We (teachers) are not mental health counselors. Nor are we psychiatrists, social workers, physicians, or nutritionists. Too often — far too often — we are asked to take on these roles to support our kids.
And I get why. We spend a ton of time with our students. It’s inevitable that we notice odd bruises, outsized reactions, or a persistent wheezy cough.
But the truth is, we’ve had extremely limited training to deal with concerns beyond education. We simply aren’t qualified, and in my case, it’s not why I became a teacher in the first place. I became a teacher because I love education and kids, and the confluence of those two things inspired me. It still does.
And yet, our students’ home lives, which are sometimes riddled with traumatic events and circumstances, do affect their ability to learn. So I want to suggest, not that you become an ad hoc therapist, but rather that you consider classroom practices that can help your traumatized students learn.
What are ACEs and how do they present in the classroom?
Adverse childhood experiences (also known as ACEs) can have profound and lasting effects. When people experience traumatic events or situations as a young person, such as having an incarcerated parent or experiencing abuse, there are effects, and the effects are sobering. Consider a few:
- Serious chronic health conditions, such as heart disease and cancer
- Mental health conditions
- High-risk behaviors
- Poor social outcomes, such as lower graduation rates and persistent underemployment
You’ve seen the effects of ACEs in your classroom. Students who have had multiple adverse experiences are far more likely to have chronic truancy, repeat grades, behave unpredictably, and fail to make learning gains.
Here are other ways trauma-connected behaviors might show up in your classroom:
Marguerite seems unable to control her body. She never sits at her desk but instead constantly roams your classroom, touching other students and their stuff.
Joseph seems incapable of showing empathy or compassion. For example, last week, when another student cried because an elderly relative had died, Joseph laughed.
Mikayla freezes when faced with new situations or transitions. Movement between classes, a new activity, or even a simple quiz immobilizes her.
Josh isn’t making any learning gains even though he participates in targeted interventions. A thorough evaluation showed no evidence of a learning disability.
Davon has poor response flexibility, which is the space between impulse and action. The threat of consequences has little effect. He seems unable to pause before acting out.
As it turns out, though, there is good news. Researchers at the Harvard Center on the Developing Child note that the younger the brain, the less effort is required for that brain to change. You elementary school teachers have so much power to help students quickly overcome trauma. But even we high school teachers can take heart. The brain remains elastic enough to undergo change throughout our lives. It’s not until we reach our 20s that the effort becomes more difficult (although still very much possible).
How to help traumatized students experience success at school
There are four main ways we can help traumatized students be successful in our classrooms—and, at the same time, improve the school climate for all of us.
Technique #1: Coaching behaviors
When faced with unpredictable student behavior, my inclination is to take it personally. I think, Well, if I had a better relationship with this kid or if I’d done a more solid job of establishing classroom routines, Marguerite wouldn’t be wandering around or Davon would stop acting out.
But the truth is, I didn’t cause the trauma. And depending on how long it’s been going on, it may take some time to reverse its effects.
Once I’ve reminded myself that the situation isn’t a personal attack, I can better respond.
It’s important to take a moment or two to consider my own reaction and how it may be contributing to the situation. A good guiding question is, How can I respond in a way that helps the student regulate their behavior, feel more connected to our environment, and disarm all of our fears?
Allowing students to re-do the moment is huge, and that’s where coaching comes in. When Jose kicks desks on the way to the bathroom, consider saying, “Jose, let’s try that again. Show me you can walk to the bathroom without kicking any desks.” Do-overs are an extremely effective way to retrain our brains.
Incorporate compromise into your interactions with traumatized children. I was recently at an incarceration site when a student threw his papers on the floor and told me, with a very colorful vocabulary, that he was declining to participate. I picked up the papers, set them on the corner of his desk, and wrote the answer to the first question on his paper. A few minutes later, I saw the student working. Even though we didn’t talk through a compromise, I demonstrated how to (“I’ll do the first one …”), and it worked.
Compromise conversations can be effective, too, especially when you encourage the student to make the proposal. This gives them a sense of agency and control when their home experiences may have given little of either.
Last, offer students choice — positive choice. A choice between “sit down or get a referral” isn’t really a choice. Plus we know that punishment without a relationship can backfire. Consider, instead, offering a pencil, pen, or marker to complete an assignment. Or, allow a student to choose odd or even numbered problems, select the order of worksheets to complete, where in the classroom they’d like to work, or whether or not they want to partner with another student.
One more word about coaching behaviors … there absolutely are times when a consequence for inappropriate behaviors is the right answer. I would never suggest letting inappropriate behavior go unchecked. The idea is to think about how. Studies tell us that punishment can actually reactive a person’s trauma. That’s the last thing you’d want to do, of course. What works for me is to correct with kindness.
Remember, too, there’s a delicate balance between structure and nurture. Adherence to routines and rules can be very helpful for some students with multiple ACEs, but for others, those very same rules can feel insurmountable.
Technique #2: Emotional regulation strategies
I confess, I’m not great at the coaching behaviors with my students, but I shine with regulation strategies. These are tricks you can arm your students with to help them regulate their own behaviors. I think that’s why I like this group of ideas so much; I can let go of my own monitoring by giving students more agency to attend to their needs.
Essentially, your goal with regulation strategies is to help students create a tiny self-distraction. This gives them to space to calm down, re-focus, or simply take a breather.
Examples include listening to music through headphones, doodling, taking a few deep breaths, running a quick errand for you, coloring, or doing a puzzle. These are not meant to last a long time. These are quick activities that can give a student a moment to get it together.
Over time, your traumatized students might be able to reach for these self-monitoring strategies on their own. That’s the magic of self-regulation strategies … they can free you from having to constantly monitor issues that feel unrelated to teaching.
Keep in mind, regulation strategies are not meant to replace classroom work. If Damien insists on coloring instead of completing his lab report, it’s time to back up to some of those coaching behaviors we talked about earlier. Compromise might be just the ticket.
Technique #3: Engagement practices
The number one question I get from teachers is how to be more engaging. The teachers in my community are constantly looking for ways to engage their kids that are fresh and effective, especially in this current climate of incessant testing.
I tell you this to say, engagement strategies are good for all of our kids, not just ones who’ve had past trauma. This is a win. Using engagement strategies is likely something you already do, but there are particular ones that can be especially helpful for our traumatized students.
Two easy ones to incorporate with zero preparation are eye contact and voice quality. Students suffering from the effects of ACEs do well with quieter voices, spoken to them from a close range rather than from across the room. Similarly, sitting down next to a student or squatting down to their eye level reduces their anxiety. This is called behavior matching and research shows, it lowers a student’s heart rate and stress.
Also consider adding games and playfulness into your routines, especially with older students who may not have experienced these at home. Even something as simple as a riddle of the day can help a student with unease. When a student is laughing, their defenses drop and they don’t feel afraid.
All of these engagement strategies create a slight increase in dopamine. That’s the feel-good chemical our brains release when they’re relaxed and happy. And we all know, relaxed and happy brains are brains that are ready to learn.
Technique #4: Instructional ideas
Good news! The instructional ideas that will help your kids with ACEs will help all of your students. The difference is that the efforts described here have been known to be especially effective for students dealing with the effects of trauma.
Traumatized students frequently experience overwhelm. This overwhelm results in fight (misbehavior), flight (avoidance, shut-down), or freeze (brain unable to learn) responses. The best way you can combat this overwhelm is through chunking. And I do mean chunk everything.
Break down every aspect of your lessons into bite-size pieces. This is where you want to be thinking about the order of instruction in your lessons and gradual release for student practice. If these ideas are unfamiliar to you, set up some time to work the instructional coach on your campus.
Be sure you are also making your expectations for student work clear. Model exactly what you’re looking for when you engage in whole or small-group instruction. Provide anchor papers and sample work. Even providing partially completed assignments for your overwhelmed students can be extremely helpful and encouraging as you gradually move them to more independent work.
Clear expectations are critical for students with ACEs. The research tells us that these particular kids struggle with “gray” areas or instructions that leave them guessing. Concrete, black-and-white examples and clear directions set them up for success.
One more thing to consider … kids who have experienced challenging backgrounds may be completely unfamiliar with effective study practices. Explicitly teach these study habits (in very small chunks!):
- Time management
- Memorization tricks
- Goal setting
- Active listening
- Testing tips
It may feel like having to get crafty with our students who have unpredictable behavior, extreme emotions, or frustrating learning issues is just one more thing on our already very overloaded plates. I fully acknowledge we are asked to do too much.
Perhaps, though, incorporating just one or two of these ideas into your teaching practice might actually reduce your workload. As you provide a safe learning environment for your students who have experienced trauma, the amount of time you spend re-teaching or correcting will likely decrease.
For more information about ACEs and toxic response, check out Nadine Burke Harris’s book The Deepest Well (2018). Also, consider screening Paper Tigers (2015) with your colleagues. This documentary follows six high school students over the course of a year as they participate in a trauma-sensitive program.
Last word, and perhaps the most important one of all: be sure you are attending to your own needs through this process. Working with traumatized students can be, well, traumatizing. Build yourself a support system and self-care practices that ensure your own good health. As one of my favorite teachers frequently reminds me, “Take good care of you.”
Instructional coach, MTSS coordinator
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