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To Help Kids, Teachers Need Training in Trauma-Informed Strategies

By Katie Cannady

“Mira, I see that you’re crying. It seems like you’re upset. Can I help you? What can we do to calm down?” In my second year of teaching, this is how I wanted my conversation with Mira to go during her third breakdown of the day. Like many other teachers, though, I wasn’t able to have quite that conversation, because another student, who had recently lost his mother, had pushed over a shelf, and a third, who had instability at home, had just had an accident. This is a snapshot of the chaos that is a pre-K classroom in a neighborhood that serves low-income families.

Looking back on that year, and all of the challenging behaviors that came with it, I know I should have handled the situation differently. Today, I have de-escalation strategies to use from a trauma-informed teaching training. I’ve learned how to spot signs of an impending issue long before it erupts. Then, I was so focused on teaching each lesson perfectly and following my plan that I didn’t stop to focus on the children’s emotions. Even knowing this today, I believe that the skills and support of a social worker would have been necessary. I have more experience, but when it comes to serving students with trauma, we always need more support―especially in a PreK classroom.

My experience in that classroom isn’t different from what many early childhood education teachers face. In Illinois, as many as 50% of students have experienced multiple Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). When the issues of trauma and community violence are so pervasive, we have to be responsive to student and teacher needs. Early education is a chaotic and wonderful environment that helps children grow and explore in their own way, but if we aren’t prepared, teachers cannot support the whole child.

I know that I would have been better able to help students like Mira if I’d had a few extra supports.

Assistants and social workers

We need more assistants and social workers in classrooms. Two adults in a class of twenty children is not enough to provide the one-on-one supports when many students experience more than one traumatic childhood experience. A social worker could focus on one child and help them with family engagement, community resources, and one-on-one coaching and interventions.

Trauma training

We need training on how to support students who experience trauma and what our curriculum can do to alleviate their hardship. Teachers need to be trained early; my one trauma training occurred in my third year of teaching, long after I met Mira. Training would include de-escalation strategies, constructive responses to trauma, behavior interventions, and trauma awareness.

Time to respond

We need ample time for discussions and practice for students. We could use the time to teach specific coping mechanisms, practice how to respond to triggers, and build self-control through games and social lessons. Having a curriculum doesn’t mean teachers actually have time to teach it in a busy day of math, reading, science, social studies, and putting out emotional fires.

Despite being new, I did everything I could for Mira. I made Mira special sticker charts, got to know her family, talked to her dance teacher, and worked with her as she practiced going to a calm space when she started to feel upset. At the end of that year, Mira wanted a turn to share, but wasn’t called on. She began to sniffle, and I saw her telltale signs of impending tears. But this time, our work paid off. She raised her hand and said “I’m sad and mad because I want my turn. Can I go calm down in the calm down corner?”

Children are incredibly resilient in the face of hardship and can learn in difficult situations. But as adults, we have to step up and make that easier for them. Teachers need better support and training to be the best we can be for our students, because our kids deserve nothing less.

Katie Cannady teaches kindergarten at the Brighton Park Campus of Acero Charter Schools in Chicago. She is a 2018–19 Teach Plus Illinois Early Childhood Educator Fellow.