What do teachers and support staff talk about when traumatized children come to school? They talk about how difficult it is to get kids to pay attention and cooperate when they are obviously over-stressed outside of school. Trauma impacts more students than we realize but there are things educators can do to help their students. Trauma comes to school every day. So what can teachers do to help kids who are experiencing trauma learn academic content? How can they prevent those kids from falling apart in the classroom or melting down?
1. Provide a Sense of Safety and Caring
Be flexible and adjust academic expectations for the student during traumatic times. Give the child’s brain time to calm down and regulate itself. Assure the child that you care and are there to help them.
Students who are highly engaged in a subject they like are more focused on learning. Perhaps help the child by assigning an activity you know they enjoy versus a high-level cognitive task. Perhaps use a game-based learning activity to allow the student time to calm down and re-engage with learning. You could also allow the child to work on a jigsaw puzzle, read quietly, listen to stories, draw, or work with a friend.
2. Add Movement
Brain studies show that when a student is highly stressed, engaging in physical movement helps increase dopamine production*. This stimulates the release of other hormones that can ultimately improve a child’s focus. One way to do this is to ask the student for help. I have seen teachers send an agitated child to another teacher to deliver a message. The simple walk down the hall helps them calm down. The child could return the class library books to the media center, or (other example). These little mini-activities, or “brain breaks” are very useful for teachers to help their students decompress when they’re stressed.
3. Change the Way You Discipline
Trauma impacts and changes a child’s brain development, often before they have the ability to talk. They engage in behaviors that, on the surface, look non-compliant or oppositional. Children who have experienced violence or trauma and act out do not respond well to behaviorist-based discipline methods. The more a teacher understands what is happening to their student internally, the better he/she will be able to respond to that student’s behavior. Subconsciously, the child’s brain is responding to past trauma and fear. It is critical to learn how to avoid the cycle of trauma playing inside the child’s mind. Remember that when a traumatized student acts out, their brain is dysregulated and in overdrive. Keep verbal instructions to a minimum. Use calming words.
4. Play Music
You can play music quietly in the background while students work independently. Music therapy research* indicates that a moderately slow, steady rhythm fosters entrainment and helps regulate breathing. Repetitive melody is preferred over highly varied and changing melody. Tempos about the rate of a relaxed heart beat (60 – 70 beats per minute) tend to help students relax and focus.
5. Stay Calm
In a classroom situation, this means consciously keeping your voice low. Try to address the student privately. Perhaps step out into the hallway (if possible). Keep your body language as relaxed as possible. If you find your own emotions escalating, take deep breaths and calm yourself down. Self-awareness is critical at this juncture. Once the immediate behavior crisis or situation is resolved, arrange to step out of the classroom for just a few minutes to catch your breath and breathe. Staying calm can be very difficult and releasing the tension of helping a student through their own behavior outbursts can be exhausting. A five minute breather will help your own brain and body regain balance and perspective for the rest of the day.
These are just a few ideas to keep in mind when dealing with young children who have experienced trauma. Schools need to become more aware of alternative methods to help these kids with appropriate discipline and mentoring. Trauma sensitive schools are needed, as violence and trauma are a fact of life for many children. What strategies have you used with traumatized children? Are you aware of which children have trauma in their backgrounds? Do you think schools need to do more to address this idea of trauma sensitive schools?
*Craig, Susan: To Reach Struggling Students, Schools Need to Be More ‘Trauma-Sensitive’ Accessed 3/10/2016
*Music Therapy Association: Music Therapy Interventions in Trauma, Depression, & Substance Abuse: Selected References and Key Findings. Accessed 3/10/16