Many teachers are working to modify their classrooms and schools to offer a more supportive environment for students who have experienced trauma in their lives. They’re taking heed of research showing that adverse childhood experiences like poverty, neglect, and exposure to violence affect children’s brains and may have a negative impact on learning and behavior.
“For me being trauma-informed has so much to do with mindset, accepting that different people come into a school setting with incredibly varied life experiences,” said Lindsey Minder, a second grade teacher profiled in an Edutopia video introducing trauma-informed practices. “Some of those life experiences may be traumatic. And the way in which that plays out in my particular classroom could look a number of ways. And by me having that lens it makes it less about are they doing ‘the right thing’ or the ‘wrong thing’ and more about, ‘where is that behavior coming from? Why is that happening?'”
While dealing with all the issues kids bring to school can be overwhelming for teachers, the upside is that they are well positioned to make a big impact on students’ lives. Positive relationships with caring adults can help buffer students from the effects of trauma and chronic stress, making trauma-informed schools “healing places.”
“If you’re fearful, if you’re anxious, if you’re distracted about something that’s happened to you, you literally can’t learn. Your brain shuts down,” said Dr. Linda Darling-Hammond, president and CEO of the Learning Policy Institute. “So it’s essential to give kids social and emotional tools that allow students to recover from the challenges that they have experienced. Take actual classroom time to work on the building blocks of how to perceive your emotions, how to talk about them, how to get along with other people, how to take a moment and become calm when you need to, how to express your needs so that others can meet them.”
One strategy to intentionally support students who need a little extra in these areas is one-on-one time with a staff mentor. Providing a regular, relaxed environment for the student to check in with the same adult helps them build trust and opens the door for more learning. The key is for these meetings to be consistent and to happen even if the student hasn’t behaved well.
Another strategy schools use to make sure students aren’t falling through the cracks is to meet in teams to discuss students. These meetings offer a picture of students across learning environments and allow teachers to share where a student is struggling as well as where she shines. It’s also a chance to recognize positive behavior and growth in students so they are pushed and recognized as well.
“It’s great when you can figure out that there’s a link between their academics and maybe a behavior,” said Bobby Shaddox, a social studies teacher at King Middle School in Portland, Maine.
“We don’t only want to be talking about the kids that disrupt a class, which is very often the case,” said Dr. Pamela Cantor, founder and senior science advisor for Turnaround For Children. “We want to talk about every child and be able to see what every child needs.”
A formalized teacher practice like this one, with norms that assume the best in students, help school staff work as a team to support students, no matter their needs. Everyone will experience adversity at some point in their life, so while these strategies may be particularly important for students struggling right now, they’re also supporting children who will need these skills later in life.