The 3rd grader whose mother has lost her job and has them sleeping in the car.
The kindergartener whose father is incarcerated and not home to tuck him in at night.
The high school freshman whose uncle touched her inappropriately when he kept them so mommy could work.
The spunky, maybe too spunky, tween who isn't afraid to challenge authority because she's fought bigger battles getting to school than we could ever imagine.
Trauma impacts children all across the country. Their hidden scars and painful memories dulling their their bright futures as they struggle to stay in class and progress academically and socially.
Over the past few years, I've watched the educational community begin a conversation about how these hurt children require different tools, more support and a community that understands their needs. With my background in child welfare I knew this was long overdue. I'm happy to be helping schools learn about how trauma impacts the brain and the best way to address what appears to be a growing need.
Depending on your location, as many as 25% or more of your students have experienced a traumatic or adverse childhood experience. Many of the schools I consult with, with free and reduced lunch rates near 100%, would call this statistic overly conservative. Taking into consideration the stress of poverty and associated experiences, in some cases students who have experienced trauma are the norm and not the exception. In my home state of Indiana, we've been attacked by both an increase of financial strain particularly in rural communities and the Opiod crisis which has overwhelmed the social service community and foster care system.
Schools are now becoming more aware than ever that being trauma-informed is a necessity. But with so much talk about negative experiences and children's needs, where can you begin? Here are 5 things EVERY educator needs to know about trauma and some next steps you can take to begin helping your students today.
Trauma can affect learning day to day and school success long term. If you've done any learning about trauma at all this is a given, but if you're new to the world of trauma, this is the first thing you need to know. Because of the biological and emotional changes that occur, children can have difficulty daily and those challenges have a cumulative effect on their long term success. This means that you need immediate solutions for things like classroom disruption and emotional dysregulation but you also need transition tools.
Trauma is an individual, subjective view of damaging events. Yes, we know that some things almost always have a traumatic impact, such as death or abuse. But trauma is in the eye of the beholder. It's the direct effect of an individual's ability to cope being overwhelmed by circumstances. Children from the same home can both experience the same situation and be effected in different ways. This is why protective factors are so critical. Increasing protective factors, like social support and coping skills for all children is so important. Social and emotional learning is not an add on just for certain kids, it's essential for all kids.
Childhood trauma is often experienced across generations. The students who are struggling in your classroom may have parents and grandparents who also struggle. Whether they have lasting impact from generations of traumatic experiences or they are struggling daily for financial and physical survival, there's a good chance that your perfectly laid plans for the classroom don't make it to the top of their priority list. For this reason, supporting the whole family is essential. In my book, Authentically Engaged Families, I give schools strategies for reaching not just the parents who always show up, but those who don't easily return phone calls too.
Children probably don't know their triggers. One of the ways trauma can impact students is when they are reminded of previously dangerous events and they are emotionally transported to a time when they were unsafe. This is called being triggered. In these moments, they may exhibit the fight, flight, freeze response that you may be familiar with. This can seem random to you and then because often they don't know the trigger, they just feel it. I've personally seen people experience being triggered by sights, sounds or even smells. You can help them by reflecting what you see and helping them to feel safe again.
Secondary trauma is real. According to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, the 10 Million children who experience traumatic events each year exhibit behaviors that impact the teachers, youth care workers and professionals who serve them. The emotional disruption that is experienced in the individual who hears about or observes these tragedies is called secondary trauma. This occupational hazard can cause a variety of symptoms from staff members being triggered themselves to experiencing compassion fatigue as they burn out from caring so much. Not only is self-care essential, but informed supervision and mentoring can help prevent and mitigate these challenges. Going it alone is not an option, we must support each other as we support the children.
Surviving trauma gives us strength. I promised 5 facts, so let's call this a bonus. Some who teach about trauma fail to recognize that kids who have experienced, and survived, childhood trauma are often stronger and more resilient than their peers. Building upon these strengths is an incredible way of helping children thrive and achieve success long term. Once I had a student who drove his teachers crazy breaking the rules about sharing food in the cafeteria. His version of sharing included an exchange of cash and ended up with him making money each lunch period. This entrepreneurial spirit may have come from a lack of discretionary funds in his home, but it taught him to use what he had to get what he needed.
That is a strength.
If you are the teacher who can see a strength where others have only seen weakness, not only will you build relationships but you will also help your students move from the learned helplessness that cripples some who have experienced trauma to the survivor mentality that will take them on to achieve future goals.