Understanding Trauma in the Classroom

Interventions to Help Traumatized Children Succeed in Education

by Angela Murphy, School Psychologist, BCASP #370, MEd., BEd.

Miss Peters was overwhelmed; she had a student, “Jimmy”, who was making it very difficult for her to teach and for others to learn.  She described Jimmy as having extreme behaviours (i.e. verbally and physically aggressive, running away, shutting down sometimes for hours at a time) that seemed to appear out of the nowhere, “one moment he seems fine and within a split second his fists are clenched and he is throwing objects across the room”).  Jimmy also had difficulty with things like knowing when he was hungry, sitting still, following instructions, working with others, personal space, expressive language, and processing information.  Miss Peters’ classroom management methods were not working with him so she tried keeping Jimmy in at recess, sending him to the office, and calling his parents.  She also tried a reward system for expected behaviours and taking away points for unexpected behaviours; all with no success.  Miss Peters was in tears and wondered what she could do differently to support Jimmy in the classroom.

The first step was to assemble a Care Team, which included his foster parents and other relevant staff members.  After meeting with Jimmy’s foster parents and gathering some information about his history, she had a new understanding that Jimmy had been through many adverse childhood experiences (Adverse Child Experiences and Their Lifelong Toll, click here) at an early age.  She wasn’t sure what this meant for Jimmy, but she was determined to learn about how early trauma could impact students like Jimmy at school.  With some professional development about complex trauma and the 7 Developmental Domains (click here) she had many “aha” moments about how Jimmy continues to be affected in many areas of his development because of the complex trauma he had experienced.  For instance, it is not uncommon for students who have experienced trauma to have sensorimotor issues, problems with boundaries, with emotion and behaviour regulation, difficulty making and maintaining meaningful relationships, and difficulty recognizing internal states and memory.  She was happy to learn that the Complex Trauma Resources team had a number of interventions that could support Jimmy within the school environment.

Miss Peters learned about the Stress Staircase, and realized that Jimmy was wavering at about a 7 or 8 (alert/vigilant) and was always a few steps away from fight, flight, or freeze mode.  She wanted to find ways to support him in calming his body and getting down to a 2 or 3 (interested and engaged) on the Stress Staircase (The CTR Therapeutic Bookends: Decreasing Stress, click here).  Next, Miss Peters was introduced to the PEACE-ful Schools strategies (as seen below) and was able to integrate these ideas into her current teaching practices.

P-redictability and Routine

E-motional Literacy

A-ttuned Relationship

C-alming Activities

E-mpowerment

The following are some examples under the different headings:

Predictability and Routine

  • Make routine, structure and predictability a priority. For example, use a visual schedule to map out the student’s day, use consistency with teacher responses and prepare students for transitions or any changes in routine, have food/snacks to help regulate, incorporate morning rituals before work time, incorporate regular relaxation activities into class time. (i.e. breathing ball, relaxing music, etc.). Have a seating plans and where students are located within the room.
  • Daily check in and check outs (scripted to stay the same)

Emotional Literacy

  • Implicit Teaching: this is a powerful strategy that involves experiential daily interactions between the adult and the student. Often students do not want to be told what to do, but will pick up on HOW adults do things. This can be done by modeling emotion language regularly (i.e. I’m feeling frustrated, do you know what that means?  Do you ever feel frustrated?)
  • Explicit Teaching: Directly teaching social and emotional skills.  The following curriculums are evidence based and recommended: Zones of Regulation, Mind UP, Superflex: A Social Thinking Curriculum
  • Emotion Validation: Provide a safe place to talk about feelings. Validating how the child is feeling is not the same as condoning the behaviour.  If necessary, set aside a designated time and place for sharing.

Attuned Relationship

  • Time in not time out. Time out replicates the rejection these children have often experienced and reinforces the child’s sense of self as unlovable.  Instead, ask the child to come sit with you to complete their work.  Reframe their disruption as a need for your extra attention and help.
  • Consequences, not punishment. Consequences for unacceptable behaviour should be natural consequences, designed to repair any damage to relationships or property, rather than punishments that have no relationship to the behaviour.  Where possible, consequences should have a relational and educational element.
  • Acknowledge good decision and choices. Traumatized children tend to receive little praise, and in fact often don’t respond well to praise.  They do, however, need positive reinforcement when they have done something well.  Try to avoid statements about internal characteristics, such as “you are a good kid”, as sometimes that is too much of a contradiction for a child who believes that they are not good or kind, but actually bad and unlovable.  It is better to comment on actions, so the child can feel good about something they have done.

Calming Activities

  • For sensory sensitivities: dim lights, alternative work space, quiet environment (access to headphones), create an accessible “cozy nest” (creating a smaller space might help limit distractions), incorporate calm music into the daily routine
  • “Body check” or “self check”.   Explicitly teach the students what “body clues” might come up when feeling anxious or stressed.  Teach the child to “self-check”, for example, instead of saying, “stop being loud” or “stop wiggling”; the teacher can say, “Can you check yourself please”.  This allows the child to develop the crucial life skill of self-monitoring.
  • Teach the student how to calm anxious energy and drain hyper energy. These skills must be explicitly taught and practiced.  Work with the student to identify which strategies are helpful and then create a plan of action.
  • Public versus Private Praise. Often public praise will be uncomfortable for a student who has been through traumatic events.  Ask: “when I’m proud of you, how should I let you know?”
  • Non-contingent Relationship Building Time: Child directed 1:1 time with teacher for 5 minutes a day, every day, no matter what happened with that child that day.

Empowerment

  • Find and celebrate successes; build off of existing skills and interests; develop mastery
  • Offer choices to give the student a sense of control. Often traumatic events involve loss of control and/or chaos.  The adult can help children feel safe by providing them with some choices or control when appropriate.  You can finish that work standing up or sitting down.
  • Give students a voice in classroom expectation, routines, and activities.
  • Service Learning: when the child helps others in need, this expands who they are and fills their own need (i.e. reading to younger children, time with elders, etc.)

With all of this new information about complex trauma and PEACE-ful Schools, Miss Peters was able to approach Jimmy with more empathy and understanding for his complex needs.  Instead of punishing him for his actions (i.e. sending him to the office), she focused on building their relationship and taking time to problem solve with him through difficult situations.  After 3 months, Jimmy was more trusting of his teacher and his out of control behaviours had lessened.  Even on bad days, they were able to come back to the problem and work through it together.  Miss Peters was happy to report that there had been more engagement in the classroom with his schooling and with his peers.  Although growth was apparent, he continued to struggle in some areas of the 7 Developmental Domains and the next step for the Care Team was to administer the Functional Developmental Assessment for Schools (FDA-S) and to target specific interventions based on his developmental profile to support his goals within his IEP. 

Next week’s blog will share information about the process on how the School Care Team administered the Functional Developmental Assessment for Schools (FDA-S) and connected Jimmy’s developmental profile and strategies to his IEP goals.

About the author

Angela Murphy

Angela has a passion for supporting children and families through a collaborative approach. She brings expansive knowledge from her work in Aboriginal communities and has a profound respect for delivering safe and caring practices. To read more about Angela click here: https://www.complextrauma.ca/about/our-team/

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