March 9, 2021, By Dr. Isaiah Pickens, PhD, Founder/CEO of iOpening Enterprises; Partner, PresenceLearning
This article was originally published in District Administration.
Our nation’s teachers are as critical to young people and society as they’ve ever been. Teachers provide care that might be lacking in the home. They’re trained to guard against school violence, and more recently, the threat of COVID-19. They’re working with students to adjust to new models of learning and new modes of forming relationships. And, amid this backdrop, teachers are still charged with their most important task: shaping the hearts and minds of their students every day. In doing so, they often make decisions about which information and which discussions are appropriate for the school setting—and which ones may not be. The reality, however, is that students often enter their learning environments well aware of the latest news headlines or are directly experiencing the challenges of a world in crisis: a global health pandemic, racial injustice, and economic uncertainty.
Trauma—defined as any event that makes a person feel like their life or the life of someone they love is threatened in some way—is a widespread experience among children in the United States. According to the 2018 National Survey of Children’s Health (NSCH), one in three children under the age of 18 experiences trauma (a number that has only been increasing during 2020). When trauma occurs early in life, it can be debilitating if adequate supports for healing are unavailable. The National Education Association (NEA) reports that traumatized five-year-olds are three times more likely to have problems with paying attention, and two times more likely to show aggression.
Today many children are experiencing trauma firsthand, and some are facing tremendous loss. It may be the loss of a family member, a routine, or the mental health services often provided through school. For students of color and students in vulnerable communities, these concerns are especially profound; data from the Education Trust reveals that these children often have far less access to a range of resources and, therefore, more learning gaps and elevated stress levels.
As school leaders and educators, being equipped to deal with heightened and varying degrees of behavioral and mental health challenges—feelings of isolation, anxiety, grief, and much more—among all of our students is currently as essential as ensuring their academic achievement. So how do we support them in dealing with the uncertainty of these times, while bolstering their feeling of emotional safety? As we expand support for students in our care, it is important that we understand and are ready to deploy a trauma-informed approach. A trauma-informed approach is, at its heart, a relationship-based approach: it creates an opportunity for the teacher to work with students to understand their life stories and identify their triggers, develop their coping skills, and find their power to show up in our schools authentically.
First I want to offer a powerful example of a teacher using a trauma-informed approach and then introduce you to an effective framework for activating it. In the classroom one day, a teacher’s student walked into class wearing a hat. Everyone knows students can’t wear a hat during class. The teacher said: “Young man you need to take your hat off.” He didn’t respond. She repeated herself, and he still didn’t respond. At that moment, she might have been inclined to discipline him–like many of us may be similarly inclined at that point. But instead she thoughtfully took the student aside, asking him: “What is so important about this hat?” After some nudging, the student finally revealed that he had been placed into foster care the night before, and the only thing connecting him to his mother was his beloved hat. The teacher worked with him: she talked to him with compassion and helped him to put the hat in a place where he could see it and know it was there; but they agreed he wouldn’t wear it until the end of the day. Understanding his story led to an effective trauma-informed approach instead of an escalating situation leading to the principal’s office.
A useful method for understanding and deploying a trauma-informed approach similar to the aforementioned is using the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA) 4 R’s framework:
The traumatic events students experience are sometimes difficult for adults to believe given the unthinkable pain these experiences inflict. However, a school’s realization of the widespread impact trauma has on the student body is the first meaningful step toward creating a trauma-informed school. By acknowledging trauma can disrupt students’ academic, social, and emotional well-being, administrators and teachers are positioned to respond to student behavioral challenges with supports that keep students in the classroom, instead of disciplinary actions that disconnect them from school.
Realizing the widespread impact of trauma begins to restore trust that may have been lost when others failed to see how these traumatic experiences contributed to challenging behaviors. Creating regular opportunities to check in with students about the impact of experiences outside the classroom provides a practical strategy for trauma acknowledgement without requiring administrators and teachers to become mental health professionals. Questions such as, “what has been toughest for you about everything happening in the world this past week?” or “could you share some of the feelings you and your family had this week about the changes we experienced this school year?” open the door to regular communication that destigmatizes students sharing about their experiences. Ultimately, simply asking these questions routinely can increase insight about drivers of student behavior and begin the process of healing from trauma that occurs when administrators and school staff recognize the signs of trauma.
As students navigate current life challenges while managing in-person or remote learning during an uncertain time, it is important to actively engage students in opportunities to share how challenges are impacting their social-emotional well-being. Whether students are eager to engage or appear unresponsive, their behavior provides insight into their mental health and can clue school staff into signs that trauma is impacting students. Signs may include changes in mood, appearing “zoned out,” argumentative and aggressive behavior, avoidance of class, and pervasive negative feelings about themselves or the world in general.
When students are displaying these behaviors frequently or intensely, it is likely that their brain is working to keep them safe from threats they consciously or unconsciously believe are present. If we were to simplify how the brain responds to trauma, we could divide the brain into two parts: survival brain and learning brain. The survival brain is responsible for our stress response (fight, flight, or freeze), while the learning brain is responsible for our executive functioning skills (i.e., impulse control, accurately reading situations etc.). Recognizing the signs that students are impacted by trauma and their survival brain is highly activated is an important step toward restoring feelings of safety for students and prompting the use of their learning brain to deal with challenges in school and life.
Administrators and teachers can begin helping students calm their survival brain by identifying triggers for feeling unsafe. These triggers are anything that consciously or unconsciously remind students of traumatic experiences and may include unpredictable situations, yelling, being ignored, people who remind the student of someone who traumatized them in the past, or certain times of year such as the holidays because they remind students of people they have lost. Actively asking students about thoughts or body sensations the student had before feeling very unsafe and their survival brain activated begins to help the student and staff feel empowered. This empowerment supports students controlling their behavior before it becomes too disruptive to the class or the student’s life.
By working with students to document triggers, it gives students practice using their learning brain to think through effective strategies for responding to triggers, and will likely give administrators and teachers ideas for reducing or eliminating triggers from the classroom and school environment. Ultimately, this trauma-informed approach opens the door to schools effectively responding to the impact of trauma and facilitating healing.
As educators encourage students to activate their learning brain, administrator and teacher responses using strategies that help students feel heard and seen are foundational to facilitating a trauma-informed approach that calms a highly activated survival brain. A primary strategy is ensuring information is digestible and easy to understand for students. Students who have experienced trauma may have difficulty finding emotional safety in the classroom. Educators who give confusing directions, create unpredictable situations, or abruptly introduce transitions such as moving quickly to the next task without a warning, can heighten student feelings of emotional unsafety. Actively creating a predictable school environment that is structured to support students’ emotional needs communicates a desire to be responsive to student needs prior to their behavioral outbursts.
When students feel their emotional needs are seen by educators before they are in crisis, it can empower them to communicate emotional needs more frequently. A trauma-informed approach maximizes students’ feelings of empowerment by providing opportunities for student choice and access to opportunities for expression of emotional needs and healing. Trauma can lead to feelings of powerlessness and providing opportunities for students to choose their school experiences can counter these feelings and promote healthier decisions. Choices as simple as students choosing their seat in the classroom can potentially diffuse volatile situations while cultivating empowerment and accountability for managing their behavior after they make a choice. Coupling choices with opportunities to receive emotional support ranging from access to a calming corner to an opportunity to speak with a trusted adult when upset can validate legitimate feelings of anger and sadness, while opening the door to experiences that strengthen the learning brain.
The hope is students who have experienced trauma receive support that bolsters trust, provides a pathway to therapeutic services when needed, and does not re-traumatize the student and cause further harm.
Schools generally have intentions to support students, particularly those impacted by trauma. Intentions, unfortunately, do not always equate to impact. Holistically integrating a trauma-informed approach involves recognizing the impact of individual traumatic events such as abuse and domestic violence while also acknowledging the role of historical and intergenerational traumas on communities. Historical traumas represent collective woundings that have impacted entire communities such as the Holocaust, genocide of indeginous people, and slavery, while intergenerational trauma reflects the transmission of trauma across generations. Collectively, these individual and collective traumatic experiences may lead students and their parents to protect themselves from systems that they believe caused harm to their community in the past.
Parental behaviors such as refusing to let students engage with school counselors or showing sensitivity to exclusionary disciplinary actions for their child that received less punitive responses for students of a different race or ethnicity may be misinterpreted by administrators and teachers as defiant or oppositional. From the parent and student perspectives, it may be viewed as students and parents protecting themselves from the unintended systemic impacts of bias that is generated from historical and intergenerational traumas. By educators believing the route to trauma-informed responses in schools can only happen when trauma-informed solutions are proposed by school staff, schools may unintentionally cause additional harm and ignore one of the most important steps to building a trauma-informed school: asking parents and students what will support their healing. Administrators and teachers position schools to maximize trauma-informed approach by viewing students and families as partners in building a trauma-informed school.
Overcoming the impact of past traumatic experiences can be a healing journey for students that schools can serve as a central facilitator. Educators have the unique opportunity to create a trauma-informed school that increases emotional safety, builds prosocial skills, and promotes healthy decision-making processes for all students. It can be a challenging, extended process, but the reward is creating more empowered students prepared to contribute as citizens in a complex and interconnected world.
As you and your school consider how to meet students where they are during challenging times, online psychoeducational services may support your school in extending its in-person team and reaching students at home and in school.
Dr. Pickens is a licensed clinical psychologist, an avid speaker, and the founder of iOpening Enterprises. He recently partnered with PresenceLearning to launch Finding Your Power in Uncertain Times, a six-session program designed to help students who are struggling with life’s current stressors including COVID-19, economic uncertainty, and civil unrest.