3 Steps For Teaching With Trauma In Mind

Just before I began writing this post, I was notified by the case worker of one of my clients, that she, a 12 year old, was being removed from her 3rd foster home in less than 2 years. This one, headed by a family member had been the safest option 8 months before, but her busted lip proved that things had changed.

As I tried to move past the thoughts of her packing all of her belongings into a trash bag and having to sleep in  a new bed, in a new town, away from her friends, I am reminded why understanding trauma is so important. She’s experienced more in her 12 years than some adults I know, and I wonder how the teachers she comes in contact with can ever understand what she has experienced.

This is why I share this post with you.

Trauma informed care is a method of treating individuals who have experienced trauma.  It’s being sensitive to the physical, emotional and mental changes that occur in the body as a result of trauma AND providing interventions based upon the needs presented by those changes.  Many counselors and therapists understand and may even, like myself, have advanced training on how to treat children who have experienced the pain that trauma causes.  Most youth care workers and educators aren’t required to have this type of training, so I’m creating a bit of a crash course on the subject here.

First, let’s talk about what a trauma is. In my post,  Bad Things Happening To Good People, I shared about some of the common causes of psychological trauma.  These can include death of a loved one, divorce, verbal, physical or sexual abuse or even moving from a favorite childhood home. For many years, the most common method of determining whether or not a child had experienced significant trauma was assigning them an ACE score. The test which checks for Adverse Childhood Experiences can, with relative accuracy, give some indication of potential impacts of these experiences.  In recent years, the cultural relevance of the test has had some questions but it is still an enlightening experience.

One of the limitations of ACE is that it is less specialized in acknowledging the ambient, or chronic micro-traumas that many kids are experiencing.  Things like exposure to violence on television or video games, financial instability and the like. These events can be like repeated wounds to tender, young hearts and are less visible to the general public and often go ignored.

My client, for instance, has never been “homeless” but having moved multiple times, may not feel like she has a home.

So how can teachers allow a lens of trauma awareness to come into their own classrooms? It’s easier than you might think.

Acknowledge the trauma. Understanding that your student may have experienced trauma goes a long way. Acknowledging that your experiences may be different goes even further. While there is some truth, there is no greater lie in my opinion than when adults use the resiliency of children to deny the pain that they are experiencing. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard, “Kids bounce back”. Well of course some of them do, maybe even most. But some suffer silently, not knowing that there is help available.  Recognizing that trauma exposure can present itself in many ways is a part of this as well.  Get familiar with some of the signs here. Many of kids who have experienced trauma are being told constantly to forget it or move on, so this is really powerful when done well.

Avoid Power Struggles. The best advice I’ve ever heard on working with kids who’ve been through trauma is, “Don’t start a power struggle, you WON’T win!” Why is this? Kids who have been through a traumatic experience, often feel powerless. They think they have nothing left to lose.  They are looking for a way to express the feelings that they have and the need they have to be in some control. They will take whatever control they can get and no, they don’t care about hurting your feelings in the process. The best way to avoid power struggles is to offer choices. But since that’s not always an option, when there is only one choice, allow the student to find their way there and maintain some control.  Think of this example.

Jim wants to graduate.
Jim needs PE.
Jim doesn’t want PE and skips class every day.
You can’t get Jim out of PE and so you can’t offer him that choice.
You can remind Jim that you know he already has shown that he wants to graduate and then ask him what he thinks might work.

Attach. The final step is to allow your students a healthy level of attachment with you.  Many kids who have been through trauma are resistant to new relationships and will push you away until they are sure that you can be trusted.  Share some of yourself and don’t take any potential rejection personally. The goal is to offer yourself for attachment and let it occur naturally. Relationship is very important to the long term success of kids who have been through trauma, don’t underestimate the value of building a connection.

If you’re looking for more help on understanding trauma with specific attention to how it impacts behavior, you might enjoy the Behavior Management 101 series, click the link to get all the details.


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