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

NH data links childhood trauma, adult health

By Holly Ramer, Associated PressPosted Dec 10, 2018 at 1:26 PM 
Updated Dec 10, 2018 at 1:26 PM 

CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — Nearly half of all New Hampshire adults say they experienced stressful or traumatic events in childhood, and data released Monday show those experiences are hurting their health today.

While only 10 percent of adults with no adverse experiences during childhood reported being in fair or poor health, that percentage was 17 percent for those with at least one such experience, according to statistics presented at a news conference by the New Hampshire Department of Public of Health and Spark NH, the governor’s early childhood advisory council. The statistics examined the relationship between health indicators in New Hampshire adults and their exposure to what are called Adverse Childhood Experiences, which includes things like abuse and neglect, witnessing domestic violence and growing up with relatives who have substance use disorders.

Among all New Hampshire adults, 49.5 percent reported at least one such experience, according to a 2016 survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Women were more likely to report such experiences: 53 percent of women and 46 percent of men said they had at least one adverse experience during childhood, and women made up 62 percent of those with four or more.

Reports of poor health increased with the number of adverse experiences, as did tobacco use and poor mental health.

“Addressing and preventing adverse childhood experiences is a public health priority,” said Patricia Tilley, deputy director of the state Division of Public Health Services. She noted that the CDC estimates the annual cost associated with adverse experiences during childhood is more than $124 billion nationwide.

“In addition to being a moral imperative to address, ACES (Adverse Childhood Experiences) are costly to us all,” she said. “Billions of dollars in productivity loss, billions of dollars in health care expenditures, billions of dollars in special education, child welfare and criminal justice.”

The news conference was attended by Democratic U.S. Sens. Jeanne Shaheen and Maggie Hassan, who said they were hopeful the statistics would spur policy changes.

“We’re not spending money where it can make the difference the quickest,” Shaheen said.https://d-33377068282130891627.ampproject.net/2006112352001/frame.html

Hassan described asking her mother, a teacher, why some students struggled despite their high academic capacity.

“My mom said, ‘All kids need to know they have a grown-up in their corner,'” she said. “I’ve always thought our job in public life is to be the grown-up for all of our children.”

Officials said the data, which were consistent with national statistics, highlighted the need to help not just children but also parents and other caregivers because adults who were raised by parents with mental health or substance use problems had worse outcomes later.

Laura Milliken, director of Spark NH, said the private-public partnership will use the new information to continue its advocacy for quality early childhood education programs, home visit programs and family resource centers.null

“If we care about New Hampshire’s stability and prosperity, then we need to create the conditions in our communities that can reduce risk for everyone now and into the future,” she said. “One of the key ways to reduce risk is to ensure young children have stable, responsive relationships and enriching experiences at home and in the community.”