Being trauma-responsive

Being trauma-responsive

Last week, we hit a big milestone – two years since most schools shut down due to the Covid-19 virus. This anniversary had me thinking about the trauma that we have all been living through over the past two years. But I’ve also been thinking about the impact it has had on our students. We have now hit the point where school is starting to feel a lot more normal in terms of our day-to-day operations. At the same time, there is something different going on. I was thinking about the impact that the trauma of Covid-19 has had on our students in the past couple of years. I know that here in my school, we’ve been seeing behavioral trends different than anything that might have been considered “typical” for our students.

Let’s think about why that might be. In my K-4 school, the students we serve were somewhere between 3ish years old and second grade when things shut down in March of 2020. When I think about what happened to those students in the past couple of years there are several things that stand out to me. For the ones who were not yet school age, they probably missed out on opportunities to attend pre-school, summer camps, sports, and other activities outside of the home, among so many other potential events. Think about the amount of social interaction and peer-based learning that was missed! I don’t love the phrase learning loss for a multitude of reasons, but one of the things that I believe strongly about how humans learn is that it is done socially. This missed social interaction can help explain so much about behaviors occurring in kids currently. And many of our students who were already school-aged at the beginning of the Covid-19 reality also missed out on much. Along with activities outside of the school building, they may have lost connection to friends and trusted adults when school shut down. You could connect trauma to those lost connections.

Now I know, not all kids have been impacted in quite the same ways. When I walk into classrooms, there are certainly students who seem to be rather normally developed based on their age and grade level. But one of the things I understand about trauma is that the same event may be traumatic to one person, but not impact others in the same way. And another thing I understand about trauma is that those experiences change us. Trauma has an impact on our brain chemistry, it leads to bottom-up control in our brain.

I wanted to throw in a quick reminder about how the brain works here – the amygdala is the lowest part of the brain and is our alarm system, the hippocampus is the mid-brain and assists with learning and memory, and the prefrontal cortex is the front of the brain and manages thoughts, behaviors, and helps us control emotional responses. When the amygdala takes control of the brain, it causes most of the other parts of the brain to go offline.

If you want to know more about the impacts of trauma on the students in our schools, you might want to learn a little bit about the Adverse Childhood Experiences Survey (ACES) study. I’ve written about that in a two-part post titled “Childhood trauma.” You can see part 1 here, and part 2 here. In the ACES study, there is a 10-question survey, and each question that is answered yes equals 1 point. The higher the score for a person, the greater the correlation to a variety of negative health outcomes later in life, including alcoholism, drug abuse, depression, suicide, and even heart disease and lung cancer. In one study, students who had at least 3 ACES were 3 times as likely to experience academic failure, 5 times as likely to have attendance issues, and 6 times as likely to exhibit behavioral problems.

Last week I connected with a former colleague who now works with students in multiple school districts in the area. As we were talking, she shared that the behavioral trends I was seeing had become something of a universal experience in the schools that she serves. If we consider the experiences of the past two years, you could argue that the Covid-19 reality has created at least one ACE for all our students, and depending on other experiences, possibly more (we know that there are students who lost a close family member, that equals one ACE).

What helped pull all this thinking together was an article in the most recent edition of Principal, a publication from the National Association of Elementary School Principals. “Safe Signals for Preschoolers” is an excellent article on the role that trauma-supportive schools can play in creating an environment where students feel safe, cared for, and ready to learn. Based on that article, I wanted to share some tips that you might consider implementing in your classroom or setting. One thing to note: you might be thinking “But I don’t have any students with trauma in my class.” The data we have on ACES says that is probably false. In the initial ACES study, the participants were 75% white, 39% were college-educated, another 36% had college experience. We also know that most of them would be considered affluent because all the participants in the study had health insurance. ACES know no bounds and can impact students of various backgrounds. Odds are pretty good that you have students with one or several ACES sitting in your classroom right now that you don’t even know about. Implementing trauma-responsive strategies will benefit those students who have been through trauma that we aren’t aware of. In addition, trauma-responsive interventions are beneficial to all students, not just the ones we think need them.

First and foremost, to be ready to learn our students need to have a safe environment. The human brain is like a radar, constantly monitoring what’s going on around them, and for most of us, that just happens in the background. For students who have several ACES, their brains are dealing with higher levels of cortisol (the body’s stress hormone). This higher level of cortisol in the brain causes what’s sometimes referred to as toxic stress. This causes the brain to be stuck in survival mode or the lower portion of the brain. When stuck in the lower brain, a student’s brain cannot physiologically take in knowledge or problem-solve. Here are a couple things you might do to help a student feel safe in your classroom:

  1. Relationships: Students must sense that you can take care of them – to send signals of safety, think about things like your appearance, facial expressions, eye contact, etc. Often what we do through our nonverbal communication can help a student feel safe or unsafe, even more so than any of our verbal communication. And a child’s perception of this is what matters most. If they don’t perceive that you care, then they may not feel like they do have a meaningful relationship. Kids are pretty perceptive!
  2. Predictable schedule: Students feel safe when there is consistency, and the brain mistrusts uncertainty. Consider a visible schedule, and let students know in advance (when possible) of changes.
  3. Transitions: Whenever possible, try to minimize transitions. Each one feels like something of a loss for our students. When a transition is coming, give plenty of warning – let them know there are 5 minutes left, or a 1-minute warning to wrap up, or a count down.

A few years ago, we had a summertime training on Trauma-Informed Schools. Jim Sporleder, the former principal of an alternative high school in the state of Washington and now a consultant on training others on how to implement trauma-informed strategies in our schools, led the training. One of the things that I always recall about that training is that he challenged us to “Be the one…” Often for students of trauma, the best intervention is a solid relationship with a trusted and caring adult. The kids we struggle with most are often the ones who most need that relationship. They might push us away as a defense mechanism related to the traumas they have been through. We just have to keep trying to let them know, through our words, our actions, and our non-verbal communication, that we are there to support them, and that we care for them.

As I’ve worked in schools and implemented more trauma-informed strategies, one of the things we’ve had to also think about is how to respond to negative behavior. For our students who have lived through trauma, those cortisol levels in their brain often cause them to live in a constant state of “Fight – Flight – Freeze.” A self-protection strategy that they have developed is to act out, shut down, or sometimes simply run away. I don’t know about you, but I’ve seen an increase in students leaving class without permission, I’ve seen an increase in students who simply shut down in class, and I’ve seen some acting out towards peers, teachers, or others. Here are some strategies that you might implement to help create that trusting environment:

  • Modeling appropriate behaviors, then using guided or independent practice and repetition
  • Do-overs or reboots when things go wrong – a teacher can coach a student through a difficult situation and help them try again and be successful
  • Role plays, puppet practice, scripted stories, or behavioral rehearsals

Remember, behavior is a form of communication. Often students are telling us that they don’t have the words or skills to describe what they are feeling. Some people though, mistake trauma-responsive strategies as implying that consequences are not appropriate. This is not the case. There are times when students need to be held accountable for their actions. These accountability measures help students to learn that they are accountable for their actions, but at the same time, they will not necessarily change a child’s behavior. When our students feel a true relationship with their teacher or another trusting adult at school, they will have a stronger internal drive to please the people who care for them. Consequences may be a temporary measure to help other students feel safe or to help parents understand the severity of the behavior, but they will not change a child.

Ultimately, for healing to happen in our students who have been through trauma, we need to show them the everyday acts of kindness that we might want to see when going through struggles in our own lives. As I shared before, connections to invested adults are the best intervention to provide opportunities for healing for our students. Our students may not remember all the things we teach them, but they certainly will remember how we made them feel.