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Vol. 10 #5 Educating Teachers About Trauma Informed Practice

Educating Teachers About Trauma Informed Practice

Micheline S. Malow, Ph.D.

Manhattanville College

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.

Defining Trauma

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