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5 ways teachers can help kids who have experienced trauma

Loren Kerns / Flickr CC / HTTP://J.MP/1SPGCL0

The White House released a summary last week detailing why trauma-informed schools are essential to student success.

Specifically, it focused on the educational barriers girls face when they’ve survived traumatic experiences like abuse, neglect and homelessness, and the need to rethink discipline policies to provide them with support.

Childhood trauma is a kid’s response to a horrible event. It can cause physiological symptoms like stomachaches, headaches, and poor sleep habits. It can also cause a child to act out and have trouble learning.  And trauma can effect a child well into adulthood. According to the online resource We Are Teachers:

Often students are misdiagnosed with anxiety, behavior disorders or attention disorders, rather than understanding the trauma that’s driving those symptoms and reactions. For children who have experienced trauma, learning can be a big struggle. But once trauma is identified as the root of the behavior, we can adapt our approach to help kids cope when they’re at school.

Here are six ways teachers can support students who have experienced childhood trauma:

1. Provide consistency

A structured, predictable classroom routine can be calming for kids who have experienced trauma. It's important for them to know that their caretakers have things under control. According to We Are Teachers:

Besides explaining how the day will unfold, have signs or a storyboard that shows which activity — math, reading, lunch, recess, etc. — the class will do when.

2. Give choices

When a traumatized child feels that they do not have control of a situation, they will predictably get more symptomatic, according to Scholastic:

If a child is given some choice or some element of control in an activity or in an interaction with an adult, they will feel more safe, comfortable and will be able to feel, think and act in a more 'mature' fashion. When a child is having difficulty with compliance, frame the 'consequence' as a choice for them: "You have a choice: you can choose to do what I have asked or you can choose something else, which you know is ... " Again, this simple framing of the interaction with the child gives them some sense of control and can help defuse situations where the child feels out of control and therefore, anxious.

3. Incorporate time to regroup

Traumatized children may need time to regroup when feeling triggered or overwhelmed. According to Edutopia:

Designate a space in the school building or outside where you will know where to find her if she needs to take time for a sensory break or to regulate her emotions. You can also provide a box or kit of sensory calming tools a student can use (Silly Putty, coloring, puzzles).

4. Be there to listen

When something bad happens people often think not talking about is the best approach to help someone feel better. But kids don't benefit from "putting it out of their minds." According to Scholastic:

Don't bring it up on your own, but when the child brings it up, don't avoid discussion, listen to the child, answer questions, provide comfort and support. We often have no good verbal explanations, but listening and not avoiding or over-reacting to the subject and then comforting the child will have a critical and long-lasting positive effect.

5. Work with counselors or social workers

When working with a traumatized child, it's important to seek help when you need it. According to Edutopia:

Besides providing specific information about your students, these are great resources for more information about recognizing and understanding the impacts of trauma.

One in four American kids experiences trauma at home. And while teachers may not be able to shield them from chaotic lives outside of school, they can create an environment in the classroom to help them heal.

Paulette is a blogger for Michigan Radio's State of Opportunity project, which looks at kids from low-income families and what it takes to get them ahead. She previously interned as a reporter in the Michigan Radio newsroom.
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