 

Interested in training or consultation on trauma-informed classrooms? Let's chat.