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Trauma-Informed Teaching Practices for Educators

Trauma-Informed Teaching Practices for Educators

Students and teachers are often faced with dire situations far outside their control. Managing these situations and addressing the emotional impact can make day-to-day instruction feel trivial in comparison. How do you face a traumatic event and continue to learn fractions? Educators and students struggle with issues far more serious than we’d like to think. However, we must move forward through instruction and stability.

The role of educators is to maintain consistent instruction in the classroom not only despite these tremendous events, but because of these events. School should be a place where the student’s day is dependable, unswerving and expected. During some of these trauma events, the teachers as well as the students they’re teaching might be affected by the same incident making class management even more difficult. No teacher is ever responsible for resolving a child’s trauma; instead, educators should be aware of the resources available to support children going through such events and help connect them to the services and professionals available while focusing on keeping the stability of the classroom in place.

This year we have seen flooding, fires, mudslides and hurricanes affect communities. Surely these should be considered traumatic events! The National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN) does. It defines a traumatic event as a “frightening, dangerous or violent event that poses a threat to a child’s life or bodily integrity.” Let’s take a deeper look into some of the various sources of student trauma, how to identify students affected by trauma, and also consider some resources available to educators to support students and programs that must manage these events.

Sources of Student Trauma

There are many events that occur in a child’s life that can be traumatic. In fact, the National Child Traumatic Stress Network reports that one out of every four children attending school has been exposed to a traumatic event that can affect learning and/or behavior. While these experiences can take many different forms, here are a few that have recently been making the papers.

Natural Disasters

Natural disaster can of course cause a major interruption in a student’s schooling. While the floodwaters recede eventually and fires are put out, the lasting impact of these disasters on our students is quite serious. Students’ lives are derailed in one night, teachers’ homes and communities destroyed with a shift of the wind. After a natural disaster, the attention of students, teachers, and parents often shifts to rebuilding the community, and schooling ends up on the back burner. 

Poverty & Homelessness

Educators are well aware of the impacts of poverty on students and learning. But, do you know how many of your students are homeless? This is a challenge being faced by more students than you might expect, and under new Every Student Succeeds Act requirements, increasing focus is being placed on monitoring the academic growth of this specific population. Consider the following statistics from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development:

  • In 2017, the United States homeless population was estimated to include 553,742 people on any given night. This number includes adults and veterans living on the streets, as well as children and families living in shelters.
  • In January of 2018, there were 56,342 family households with children experiencing homelessness.
  • The number of unaccompanied homeless youth and children in 2018 is estimated to be 36,361.

For homeless students, the classroom could be the one safe, stable place in their day-to-day lives, an important tether to the safety and security of routine, and perhaps most critically, an essential support in the journey out of poverty and into a better situation. These students are being forced to deal with significant, difficult, and interrelated challenges outside of the classroom that inevitably impact academic performance and the ability to participate in instruction. If you’d like to read more about how to support students affected by homelessness, check out our most recent blog on this topic.

Violence

As tragic events like school shootings have gained increased publicity over the years, many students and teachers are concerned about the overall safety of their school community. For those who have experienced the trauma of a shooting or violence in their school, it can affect the overall mental state of students and teachers. School violence, or the practice of preparing for this, often results in an overall detraction from education, decreased academic performance, and heightened mental health concerns.

How to identify students affected by trauma

Each student reacts to trauma in their own way. While there is no clear-cut set of cues to look for, there are many resources of possible signs of trauma to keep an eye out for. According to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN), there are a variety of behaviors in which you might observe in a student affected by trauma. To name a few, here are some signs to look for:

  • Anxiety, fear, and worry about safety of self and others
  • Absenteeism
  • Changes in school performance
  • Emotional numbing
  • Distrust of others
  • Withdrawal from others or activities
  • Repeated discussion of the event and focus on specific details of what happened

Trauma screening resources are also available for educators to help providers identify children’s and families’ needs.

Students that face trauma certainly require special accommodations. Their world and work is significantly impacted by forces outside their control. However, how they manage these events is unique to them. There are behaviors we can look for and resources we can put in place, but as educators, and often participants of the same catastrophic events, we need to be aware of the resources, and act as part of the solution.

Tips for educators + resources to support students

Tips for Educators

Educators spend a great deal of time with students on a day-to-day basis. This can be helpful in being able to identify a student who has been affected by trauma. While it is not the role of educators to take on the full breadth of counseling and providing support to students affected by trauma, getting the appropriate resources to children in need is a critical part of the educator’s role. Educators should feel empowered to direct students affected by trauma to professionals that can support not only the student, but their family as well. Additionally, the stress that students experience is real and often contagious to educators, so make sure that everyone involved is taking care of their own mental health concerns.

Educators can provide stability and support for students who have gone through trauma in their classroom practices. The NCTSN has outlined a few ways that an educator can help support a child who has gone through a traumatic event:

  • Maintain usual routines. A return to “normalcy” will communicate the message that the child is safe and life will go on. 
  • Increase the level of support and encouragement given to the traumatized child. Designate an adult who can provide additonal support if needed. 
  • Recognize that behavioral problems may be transient and related to trauma. Remember that even the most disruptive behavious can be driven by trauma-related anxiety. 
  • Anticipate difficult times and provide additional support. Many kinds of situations may be reminders. If you are able to identify reminders, you can help by preparing the child for the situation. For instance, for the child who doesn’t like being alone, provide a partner to accompany him or her to the restroom.
  • Give simple and realistic answers to the child’s questions about traumatic events. Clarify distortions and misconceptions. If it isn’t an appropriate time, be sure to give the child a time and place to talk and ask questions.

Other Resources

As educators, we don’t need to be the final result. There are talented and qualified resources available to support us and our students. In most cases, educators need to work with other professionals to best support the student. Here are links to great resources and tools to help in finding the right solutions and to hopefully help support the creation of an atmosphere of trauma sensitive schools where educators are trained and encouraged to become more aware.

Trauma Sensitive Schools: Helping Traumatized Children Learn

The National Child Traumatic Stress Network

How to Get Started with Trauma-Informed Teaching: 6 Resources for Educators