Traumatized students in the classroom

A young student has witnessed domestic violence at home, and he’s constantly anxious. Another child’s family is homeless, and she often comes to school hungry. A third student has recently seen her parents split up, and believes it’s her fault.  And yet another child is quietly being bullied, something he hasn’t even told his parents.

All these students can be living with trauma. And that can affect the way they learn.

You’re a teacher with 30 plus students in your class, and you’re aware of their more obvious diversities: gender, race, perhaps religion, learning differences or disability. But there is probably something else that you can’t see that affects your students in the classroom: trauma.

Nearly half of all children in the United States – 47 percent, according to the National Survey on Children’s Health in October, 2017 – have experienced at least one adverse childhood experience (ACE) such as abuse, witnessing or being a victim of violence, or losing a parent to separation, divorce, incarceration, or death. Nearly a fourth of all students have experienced two or more such events, and a third of all those entering kindergarten have already experienced at least one.

The word trauma is used in more than one way in society today; it is used to describe severe physical injuries, such as those that might result from an accident or shooting, or severe emotional distress, such as that which occurs after experiencing or witnessing something very emotionally disturbing. Veterans returning from war have a high incidence of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, characterized by symptoms of flashbacks, feelings of guilt or shame, higher than typical rates of depression and anxiety, and rising levels of emotion, including sadness, anger and hopelessness. The brain constantly overreacts, as though it is still in danger.

In the classroom, unless there has been an actual traumatic event at the school, the symptoms students carry may not be outwardly evident. But the cumulative trauma of ACEs and the stress of everyday living is affecting these students, and it does affect their performance at school.

“Shootings. Food insecurity. Sirens and fights in the night. Experts are finding that those stressors build up, creating emotional problems and changes in the brain that can undermine even the clearest lessons,” writes Anya Kamenetz of NPR. In other words, the students’ brains are so busy coping with perceived threats in daily life that there’s no room to learn. They may exhibit anger, sadness, perfectionism, fatigue, low self-confidence, panic attacks, extreme self-reliance, self-harm or risky behaviors.

“Untreated, researchers have found these events compound, affecting many parts of the body,” says the report, titled “Teaching Through Trauma.” “Studies show chronic stress can change the chemical and physical structures of the brain.”

Researchers have shown that chronic stress affects children’s abilities to pay attention, concentrate, be creative, and remember what they’ve been taught. Dr. Cara Wellman, a professor of neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University, has found that chronic stress in mice will create deficiencies in the pre-frontal cortex, the area of the brain needed for problem-solving.

So, what is a teacher to do? First, learn to interpret the messages children may be sending.
“Identifying the symptoms of trauma in the children can help educators understand these confusing behaviors,” writes the Child Mind Institute. “And it can help avoid misdiagnosis, as these symptoms can mimic other problems, including ADHD and other behavior disorders.”

The institute lists these obstacles to learning as common in students experiencing trauma:

  • Trouble forming relationships with teachers (especially in children who may have been abused or neglected; they don’t necessarily see adults as being safe);
  • Poor self-regulation (the child may have never learned to regulate strong emotions or how to soothe himself or herself);
  • Negative thinking (which may stem from the child’s belief that they are bad, or that whatever has happened in their lives is their fault);
  • Hypervigilance (a child that is overly alert to what his or her brain sees as potentially dangerous);
  • Executive function challenges (including a child’s ability to pay attention, plan, solve problems and plan ahead).

The support and advocacy website We Are Teachers offers these 10 things about childhood trauma for teachers to understand:

  1. The students aren’t misbehaving on purpose. They have difficulty regulating trauma-linked behaviors and mindset.
  2. Trauma-affected kids are worriers. Structure, routine and sensory cues can help.
  3. Trauma is different for everyone. What may be traumatic for one child might not affect another in the same way. “Anything that keeps our nervous system activated for longer than four to six weeks is defined as post-traumatic stress,” says Caelan Kuban Soma, clinical director of the National Institute for Trauma and Loss in Children.
  4. Trauma isn’t always about violence. Anything that causes extreme, ongoing stress to a child can have trauma ramifications.
  5. You can help even if you don’t know what happened. Respond with empathy and gentle flexibility to the child’s emotions and needs.
  6. Kids affected by trauma need to succeed. If you find opportunities for these students to set goals and achieve them, you’ll help empower them to feel good about themselves.
  7. A child can’t learn until they feel safe and supported. Empathy, routine and tasks at hand create a situation that feels safe to a child
  8. Build in “brain breaks” to help kids recharge. Even just a 5-minute break – announced at the beginning of a 20-minute task – will help a student focus and cope.
  9. Ask what you can do to help. Simply asking, “Is there something we can do to help you feel better?” can lead to helpful action.
  10. Teach these behaviors – to adults. You can spread the message that the kids aren’t necessarily pushing buttons deliberately. “Remind everyone: ‘The child is not his or her behavior,’ says Soma. ‘Ask yourself, ‘I wonder what’s going on with that kid?’ rather than saying, ‘What’s wrong with the kid?’ That’s a huge shift in the way we view kids.”

Unfortunately, teaching children who have been affected by trauma is part of our world today. “It is imperative in today’s classroom that teachers understand the causes of trauma, how to identify the signs of trauma, and how to effectively work with and support students experiencing the effects of trauma,” says Program Director, Bob Wellman. Dominican University of California’s online professional learning division’s, EDUO 9894 course, Working Effectively with Traumatized Students in the Classroom Setting: Understanding Trauma and its Effects, brings together lectures, articles, videos, an online class forum, and a Trauma Toolkit to help teachers better understand how to connect with and be more effective for these students.

“When a teacher steps in to help individual students at risk, the entire classroom benefits,” says Monica Dominguez, a school counselor in El Paso, Texas, in an interview with Teaching Tolerance. “You’ll have a more calm, focused class with fewer distractions and outbursts.” Dominguez believes that getting to know students who could otherwise be branded as troublemakers or even learning-disabled helps both students and teachers. “You shouldn’t underestimate these kids.”

Education Week agrees, even in the face of discouraging statistics.

“The greater the number of ACEs children experience, the greater the likelihood they will struggle academically and disengage from school. But maintaining a strong connection to school and to caring adults throughout the building is a powerful way to buffer the negative impact of pervasive stressors. Schools are one important place in a community that can reduce the negative impact of ACEs on children’s health and development.”

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