Updated: Sep 23, 2020
If one of your students starts throwing materials across the room, what do you do? Yell? Call for backup? Evacuate the class? Will you react or will you have a plan?
What would you think of that student? That they’re disrespectful? Aren’t being raised right? Have no reason to be doing that to your room? Or would you just cry? Been there!
Now, what if I told you that the student came into school that morning having seen their mother the previous night for the first time in 3 years. Would that change your thoughts? Would you have more compassion for that student and their destruction?
Trauma-informed practices provide a foundation of support in understanding the intricacies of trauma and how it manifests. This child has clearly gone through a traumatic event that would cause even the most resilient of us to have a strong emotional reaction. With trauma-informed practices you'll feel better equipped to tackle such behaviors when they arise, and lay the groundwork for less outbursts. The teacher you were before is not the teacher you will be after seeing through this lens.
Do you need to know this student went through that traumatic experience in order to support them? Of course not. Does it help to have more information? Sure does! When you begin to notice the signs of trauma and dysregulation, you begin to implement greater awareness in your responses. The ideas of right and wrong become less clear, and your spectrum of understanding, interpreting, and implementation become stronger. So, let’s take a closer look at that.
Being able to understand what is happening within a child does not mean you are rationalizing it. The symptoms of trauma can't always be put in a neat box. They are complex and require detective work, compassion, and determination. Students with traumatic backgrounds will frequently exhibit poor boundaries, a need for control, and have severe learning difficulties. These are the most vulnerable kids that come across as the hardest to get to know...and like! They are the students pushing you away any chance they get, or sending you mixed signals of love and hate minute to minute. They are the students that fly off the handle for seemingly inconsequential events.
In our quest to understand these students, we need to look biologically, as much as we need to look at the environment. There are damaged neuro pathways at play, poor sensory integration, and a misfiring fear response system. As a teacher you can not fix biology with a magic wand, but the mere understanding of what’s at play provides the foundation for best practices that have lasting, positive effects on these students.
Everything is up for interpretation and nothing is off the table. The call to action is being a detective. On any given day, at any given moment, there are 5 factors at play with a student in escalation. We must interpret the response students give us by dissecting the factors. Did the student sleep the night before? Have they eaten breakfast? Did they miss the bus? Are they wearing a shirt they don’t like? Did the eraser break on their pencil? The setting events and antecedents to escalations are key in our ability to sleuth our way to some clarity. This process is ongoing and utterly fluid. Students with trauma live in the danger zone. Their bodies are primed for more traumatic events; living in reaction and survival. It's our job to notice red flags and minimize triggers.
The interpretation of this information is key, and it may very well change daily. The more you pay attention, however, the more trends you’ll see. With the understanding you’ve developed, and your interpretation of events, you’ll be ready to put something into place.
Congratulations! You now get the job of being super creative in your attempt to prevent and stop escalations. Once you’ve sleuthed your way to understanding and interpreting what's going on with your kiddos, you can now create plans. Did you catch that plural there? Yeah, you need to have multiple plans for all of the ‘what if’s.’ One of the most important questions I ask teachers that struggle with student behavior is “what is your biggest fear?” Whatever your worst-case-scenario is, you must have a plan around it. During the implementation phase, you'll figure out how best to utilize your team, develop safety and behavior plans, secure check in times, identify ways to connect with the student, etc. The tasks for this step may feel overwhelming, but this is where it all comes together.
Supports for students with trauma backgrounds are quite different than conventional classroom management techniques. It requires practice and deep understanding of the student. Using trauma-informed practices allows you to release the false sense of control we tend to have in the classroom, and put real change into practice! It will not stop every escalation from happening and you won't reach all kids, all the time. Yet, you will make a lasting impact if you commit to this model and your connection to your students.
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