Educating Teachers About Trauma Informed Practice
Micheline S. Malow, Ph.D.
Teachers are tasked with managing an array of social-emotional and behavioral difficulties in the classroom; most of which they feel unprepared for. In an effort to define the difficulties children bring to school, teachers sometimes label students as disengaged, unmotivated, inattentive, and/or disruptive. With those labels as a starting point, teachers then seek to remediate the problem with classroom management strategies often taught in their teacher preparation programs. These behaviorally based strategies call for planned ignoring of inappropriate behaviors, cueing and prompting students to engage suitably, and positively reinforcing the correct behaviors once displayed.
When looking into the source of classroom behaviors, teachers may be surprised to discover that childhood experiences of trauma frequently manifest themselves as social-emotional and/or behavioral difficulties (Sitler, 2008). With this in mind, teachers need to explore whether the observed learning and emotional-behavioral difficulties in the classroom have neurodevelopmental or trauma origins. Determining the origin of students’ behavioral struggles is necessary if teachers hope to appropriately support and guide students during times of behavioral difficulty.
Although trauma is different than ordinary life stressors, students who are exposed to negative experiences can internalize those experiences as personal trauma. Trauma in and of itself is not an event; however the way an individual reflects on the episode can elicit an automatic stressful response. Experts in the field of trauma agree, an event or situation is potentially traumatizing if it is unpredictable or uncontrollable by the person experiencing it. Given that a child’s response to an event is individual, potentially traumatizing events (PTE) cause a sense of fear, terror and helplessness (Litz, Miller, Ruef, & McTeeague, 2002). PTEs are acknowledged as widespread, experienced by approximately 48 percent (almost 35 million) of children in the United States (Bartlett, Smith, & Bringewatt, 2017).
Some traumatic incidents occur as one-time events and impact the child in the short-term (Deihl, 2013; Wright, 2014). Natural disasters, accidents, and tragic human events such as school shootings, fall into this category. Conversely, traumatic experiences can be chronic with repeated exposure to the PTE encompassing a way of life for the child (Deihl, 2013; Wright, 2014). Events in this category of trauma include child maltreatment, domestic abuse, chronic illness, extreme poverty, and exposure to neighborhood violence. However whether the PTE is an acute or chronic experience, in the time frame immediately following the event, nearly all children exposed to trauma will manifest distress of some sort.
Personal Toll of Trauma
Despite the widespread occurrence of PTEs, children, teachers, and society are largely underprepared to deal with the burden that traumatizing events place on them. In situations of acute trauma, for example the occurrence of a natural disaster such as Hurricane Katrina, or a human-made tragedy such as the Sandy Hook school shooting, the trauma experienced by all is highly visible. In these instances the community, the nation, and sometimes the world rises to support the victims of such events. In this way, at least initially, the children and community pull together to address each other’s needs in the short-term.
However, unlike large-scale events, chronic trauma is often suffered in private. School systems and teachers go unaware of the child’s experience of PTEs and therefore make faulty hypotheses about the learning and behavioral difficulties displayed by the child. For example, one researcher found that teachers described students affected by trauma as appearing unmotivated and disengaged; in reality the children’s “…concerns outside the classroom overwhelmed them” (Sitler, 2008, p. 119).
The observed behavioral manifestations of children who have experienced trauma include both internalizing and externalizing characteristics. Internalizing behaviors noted include passivity, lack of interest in the future, inability to concentrate, spacing out, frequent absences, poor work habits, and coming to school less ready to learn. Some negative externalizing behaviors displayed by children who have experienced trauma include verbal or physical aggression, breaking classroom rules, refusing assistance, bullying, and involvement with the juvenile justice system (Blitz & Lee, 2015; Wright, 2014). Children with trauma histories may often appear impulsive and out of control, or alternatively withdrawn because the stress response system responds automatically, without engaging a cognitive analysis of the situation (Wright, 2014).
In addition to the observable behavioral manifestations of trauma, children also experience psychological effects related to PTEs. Psychological effects comprise thoughts about themselves – poor feelings of self worth, expectations of others – beliefs that adults will always let them down, and difficulty with the ability to engage in learning behaviors that include low levels of attention, concentration, memory and organizational skills. Furthermore children’s perceptions in response to trauma demonstrate that hyper vigilance, being on guard and suspicious, is activated even when dangers are not present.
School-based, trauma-informed curriculums, devoted to supporting students who have experienced PTEs have been developed and implemented in various circumstances. One such standardized curriculum was developed during a summer camp for adopted and foster children called the Trust-Based Relational Intervention (TBRI). TBRI principals address childhood ecological, and physiological needs through 1) empowerment, 2) connection, and 3) correction. Under the guidance of these three pillars, teachers provide attention to physical needs, attachment needs, and behavioral needs (Purvis, et al., 2013). Teachers working from this framework ensure that student’s basic needs are met, that relational and attachment needs are met, and that self-regulation, appropriate boundaries, and healthy behaviors are taught.
One other trauma-informed curriculum focused on the mental health of children in elementary school, called Unconditional Education (Schwartz, 2016). The Unconditional Education curriculum starts by training teachers about trauma; specifically examining the effects of trauma on the brain, and the behavioral manifestations of traumatized children. The goal of this curriculum is to keep the children in the classroom, to build positive, trusting relationships, develop individual interventions, and to remind the child that the experienced trauma is not the child’s fault. The creators of Unconditional Education set out to create a sustainable, whole school approach that ultimately could become part of the culture of the school.
All teachers, regardless of whether their school adopts a school-wide, trauma-informed curriculum, can implement principles within their classroom setting to establish a trauma-informed teaching practice. There are six principals, recommended by SAMHSA (2014) to address trauma in the classroom detailed below, with classroom strategies suggested by Wright (2014):
1). Safety. Provide for both the physical safety as well as emotional safety of the children. Teachers can reinforce the understanding, through words and actions, that the
classroom is a safe place both physically and emotionally.
2). Trustworthiness and Transparency. Teachers can build these by discussing, rehearsing, and revisiting the expectations and rules for the classroom. Children will internalize the classroom structure and if consistently implemented by the teacher the students can learn to put their trust the consistency of the classroom.
3). Peer Support. Systems of support, provided by family members or others, allow children to tell their own stories; this indicates to the child that what they say has value. Teachers can show interest in children and their lives by asking questions and remembering the details of what was shared.
4). Collaboration and Mutuality. Healing of trauma happens through relationships. Teachers can use direct instruction to help children learn how to work effectively with others; modeling strategies and having students’ role-play in order to learn essential skills. Teachers can also engage regularly with children in warm, one-on-one conversations.
5). Empowerment, Voice, and Choice. Children’s strengths are recognized and built on in an effort to promote resilience within the child. Teachers can allow children time and space to calm down in their own way when upset. Teachers can provide direct instruction on emotions, teaching how to identify feelings, as well as naming and validating various emotions in the classroom.
6). Cultural, Historical and Gender Issues. All cultural, ethnic, religious, and gender groups should feel welcome in the classroom setting. Each child is viewed as an individual with unique qualities that are valued. Teachers can make sure to include all perspectives in discussions, classroom readings, stories, and work. Teachers can select books utilized in the classroom that are inclusive of all groups.
Teachers who understand trauma-informed teaching practices are less likely to misinterpret demonstrated behavioral and social-emotional difficulties as volitional. Trauma-informed teachers respond with calm reassurance in order to deescalate the persistent fear traumatized children manifest. Those who want to read more about trauma-informed educational practices can read the full chapter that this article is excerpted from [Malow, M. S. (2018). Working with students who have experienced trauma: Educating teachers about trauma informed practice. In N. D. Young, C. N. Michael, & T. A. Citro (Eds.), Emotions in education: Promoting positive mental health in students with learning disabilities (pp. 119-132). Wilmington, DE: Vernon Press.]
Bartlett, J.D., Smith, S., & Bringewatt, E. (2017, April). Helping young children who have experienced trauma: Policies and strategies for early care and education. Child Trends, Publication No. 2017-19. National Center for Children in Poverty, Columbia University, NY.
Blitz, L.V, &Lee, Y. (2015). Trauma-informed methods to enhance school-based bullying prevention initiatives: An emerging model. Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment & Trauma, 24. 20-40. DOI:10.1080/10926771.2015.982238
Deihl, L.M. (2013, November). Children and trauma: How schools can help with healing. The Brown University Child and Adolescent Behavior Letter, 29 (11), 1-7.
Litz, B.T., Miller, M.W., Ruef, A.M., & McTeague, L.M. (2002). Exposure to trauma in adults. Approaches for Specific Psychological Problems. The Guildford Press: NY, NY.
Purvis, K.B., Cross, D.R., Dansereau, D.F., & Parris, S.R. (2013). Trust-based relational intervention (TBRI): A systemic approach to complex developmental trauma. Child & Youth Services, 34. 360-386. DOI:10.1080/0145935X.2013.859906
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. SAMHSA’s concept of trauma and guidance for a trauma informed approach. HHS Publication No. (SMA)14-4884. Rockville, MD: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2014.
Schwartz, K. (2016, June). How trauma informed teaching builds a sense of safety and care. Mind/Shift. How we Will Learn. Retrieved 10/6/2016 from http://ww2.kqed.org/mindshift/2016/06/06/how-trauma-informed-teaching-builds-a-sense- of-safety-and-care.
Sitler, H.C. (2009, January/February). Teaching with awareness: The hidden effects of trauma on learning. The Clearing House, 82 (3), 119-123.
Wright, T. (2014, November). Too scared to learn. Teaching young children who have experienced trauma. Young Children, 88-93.
Micheline Malow, Ph.D. is a Professor in the Department of Special Education at Manhattanville College located in Purchase, New York. Dr. Malow teaches courses in Foundations of Special Education, Child Development, and Research in Special Education. She has presented at numerous professional conferences and published articles on risk taking behavior and students with disabilities. She has co-authored a book with Praeger Press, Adolescents and Risk. Dr. Malow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.