How to Build a Trauma-Sensitive Classroom Where All Learners Feel Safe

Deborah Farmer Kris Dec 2, 2018

In the United States, 34 million children have had at least one adverse childhood experience (ACE) — ranging from abuse or neglect to parental incarceration or addiction. Children living in poverty are more likely to have multiple ACEs, compounding the effects of economic insecurity. In addition, the current opioid epidemic is devastating families and overwhelming the foster care system, and many school populations include refugee childrenwho have fled dangerous conditions. Many classrooms in America are touched by trauma.

Patricia Jennings, associate professor at the University of Virginia and author of the new book The Trauma-Sensitive Classroom, says that childhood trauma can have severe immediate and long-term consequences for students’ cognitive, social and emotional development.

Trauma and chronic stress change the way our bodies and brains react to the world. Part of that is protective, said Jennings. “Humans tend to adapt to chronic stress in order to be able to survive and thrive in challenging contexts. But these adaptive behaviors can impede success in the classroom context.” In school, children with trauma are more likely to have trouble regulating their emotions, focusing, and interacting with peers and adults in a positive way.

The Power of a Trauma-Sensitive Teacher

There is some hopeful news in the sobering research about kids and trauma. “We know enough about the science to know that teachers can make a huge difference,” said Jennings. “The school environment is one of the places where students who are exposed to real challenges at home can find safety and stability.”

When infants and very young children experience chronic stress, it affects their sense of security, and this has a ripple effect on future relationships. As Jennings explained, “When we are infants, we are attached to our caregivers – our survival depends on them. Whatever attachment patterns we have with our caregivers, we project onto others. It’s our template.” If the parent-child relationship is inconsistent, unhealthy or interrupted, “it’s hard for kids to know if they can trust other adults.” A caring teacher can create a new template about adults, said Jennings, one that says, “Teachers are caring, kind people who want to help me.”Sponsorednull

In this way, teachers are uniquely positioned to ameliorate some of the effects of early trauma. “The adults in the school environment may be the most stable and mentally well people [some children] have contact with,” said Jennings. “Their teachers can become role models for them for what a healthy adult is like. School can become a sanctuary for kids like this.”

Preschool and kindergarten teachers play an especially important role because children’s early classroom experiences influence their perception of school for years to come. Jennings said that a caring kindergarten teacher can help these children “learn that adults, generally, are people who can provide support to them, even if their parent cannot.” That’s one reason the preschool suspension and expulsion rates are troubling. They disrupt yet another adult-child relationship and reinforce feelings of instability. As early childhood expert Suzanne Bouffard noted, “Young children who are suspended are often the ones who need the most social and academic support — and they end up missing opportunities to get it.”

Building a Trauma-Sensitive Classroom Environment

Let Go of Zero Tolerance: Zero tolerance policies and harsh classroom discipline models can “trigger reactions that amplify feelings of trauma,” said Jennings. Punitive measures can retraumatize children and “reinforce in their mind that the world is a dangerous place, that people don’t like them, and that they are no good.”

Teachers need the flexibility to de-escalate a situation rather than administer a prescriptive consequence. Ultimately, these students need to learn how to de-escalate situations themselves and regulate their emotions, said Jennings, “and the only way they can learn that is in a place that feels safe.”

Reframe Student Behavior:
 It’s easy for teachers to take students’ behavior personally or to misinterpret a child’s actions as willful defiance. Jennings said that teachers should “remember that behaviors that are disruptive or unhelpful in the classroom might be self-protective responses to chronic stress.” This perspective can help teachers make a small but powerful mental shift: instead of asking “what’s wrong with him?” ask “what happened to him, and how did he learn to adapt to it?”

For example, “Hypervigilance can really help when you are in a dangerous situation. A child who is hypervigilant may be adept at noticing small changes and reacting quickly.” But this same hypervigilance will “make it really hard to focus and dive deeply into the reading material.”

Children who experience food scarcity may have a tendency “to quickly grab or hoard things.” These kids might fail the famous marshmallow experiment simply because “they don’t trust that the second marshmallow is really coming,” said Jennings. “In the context of their lives, this is an adaptive response that makes sense.”

Cultivating this kind of empathy takes practice, says Jennings. It means developing “the ability to stop yourself from reacting with your habitual tendencies, take a breath and reflect” on the child in front of you. When teachers take the perspective of a student, “things really shift.”

Generate and Savor Positive Emotions: Because teachers don’t always know which students are coming to school with traumatic backgrounds – and because they have an obligation to teach all learners – educators “have to consider universal approaches that help everybody and embrace those kids who need it most.” Developing a strong classroom community is foundational to this work.

When children suffer from trauma exposure, they are on high alert for potential threats. Teachers can intentionally help students “recognize and savor” small, special moments in the classroom, said Jennings. “Help the class pay attention to what it feels like to feel good. Enjoy positive emotions together as a community. Not only do you get to help kids who don’t get to feel those positive emotions as much, but you also create bonds between students in your classroom – and that is exactly what they need.”

This can be as simple as celebrating acts of kindness, pausing after a good moment to soak up the feeling in the room, and using tools such as morning meetings to foster a respectful classroom culture. “When teachers cultivate community, students who have experienced trauma come to believe, ‘I am part of this community. They accept me, they care about me, and they want to help me. I belong here.’ That’s something all kids can benefit from,” said Jennings.

Draw on the Power of Story:Children with trauma backgrounds need plenty of opportunities to learn about, experience and practice compassion and resilience. Literature is a powerful vehicle to support this endeavor, said Jennings. Stories and books can broaden students’ perspectives, giving them a window into how other people feel, bounce back from challenges and develop healthy relationships.

“As you read a story to a group of children, ask ‘How do you think this person is feeling in this story? Can you imagine if you were a person in this story? How would that feel to you?’” said Jennings. Reading aloud isn’t just for elementary school classrooms. According to one study, even teenagers benefit from hearing about how scientists approached failure and setbacks. (For two curated lists of books related to kindness and compassion, click here and here.)

Put On Your Oxygen Mask First:

In Jennings’ work, she focuses first on helping teachers develop resilience, self-awareness, and self-regulation — and then on how they can teach these tools to children.

She said that teachers need to learn how to manage their own stress that comes with navigating students’ trauma-related behavior. Jennings devotes a chunk of her book to teacher self-care and includes this resilience self-reflection survey that helps teachers think about their own ability to “navigate and recover from adversity.”

How do we best teach children about compassion and resilience? First and foremost, adults must remember that “kids learn these skills through imitating us,” said Jennings. “If we don’t embody them, our instruction won’t work. It will come off as phony. If we are not behaving the way we want them to behave, we are being hypocritical — and they know it.”SPONSORED

When teachers consistently model compassion in the classroom, the effect can be transformative. Ultimately, one of the most important, brain-altering messages that trauma survivors can glean from school is simply this, said Jennings: “I know there are people in the world who care about me.”SEE COMMENTS

Why I No Longer Believe There’s Something Wrong with Me

By Zachary Goodson

Our thoughts create our beliefs, meaning if you think about yourself a certain way for a long enough period of time you will ultimately believe it.” ~Anonymous

You’re ugly. You’re stupid. You’re a loser. 

Imagine thinking this way about yourself every day. No exaggeration. That was me.

When a girl didn’t want to go on a second date with me, I told myself I was ugly. When I didn’t know what someone was talking about, I told myself I was stupid. When my Instagram post only received two likes, I told myself I was loser.

I spoon-fed myself toxic thoughts like these on a daily basis for years. And what’s worse is I believed them.

But why? Where do these toxic thoughts and beliefs even come from? Well, for most of us they come from our childhoods, and they are largely based on experiences with our caregivers. 

My belief system (which fuels those not-so-nice thoughts listed above) was formed by the tragic death of my mother when I was three-and-a-half years old and by my rageaholic cocaine-addict father. I internalized Mom’s death and Dad’s crazy behavior (trust me, it was bad) the only way I knew how to: I thought I was the problem.

You see, my dad never sat me down and apologized for bursting into my room in the middle of the night high on cocaine and torturing me. He never apologized for not allowing me to celebrate my birthdays. He never apologized for making me get in front of my soccer team and tell them that I was a bad boy and couldn’t play in that week’s game.

Since he never apologized to me, my growing little mind took it personally and figured I must be the problem. I thought I deserved to be punished and as such, a negative thought pattern was born.

Like a kid at school writing on a chalkboard because he did something wrong, my thoughts wrote in my mind over and over again: I did something wrong. I did something wrong. 

This consistent negative self-talk eventually turned into a core belief: I am wrong. I am wrong.   

Imagine growing up believing that your very existence is wrong. That was me. I was hard-wired by my parents to believe this. It was like being sentenced for a crime that I didn’t commit.

As an adult I actively looked for validation in other people as a result of this belief. I became a people-pleaser, a yes man, a guy that would do anything for you to like me. Please like me, please tell me I’m okay.

If you liked me, I felt less broken, but one person liking me was never enough. If I was in a room with 100 people and all of them but one liked me I would worry and fret, wondering what I had done to upset that one person.

I also thought I had to be perfect in every area of my life. My hair had to be perfect. My clothes had to be perfect.

I had to say the right things. Do the right things. Be the right thing.

I also used each failed attempt for your validation as proof that I was broken. See!

I would go to bed at night saying I was done with that kind behavior, yet I would wake up in the morning and start it all over again. It was like the movie Groundhog Day. I was living the same day over and over again, and I couldn’t stop.

I hit what I’ll call my rock bottom eight years ago when I was thirty-seven-years old. I hated myself and the life I had created and desperately wanted change.

But how? How do we let go of deeply rooted false beliefs that no longer serve us? The same way we formed them.

You begin by detaching from the individual thoughts that reinforce the negative belief, then you let go of the belief all together. I’ve heard them called illusions, false beliefs, and even lies. It took time for me to believe these lies and it took time for me to undo them.

Henry David Thoreau said, “As a single footstep will not make a path on the earth, so a single thought will not make a pathway in the mind. To make a deep physical path, we walk again and again. To make a deep mental path, we must think over and over the kind of thoughts we wish to dominate our lives.”

In order to let go of false beliefs, we have to practice observing our thoughts and recognize when we are acting on old stories about our worth. By repeatedly choosing not to get caught up in the old stories, we can begin to experience the world in a new way.

You don’t go to the gym once and suddenly you’re in the best shape of your life. No, you go five to six times a week, eat healthy, and get plenty of rest. And you do this over and over again.

The same goes for our minds. The more we work toward mindfulness and self-kindness, the quicker we will default to it. When you catch yourself having a negative thought, recognize that you don’t have to get attached to it and choose to let it pass. If you’re having trouble letting it go, tell yourself a new, more empowering story.

And above all else, just remember, it had nothing to do with you. You did nothing wrong. You are not flawed. 

I didn’t commit a crime. I just absorbed the information given to me the only way my eight-year-old mind knew how to.

So where do we start? It’s different for all of us, but if you’re reading this and relating to any of it then that in and of itself is a start. That’s the beginning of self-awareness.

For me it was all about becoming self-aware. That was my first step toward personal change.

I knew I couldn’t do things on my own (been there, tried that), so I started with a twelve-step program. Liberation would never be possible if I kept reaching for validation from other people, so I took a deep breath and courageously stepped into my first meeting and admitted that I had a problem.

It was there that I opened up and allowed myself to be seen for who I was: a wounded man who sometimes still felt like a scared little boy. Eventually, little by little, I shared my childhood secrets and I was loved for doing so. It was an eye opening experience, which immediately changed my thought process to: I did nothing wrong.

For the last eight years I’ve been letting go of false thoughts and beliefs, which in turn has created new possibilities for how I think and feel in relationships. I hope you can do the same.

About Zachary Goodson

Zachary is a writer, a coach, and a heart-centered entrepreneur who loves helping others. His writing focuses on his experiences around holistic health, inner child work, addiction, recovery, spirituality, and fatherhood. His coaching is devoted to helping people experience deep fulfillment in relationships, career, and life. You can connect with him at zacharygoodson.com.Web | More Posts

Stop Beating Yourself Up: 40 Ways to Silence Your Inner Critic

tinybuddha.com

By Laura Tong

“To be beautiful means to be yourself. You don’t need to be accepted by others. You need to accept yourself.” ~Thich Nhat Hanh

If you’re anything like I used to be, your inner critic packs a powerful punch.

You’ve got a vicious voice bad mouthing you for much of the day. And when it’s in one of those moods, wow, are you going to suffer.

It’s no wonder you feel small, disappointed, and ashamed of who you are.

It’s the reason you lie in bed at night feeling like a failure, convinced you’re a nobody, certain you’re a serial mistake maker.

It was exactly why I used to just lie in the dark, a lot. Most days in fact. Not sleeping, not even thinking, just lying.

I was forever longing for my life to go away. I’d gotten so good at beating myself up that each day seemed to present more opportunities to fail, to feel insignificant and never good enough. 

Alone in the dark, I could pretend that all my problems disappeared and that I was free of the stress. I could make-believe that the pressure had evaporated.

You see, I’d taken on one of those jobs, one of those supposed leaps up the career ladder. But hell, being the head of a college department turned out to be a bad life choice … given my oh-so critical inner voice.

Every day added to my imagined portfolio of failures. Every day blew another hole in my smokescreen of having any confidence in my ability. And every day, I became more fearful of being exposed as the ‘fake’ I believed I was.

I felt like I was constantly aching yet feeling numb at the same time, which became too painful to bear. I dragged my shameful self into the college and quit. I left my entire library of books on the table along with my resignation.

Four years on, even though I’d tried to move on, even changing countries, I still felt the same. No more confident and no less self-critical.

That’s when I learned that even if I hadn’t packed any belongings, I still took a devastating amount of baggage with me. Even worse, I’d allowed my inner critic to ride passenger.

That voice—that mean, vicious, ever-present voice—had to go if life was going to be worth living.

Consciously and patiently, I set out to understand why this self-critical person had become such a huge part of me. I learned how to recognize and counter the habitual negative messages and destructive behavior patterns. I learned how to beat my inner critic, for the most part.

And now it’s your turn.

Because it’s time you felt free from the pain of constant self-criticism as well. It’s time you finally stopped beating yourself up over everything you say or do. And it’s time you were able to breathe, smile, and be pleased with yourself, just as you are.

How? With one simple, small action at a time.

Some of these ideas will speak to you; some will shout. Others will only mumble. Try a handful that grab your imagination. Add in others from the list over time as you learn to build them into an inner-critic-beating habit.

1. Keep a self-praise journal.

Pocket-size is best. Each time you feel pleased by something you’ve done or said, jot it down. Flip through the pages every time you feel your critical voice starting to pipe up.

2. Write a positive self-message.

Use a permanent marker and inscribe it on the inside of your shoes.

3. Diminish your inner critic’s power.

Repeat a negative thought back in a silly voice.

4. Update your Facebook status:

“Happy to be me. Work in progress.”

5. Send yourself a loving text.

Keep it, and re-read it often. Appreciate yourself.

6. Add a positive self-message to an image.

Put it on your phone and laptop.

7. Draw a caricature.

Give your inner critic a silly feature that makes you laugh. Stick it on your fridge.

8. Make a face or blow a raspberry.

At your inner critic, not yourself!

9. Visualize your inner critic.

Imagine it as an evil gremlin squatting on your shoulder. Each time it speaks up, turn and flick it away.

10. Look in the mirror.

Smile and compliment yourself on one quality or trait you like.

11. Keep a list of self-forgiveness quotes.

Or sign up to receive daily emails from Tiny Buddha.

12. Write a list of qualities others like about you.

Keep it in your purse or wallet.

13. Write a list of qualities you like about yourself.

Add it to your purse or wallet as well.

14. Remind yourself: 

“No one can do everything, but everyone can do something.” ~Unknown.

15. End each negative thought with a positive.

For example, “But I’m human and I can learn not to make the same mistake,” or, “But I have the power to change this.”

16. Jot down one thing you’d like to be better at.

Then take one tiny step toward that.

17. Remember “not good enough” doesn’t exist.

“I don’t know a perfect person, I only know flawed people who are still worth loving.” ~John Green

18. Ask yourself why you think you should be good at everything. 

We all have our strengths and weaknesses. Concentrate on your strengths.

19. Find one thing each day to reward yourself for.

Make it something you truly look forward to.

20. Apologize to yourself.

Do this every time you recognize self-criticism (tell yourself you’re sorry out loud if you can).

21. Ring someone you haven’t spoken to in ages.

Tell them how much they mean to you. The best way to feel better about yourself is to make someone else feel better.

22. Remember that self-hate is not an option.

You’re the only person you can guarantee you’ll be in a relationship with from birth to death, so learn to love yourself.

23. Remember there’s no shame in messing up.

You’re trying to do something, grow, and contribute.

24. Break the cycle.

Admit you made a mistake and ask, “Now what can I do about it?”

25. Look at a mistake or “failure” in context.

Will it really matter in a week, a year, or ten years from now?

26. Recognize that you make fewer mistakes than you think.

You just criticize yourself repeatedly for the same few.

27. Drown out your inner critic.

Put on your favorite feel-good music.

28. Stop trying to do too much.

Strike one task from your to-do list that won’t stop Earth from revolving if it isn’t done.

29. Reflect on how you’re only on this planet for a short time.

You can either spend it beating yourself up and being miserable or learn to love yourself and be happy.

30. Stop focusing on the one thing you got wrong.

Focus on the many things you got right.

31. Recognize the good you do for others.

The more you beat yourself up, the less good you do.

32. Keep a daily, written tally of positive self-messages.

Increase this by at least one each day.

33. Physically pat yourself on the back.

Do this for everything you’ve done well this week.

34. Look at a satellite image of the earth.

Realize that you are an important part of this amazing creation.

35. Realize that over six billion people in the world don’t care.

Only you care that you made a mistake.

36. Think of a fun, positive adjective.

Adopt this as your middle name so that every time you criticize yourself by name, you’ve described yourself in a positive way.

37. Buy a houseplant.

When you tend it remind yourself you need this much love and attention.

38. Note down kind words from others.

Write them on slips of paper and keep them in a compliment jar. Dip into this whenever you need to counter a negative self-message.

39. Halt a negative self-thought.

Use an act of self-care. For example apply hand cream, or give yourself a neck rub.

40. Stop comparing yourself to others.

Remember Dr. Seuss: “Today you are You, that is truer than true. There is no one alive who is Youer than You!”

Stop Beating Yourself Up Once and for All

Beating yourself up leaves you feeling horrible.

All that constant self-criticism is exhausting. It leaves you aching inside.

Small, simple actions can bring great leaps in breaking this negative cycle—for good.

Let these ideas speak to you. Pick the ones that shout loudest.

Defeat self-depreciating thoughts you’ve heard over and over with conscious, positive acts of self-compassion.

Stop letting your inner critic overpower you. Fight back with self-love.

About Laura Tong

Laura Tong is a regular contributor on The Huffington Post and other top blogs. Grab her free cheat sheet: 5 Guilt Free Ways To Say No Without Offending Anyone (Even If You Hate Conflict). Laura also hosts the Re-write The Rules In Your Life interview series where she shares awesome happiness and positivity tips from experts around the world. Click here to listen free to the latest episodes.