Informing Ourselves on Trauma to Help Our Students
Teachers can build better relationships and community within the classroom by being aware of the effects of trauma
I had a student who would come in every day and put his head down on the desk, hoodie up, earbuds in. I used every management strategy in my arsenal, proximity, empathy, social contracts, good-natured prodding, consequences, calls home, but he only participated about ten percent of the time — and usually with a scowl.
That was when he even showed up.
When his case manager asked me to fill out a questionnaire about him as the representative teacher, I agreed but suggested she might find someone whose class he was in more frequently. “He comes to your class the most,” she said with a shrug.
All I could think was that I approached this student with the understanding that he was probably going through some rough stuff.
When he groused at me, cussed me out, or had what seemed to be an impenetrable flat affect, I checked my own reactions to him through a filter of empathy.
This simple philosophy around how I approached students actually has a name: trauma informed.
First recognized in the post-Vietnam War era with returning veterans, trauma’s affect on various populations began to be identified and treated by psychologists and other service providers. According to Oxford University Press’ Encyclopedia of Social Work, “In 1985, the International Society for Traumatic Stress was founded in the United States and served as a focal point for professionals searching for answers to support highly traumatized populations.” Over the next three decades, the definition of trauma has expanded to include events experienced by civilians as well, such as abuse, neglect, shootings, rape, etc.
When experienced at a young age, trauma literally changes the development of the brain. This can cause a young person’s automatic reactions to be different than what you might expect when they experience something they interpret as frightening or threatening. This young person’s reaction could be highly volatile, or entirely withdrawn, or easily startled or saddened. Additionally, a young person who has experienced trauma, especially recent trauma, may also have trouble concentrating and/or interacting with peers.
Being trauma informed means that teachers and other service professionals can improve their understanding of, and modify their interaction with, youth who have experienced trauma by being aware of how trauma impacts the brain and their behaviors.
Traumatic experiences include (but are not limited to) abuse, neglect, injury or illness, and community violence. (For a more complete list of trauma types, treatments, and care, see the National Child Traumatic Stress Network website.) The terminology ACEs: Adverse Childhood Experiences incorporates these types and adds Household Challenges which involve mental illness, an incarcerated relative, mistreatment of the child’s mother, and divorce.
In school, students experiencing any one, or sometimes multiple, of these traumas may also experience difficulties managing their emotions, behavior, and/or workload. Teachers who are aware of these possibilities may structure their lessons, approach classroom management, and support peer interactions differently.
When a teacher acknowledges that “difficult” behaviors may be a side effect of adverse experiences, it does not magically change the behavior of the student or make things better, per se. However, it changes the way the teacher approaches their interactions with that student, which can in turn affect the result of those interactions.
As a school, a trauma informed staff can positively impact these student students’ day to day lives. It can heighten “Protective Factors” as they’re referred to by the ACES Connection, which include informed and caring support by the community as well as caregivers. ACES Connection lists “safe, stable, nurturing relationships” and an “always available (trusted) adult” as two mitigating factors for the far-reaching effects of adverse experiences.
A 2013 study reported (after a survey of 4500 children across the nation) that those children who were exposed to violence or abuse suffered later on in terms of their mental and physical well-being.
In 2018, another study reported more specifically that, “In addition to…post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, depression, and behavior problems, exposure to violence is associated with lower grade-point average, decreased high school graduation rates, decreased IQ, as well as significant deficits in attention, abstract reasoning, long-term memory for verbal information, and reading ability. Researchers have found that cumulative adverse childhood events, including violence exposure, is also associated with greater suspensions and absenteesism [sic], and greater chronic health conditions in childhood and lower employment productivity in adulthood.”
A pediatrician, writing in support of trauma informed care in STAT News, wrote, “By definition, care that is trauma informed involves prevention, recognition, and response to trauma-related difficulties. Experts agree that incorporating an awareness of trauma into medical care requires a systems-wide approach.” This would include all care professionals (doctors, nurses, counselors), teachers, and staff that come into contact with youth who have experienced trauma.
The benefits of being trauma informed and taking a trauma-informed approach reach those students affected by the trauma in their lives as well as their community of peers who can learn to have more empathetic and supportive interactions. Being trauma informed can result in reduced frustration for teachers and administrators when behaviors to this point considered “problematic” are recognized, understood, cared for, and eventually perhaps even prevented.