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Cultivating Trauma Resilience in the Classroom

How can schools best support students who live with trauma, and help them become more resilient and successful in school?

Our society, as a whole, is developing a greater awareness of trauma, and how it affects the human brain, especially when it comes to learning and behavior. Now more than ever, teachers at every level are more attuned to their students’ trauma, and what can be done to help their students become more resilient and successful in their educational careers and throughout their lives.

Data suggests that, on average, every classroom has at least one student who is affected by trauma. Other data from The National Survey of Children’s Health (NSCH) reports that nearly 35 million children in the United States have experienced some type of serious childhood trauma. Sexual assault, physical assault, and witnessing domestic violence are the most common stressors that children can experience, but the death of a loved one, incarceration of a family member, or persistent poverty can also impact children’s ability to function and thrive in the classroom.

These kinds of stressors, known formally as “complex trauma,” have often occurred at the hands of people with whom the children have an ongoing relationship—be it a parent, family member, or adult in the community. This not only leads to diminishing trust with adults in general, but can also lead to grief, feelings of loss, abandonment, and neglect. Many children also suffer from anxiety, fear, depression, and PTSD as a result of experiencing these traumas.

It makes sense, then, that school is a place of refuge for many students, where they are able to form trusted enduring relationships with adults who care about their well being.

Even still, many students who have been exposed to traumatic events have a harder time forming relationships with others, have a hard time relegating their emotions, and coping with stress, and exhibit difficult or problematic behaviors. Those behaviors can come in many forms, including:

  • Acting out
  • Aggressive behavior
  • Inability to focus
  • Irritability
  • Fatigue
  • Frequent illness
  • Stomach aches
  • Becoming easily frustrated
  • Crying or yelling
  • Shutting down
  • Frequent Fidgeting

Dr. Pamela Cantor, the founder of Turnaround for Children, refers to these sets of behaviors as “symptom clusters,” noting that in her experience in working with individuals with mental health conditions in poor communities in the Bronx, these symptoms are more apparent.

“Adversity alters how children develop as learners, and not in a good way,” Dr. Cantor tells NPR. She continues, “It began to be obvious to me that all the children that I was seeing were struggling with relationships. They were struggling with learning. They were struggling with trust, struggling with attention span.”

But Cantor also notes that not all is lost. While the young brain is impressionable to trauma, it can also be resilient, especially when given the right tools and environment to process and calm themselves.

So how can schools best support students who live with trauma, and help them become more resilient and successful in school?

Cultivate a Healthy Relationship Between Student and Faculty

First, it’s important that students have supportive relationships in their lives. Whether that be a relationship with a teacher, administrator, or counselor, students need to be aware that they have a support system in their corner where they can express their feelings, and ask questions without fear of judgement or negative repercussions.

It’s also important that these chosen support systems remain flexible, as children’s responses to traumatic events will vary in intensity and recovery time. Remember, there is no one-size-fits-all response to recovery, no matter your age.

Students must also be reassured that they are safe, so as to combat any anxiety and nerves they may otherwise be dealing with. 

Maintain Routines and Boundaries

Children who have been through traumatic events often struggle when there aren’t specific rules and boundaries that they need to follow. Schools that are chaotic in nature—those that have loud hallways, messy or disruptive classrooms etc.—reproduce the stress that children may be bringing from home. As such, it’s important that rules should be the same school wide, so students know what to expect at all times.

When rules, routines, and boundaries are crossed, students should be met with understanding and patience, rather than hostility or punishment. Aim to find the core reason behind their disruptive behavior, and find ways to remedy that. 

Identify Triggers and Help Students to Work Through Them

Another important aspect of building resiliency in students is to teach students how to identify and work through their emotional triggers. Students should know what frustrates them, what stresses them out, and what makes them sad.

“Emotional trigger is, at root, a survival response,” sociologist and life coach Martha Beck explains. “Our brains create powerful associations between things that have hurt us, and whatever was going on when we got hurt. Once you’ve been hit by lightning, even though you know that the odds of it happening again are astronomically low, the touch of a single raindrop may send you running for cover.”

Providing students with a series of exercises where they are able to explore the specific situations that trigger them will allow them to work through their emotions in healthy ways in the future. It’s important for students to understand that triggers might explain their emotional response, but it should not excuse them. Instead, work on an action plan that students can turn to when they feel overwhelmed, and give them a safe space to work through their feelings. 

Introduce Mindfulness and Other Complementary Therapies

Several schools have had success introducing mindfulness, and other complementary therapies into their classrooms to help calm their students.

One inner city school recently introduced daily meditation sessions after lunch. Using an application called Headspace, students are guided in 10-minute relaxation sessions. Some students stretch out on the rug, and close their eyes, others pull hoods over their heads. Students who participate note that meditation helps to “quiet their mind,” and makes them feel calm. Plus, one student noted, “it’s fun.”

It’s not just mindfulness that can help students to work through these issues. School staff can also work with parents, guardians, and counselors to research alternative therapies. These can include holistic health practices, yoga, and other meditative activities, or the use of essential oils, or even additional counseling that might be able to help students calm themselves, and overcome their trauma.

As our society grows more aware of the ways that trauma affects learning and socialization, it’s apparent that teachers, administrators, and parents will have to become more sensitive, and more actively involved in helping them heal and work through their traumas.   

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