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Response: Schools Can't 'Wish Away' Challenges of Student Trauma

(This is the last post in a three-part series. You can see Part One here and Part Two here.)

The new "question-of-the-week" is:

How can educators best learn about--and respond to--trauma that students have experienced or are experiencing?


In Part One, Mary Ann Zehr, Dr. Jennifer Davis Bowman, Cindi Rigsbee, Kenneth Baum, David Krulwich, Judie Haynes, Dr. Debbie Zacarian, and Lourdes Alvarez-Ortiz, PhD contributed answers to this question. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Jennifer, Cindi and Marry Ann on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

In Part Two, Adeyemi Stembridge, Sarah Kirby-Gonzalez, Signe Whitson, Natalie Patterson, Josh Patterson shared their thoughts.

Today's post features commentaries from Susan E. Craig, Rhonda Neal Waltman, Patricia (Tish) Jennings, Eric Jensen, Joe Hendershott, and Kristin Souers, along with thoughts from readers.

Response From Susan E. Craig

Susan E. Craig, Ph.D. is a lifelong student of trauma's effects on children's learning. She is the author of Reaching and Teaching Children Who Hurt: Strategies for Your Classroom (2008) and Trauma-Sensitive Schools: Learning Communities Transforming Children's, K-5. Her new book Trauma-Sensitive Schools: Havens of Resiliency and Hope, 6-12 will be available in 2017:

Learning about the prevalence and effects of childhood trauma is a little like learning the existence and effects of global warming. The science is there but it so threatening to traditional beliefs about children's learning and behavior that many educators find it difficult to accept. The fact that four in ten children are maltreated, as well as the documentation that these experiences alter children's neural development, are shocking. Yet this is the reality teachers and school administrators must address if they intend to meet the instructional needs of the children enrolled in their schools.

Maintaining an unflinching awareness of the prevalence of childhood trauma is the first step in learning how to respond in a trauma-sensitive manner. This allows teachers and administrators to approach challenging behaviors from a stance that is more interested in understanding what's happened to a child to cause his behavior, than judging it as willful or defiant.

Professional development that focuses on the effects of trauma on neural development and learning is nonnegotiable. It can take a variety of forms: formal training by professionals knowledgeable this area, professional learning communities studying books such as Trauma-Sensitive Schools: Learning Communities Transforming Children's Lives; or accessing information through social media.

Responding to students with trauma histories is most successful when teachers understand the dynamic of reenactment, know how to manage the "double struggle", and can move beyond contingency reinforcement to embrace more holistic behavior management strategies.

Reenactment is a largely unconscious process that is activated when children with trauma histories either lash out at teachers in an effort to engage them as the persecutors in past traumatic experiences, or place them in the untenable position of rescuing them from a past that has already happened and can't be changed.

Reenactment behaviors occur when teacher efforts at student engagement inadvertently trigger traumatic memories. Physical proximity, criticism, or unfair consequences unleash extreme student reactions. Their intensity can easily pull teachers into repetitive interactions with children that are reenactments of past traumas rather than responses to events happening in the present.   When teachers know how to manage the "double struggle" of controlling their own reaction to an outburst while de-escalating the child's behavior, they help children break the reenactment cycle. They come back to the present and are able to accept the teacher's efforts at collaboration and support.

The intense reactions that characterize the behavior of children with trauma histories are seldom volitional or within their power to control. Rather, they are triggered by unnamed memories that cause the brain's attention to downshift to a survival mode. The fear that accompanies the "fight, flight, or freeze" response of the lower brain is incapable of reasoning. Efforts to reign in the behaviors through contingency reinforcement are ineffective in the face of such a visceral response to the experience of terror. Instead, regaining control requires helping children achieve a tolerable level stress level. Holistic strategies such as yoga, deep breathing, chanting, drumming or rocking are effective in doing this.  Once children calm down, they are able to collaborate with trusting adults about any harm that may have been caused by their behavior and make the necessary amends.

Managing the behavior of traumatized children requires a high degree of compassion, self-discipline, and a trauma-sensitive skill set.  But the skills can be taught, and the issues addressed in a manner that benefits both staff and students. But only when schools accept the enormity of the problems facing children rather than wishing them away.

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Response From Rhonda Neal Waltman

Dr. Rhonda Neal Waltman has more than 30 years of experience, having served as a teacher, counselor, principal and assistant superintendent. As an elementary school principal in Mobile, AL, Rhonda led a five-year turnaround resulting in National Distinguished Blue Ribbon School status and as former Assistant Superintendent of Student Support Services, she led development of a nationally-recognized program for providing learning support services to displaced students following Hurricane Katrina. Today, Rhonda is Senior Director of Consultancy Services - Learning Supports for Scholastic Education:

Knowing a child in your school is being or has been affected by trauma can sometimes be obvious and at other times, more subtle. A child may have witnessed devastating events, may be living in poverty, may have unaddressed medical or emotional issues, or other challenging circumstances. Understanding this part of your students' personal journeys is critical because regardless of origin, traumatic events in a child's life can create barriers to learning that also impact behavior and relationships at school. 

More often than not, educators find themselves discovering a child's trauma after a discipline referral or academic failure because the process in place is reactive rather than proactive. The most effective strategy does not employ a student-by-student approach implemented by one teacher. What is needed is a systemic layer of supports specific to a school's or district's needs including preventative practices, timely interventions and immediate response at the first sign of symptoms. This is attained through mapping available resources and analyzing data to show how well needs are being met. Are counseling and medical services readily accessible? Is additional academic support available in such a way that it isn't perceived as a failure to seek it out?  Are students able to attend school consistently? Do students know who they can ask for help confidentially?

If we believe that our students and teachers deserve this systemic approach to addressing trauma, then it is incumbent on us to put the infrastructure in place that responds to the needs of students in academic or emotional crisis. Based on research from UCLA's Center for Mental Health in School led by Dr. Howard Adelman and Dr. Linda Taylor, the learning supports framework provides six practice areas where schools can organize and deploy resources in a comprehensive, integrated manner:  classroom-based approaches; student and family interventions; transitions; crisis intervention; community collaboration; and family engagement. This approach ensures the response is not limited to the teacher's support; rather, there is a broader, more robust plan for addressing the barriers to learning associated with trauma. 

The Alabama State Department of Education has adopted this systemic change approach in 75 school districts. This effort is large in scope, and in many cases, schools started with the simple idea that to learn, the 700,000+ students first needed to be present in classrooms. In the 2011-12 school year, Alabama recorded more than 1,900,000 unexcused absences. Scholastic started to work with the state to organize, identify sources and systematically approach reducing absences as a top priority. Leadership analyzed transportation, schedules, and yes, trauma among students that prevented attendance. In the first year with ten districts, 78 schools saved 110,000 days of absences, and each district saw an average of 25% decrease in student absences.

As Athens, AL, mapped out its resources, district leaders also realized a number of students in need of counseling services were not receiving them because travel off school campus was prohibitive. The district reached out to community partners and today, provides at-risk counseling services on campus. The effort continues to be increasingly preventative as the district redefines what it means to support students in crisis including a program that ensures every student has a personal relationship with an adult who is well-versed in available resources.

Every day, educators help individual children who face unfathomable stress before they walk through the classroom door.  To support both the child and the educator, schools must move away from reactive approaches. A whole-school, proactive approach for all children ensures early interventions are in place, teachers know they'll be supported, and students will be ready to learn.

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Response From Patricia (Tish) Jennings

Patricia (Tish) Jennings, MEd, PhD is an Associate Professor of Education at the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia. Dr. Jennings is leading the development of the Compassionate Schools Project curriculum, an integrated health education program designed to align with state and national health and physical education standards. She is Co-Principal Investigator on a large randomized controlled trial being conducted in Louisville, KY to evaluate the curriculum's efficacy. Earlier in her career, Dr. Jennings spent over 22 years as a Montessori teacher, school director and teacher educator. She is the author of Mindfulness for Teachers: Simple Skills for Peace and Productivity in the Classroom part of the Norton Series on the Social Neuroscience of Education:

Today over 50% of our public school students are living in poverty and therefore likely to be exposed to trauma, adversity and chronic stress. Furthermore, students at all socio-economic levels are reporting high levels of stress, anxiety and depression. Privacy laws limit teachers' access to sensitive information, so it's difficult to know which students have been exposed to trauma, unless the students or their parents tell us. With this reality in mind, it makes sense to assume that all our students are experiencing a variety of stressors and to consider applying trauma-informed approaches universally. This involves learning about what trauma, adversity and chronic stress does to the body and brain and how this impacts students' learning and behavior. The more we understand the stress response, the more we can respond mindfully and respectfully to their behavior in ways that can help them feel secure and safe to take the risks involved in learning.

When we experience a threat, either real or imagined, either physical or psychological, our bodies respond with a flood of hormones and neurotransmitters that prepare us to fight or flee from the threat. Our attention narrows to zoom in on the sources of the perceived threat, setting the stage for a mind that has difficult learning. When we feel threatened, it's difficult to attend to anything other than the source of threat. We now know that exposure to situations that trigger emotional reactivity during development, changes the way our brain and body respond to future stressors. It's like a thermostat that's been turned up too high. This can result in hypervigilance--being constantly on the lookout for threats so we can protect ourselves. You can imagine how hard it is to focus on a task such as math or reading when you feel threatened. The key is to help kids begin to feel safe in the school environment so they can let down their guard and open their minds to learning. We can do this by letting them know that we recognize and acknowledge their need for safety and security, and by building an emotionally supportive classroom climate.

There is evidence that suggests that regular mindful awareness practice changes how our body and brain respond to stress, possibly strengthening connections in the prefrontal cortex and reducing reactivity in our limbic system, supporting self-reflection and self-regulation. Helping students learn to calm their bodies and minds through the use of developmentally appropriate mindful awareness practices skillfully integrated into the curriculum may play a key role in helping students recover from chronic stress and trauma. Mindfulness can also help us as teachers to manage our own reactivity so we can recognize the needs our students are communicating to us and to respond with understanding and compassion. A randomized controlled trial of a mindfulness-based professional development program called CARE (Cultivating Awareness and Resilience in Education) showed that this approach significantly reduced teachers' distress and time-related stress, and increased mindfulness and adaptive emotion regulation. The program also had significant positive impacts on observed dimensions of the classroom interactions. The interactions between the teachers and their students were more emotionally supportive (Jennings et al., 2016).

 

Jennings, P. A., Brown, J. L., Frank, J. L., Doyle, S., Oh, Y., Tanler, R., Rasheed, D., DeWeese, A., DeMauro, A. A. & Greenberg, M. T. (2016, April). Enhancing teachers' wellbeing and classroom quality: Results from a randomized controlled trial of CARE. In P. Jennings (Chair). Examining Implementation, Process, and Outcomes of CARE for Teachers, a Mindfulness-based Intervention. Symposium presented at the American Education Research Association Annual Conference, Washington D. C.

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Response From Eric Jensen

Eric Jensen is a former teacher with a real love of learning, who is deeply committed to making a positive, lasting difference in the way we learn. Jensen's best-selling books include Teaching with Poverty in Mind: What Being Poor Does to Kids' Brains and What Schools Can Do About It (ASCD, 2009) and Engaging Students with Poverty in Mind: Practical Strategies for Raising Achievement (ASCD, 2013). Learn more about Eric at www.jensenlearning.com.

These Action Steps are excerpted from Teaching with Poverty in Mind: What Being Poor Does to Kids' Brains and What Schools Can Do About It:

Recognize the signs. Behavior that comes off as apathetic or rude may actually indicate feelings of hopelessness or despair. It is crucial for teachers to recognize the signs of chronic stress in students. Students who are at risk for a stress-related disorder tend to

  • Believe that they have minimal control over stressors.
  • Have no idea how long the stressors will last, or how intense they will remain.
  • Have few outlets through which they can release the frustration caused by the stressors.
  • Interpret stressors as evidence of circumstances worsening or becoming more hopeless.
  • Lack social support for the duress caused by the stressors.

Share with other staff members why it's so important to avoid criticizing student impulsivity and "me first" behaviors. Whenever you and your colleagues witness a behavior you consider inappropriate, ask yourselves whether the discipline process is positive and therefore increases the chances for better future behavior, or whether it's punitive and therefore reduces the chances for better future behavior.

Alter the environment. Change the school environment to mitigate stress and resolve potential compliance issues with students who do not want to change:

  • Reduce the parallels with prison. For example, consider eliminating bells and instead playing songs for class transitions.
  • Reduce homework stress by incorporating time for homework in class or right after class.
  • Use cooperative structures; avoid a top-down authoritarian approach.
  • Help students blow off steam by incorporating celebrations, role-plays, and physical activities (e.g., walks, relays, or games) into your classes.
  • Incorporate kinesthetic arts (e.g., drama or charades), creative projects (e.g., drawing or playing instruments), and hands-on activities (e.g., building or fixing) into your classes.

Empower students. Help students increase their perception of control over their environment by showing them how to better manage their own stress levels. Instead of telling students to act differently, take the time to teach them how to act differently by

  • Introducing conflict resolution skills. For example, teach students a multistep process for handling upsets, starting with step 1: "Take a deep breath and count to five."
  • Teaching students how to deal with anger and frustration (e.g., counting to 10 and taking slow, deep breaths).
  • Introducing responsibilities and the value of giving restitution. In schools that embrace restitution, students understand that if they disrupt class, they need to "make it right" by doing something positive for the class. For example, a student who throws objects in the classroom may be assigned a cleaning or beautification project for the room.
  • Teaching students to set goals to focus on what they want.
  • Role-modeling how to solve real-world problems. Share an actual or hypothetical situation, such as your car running out of gas. You could explain that you tried to stretch the tank of gas too far and reveal how you dealt with the problem (e.g., calling a friend to bring some gas). Such examples show students how to take responsibility for and resolve the challenges they face in life.
  • Giving students a weekly life problem to solve collectively.
  • Teaching social skills. For example, before each social interaction (e.g., pair-share or buddy teaching), ask students to make eye contact, shake hands, and give a greeting. At the end of each interaction, have students thank their partners.
  • Introducing stress reduction techniques, both physical (e.g., dance or yoga) and mental (e.g., guided periods of relaxation or meditation).

Source: From Teaching with Poverty in Mind: What Being Poor Does to Kids' Brains and What Schools Can Do About It, by Eric Jensen, Alexandria, VA: ASCD. © 2009 by ASCD. All rights reserved.

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Response From Joe Hendershott

Joe Hendershott, Ed.D., is a speaker on the effects of trauma and working with wounded children.  As founder/president of Hope 4 The Wounded, LLC (www.hope4thewounded.org), he also provides staff development training and has authored two books:  Reaching The Wounded Student and 7 Ways to Transform the Lives of Wounded Students, published by the Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group.  Joe has over twenty years of experience as a teacher and school administrator in various traditional, alternative, residential treatment, and correctional educational settings and holds a doctorate in leadership studies and a masters in school administration:

The first thing educators can do is make the delineation between an at-risk student and a student who is dealing with trauma.  I reference students dealing with trauma as being "wounded".  Wound is actually derived from the Greek word for trauma, and for the purposes of this article, I will interchange the two.  Learning about trauma has become a necessity for every educator, and I suggest that professional development offerings geared to emotional literacy are of the utmost importance.

While we may never fully understand the effects of trauma in each individual child, it is imperative that we recognize its existence and have interventions in place.  At-risk programs are wonderful preventative measures for children identified as such, but a child dealing with trauma has already been wounded, so the interventions need to be responsive versus preventative. By understanding that the effects of trauma can play out in poor behaviors and lack of a positive identity formation, we can offer a more empathic response that begins the bridge to a relationship. In my book 7 Ways to Transform the Lives of Wounded Children, I use the following model as a guide for working with wounded children:

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The key behind this model is that it is not designed to fix or control children; it is designed to cultivate safe, healthy relationships with wounded children that can bring a transformative level of healing into their lives.  We cannot guarantee a child's success; however, by following this model, we can position wounded children toward more opportunities for social, emotional, and academic successes.  The way to implement this model into your school is to gear it towards the unique culture that you have in your classroom and/or building--Be creative!  Creating a sense of community where everyone feels they play an important part, seeking restorative justice as an alternative discipline approach, developing an effective peer process, and/or providing students opportunities to experience empathy or compassion from or for their classmates or others in the community are just a few ways to assist wounded children in discovering a sense of themselves and more importantly, a sense of identity beyond their trauma, which brings hope.

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Response From Kristin Souers

Kristin Souers is an assistant director at Washington State University's Child and Family Research Unit (CAFRU) in the CLEAR Trauma Center, and serves as an adjunct faculty member for the Masters of Counseling Psychology Program at Gonzaga University. Souers is co-author of Fostering Resilient Learners: Strategies for Creating a Trauma-Sensitive Classroom (ASCD, 2016), along with Pete Hall:

The following scenario and strategies are adapted from the author's book, Fostering Resilient Learners: Strategies for Creating a Trauma-Sensitive Classroom.

The Julie Scenario

Julie, a 6th grader at the Neighborhood School, is creating quite a ruckus in her 3rd period math class today. She came into the room scowling and has refused to take any notes or even open her book, and the teacher's requests for her attention and eye contact are met only with deeper scowls. Julie has typically been disenchanted with math, and lately her behavior has been especially negative and uncooperative. As Julie's teacher, what do you do?

How It Looks in the Classroom

Julie is a fictitious student, although she probably sounds awfully familiar to most of us. Our classrooms seem to be flooded with student behaviors like Julie's that detract from learning. Students respond to their difficult life situations in a variety of ways, often in the classic

survival mode: by withdrawing (flight), acting out (fight), or going numb (freeze). Keep in mind that every student manages his or her own stress response differently, depending on personal history, genetic makeup, and life experiences. In Julie's case it appears as if she may be resisting her own learning and distracting the learning of others.

We have all encountered students in these states. Such responses can derail us from our mission of teaching and transform a classroom atmosphere in seconds. Unruly students, chaotic classrooms, and escalated and disruptive behaviors are not conducive to learning, to put it mildly. When students are in survival mode, the learning environment can suffer tremendously. To quote my friend and colleague Natalie Turner, "Stressed brains can't teach, and stressed brains can't learn." So, we need to increase our awareness of this stress response and be on the lookout for it in our classrooms and other school settings. The sooner we can attune to the motives behind students' behavior and help them identify what it is they really need, the better we'll be able to work with them to identify new ways of coping that are less disruptive to the learning environment and that promote health and learning.

How We Typically Respond to the "Julies"

We frequently get into power struggles with students like Julie, demanding their immediate response to our instructions--or else. Perhaps we should instead ask, "Is this willful disobedience, or could it be a response to a traumatic life event that Julie is struggling with?"

Let's add to this scenario and begin to take it to an even deeper level. We all can agree (or at least I hope so) that Julie is sending us the message that she is "not ok." So many of our students impacted by toxic stress and trauma exposure have learned to share with us in not always the healthiest of ways that they are in fact, "not ok." AND...as a result of the "not ok" their learning capacity is affected.

What if we start to look at this scenario and Julie's situation in a deeper way? Keep in mind that behavior is always the expression of a need. How students show us this need is not always effective as many of us get lost in how they show us what is wrong versus why they are showing us. Our students, and fellow colleagues, are doing the best we can with what we know. And, if the ultimate goal is to shift the behavior, we must look at the need being asked to be met.

First and foremost, is the need that Julie has a physical one or an emotional one? If we were to look at Julie via a trauma sensitive lens, what is it she might be needing at this moment? Clearly she is letting us know that she is "not ok." Her choices are disruptive both to her learning and the learning of her classmates. Let's start to view this need in three potential ways. We can usually begin to identify need via three pathways or lens. Ultimately, our students and colleagues want to be in a regulated state. They utilize these behaviors to help them to achieve that.

Relational:

Is Julie's choice for acting out the result of needing attention? Needing a connection to another human being/ Or just plainly the need to be recognized and acknowledged?

Responsibility:

Is math such a trigger for Julie that without a defined role or expectation, she immediately disrupts the learning of herself and others in order to achieve the regulated state?

Regulatory:

Is Julie someone who struggles with being in her upstairs brain? Is her downstairs brain typically what drives her bus and she has not yet developed the skill set to effectively regulate her body into a learning ready state? Does she need some sort of regulation opportunity to help her "re-set" and get back on track and ready to learn? Is this regulatory need the result of something physical? Could it be that she is hungry or tired? Is there a possible alternative reason in that her brain just struggles overall with healthy regulation and she is in need of our support to help her learn the tools and skill set to be able to do this in healthy and effective ways?

The answer to these questions will depend on your own skill set, your capacity to truly attune to your students' needs and, at times, trial and error to see what it really is in the moment the need is being asked to be met. Keep in mind that patience may be necessary here. While we all want the quick answer and the quick fix to problems, humans are complicated and we sometimes need time to figure one another out.

Ideally you take your knowledge of your student, your current relationship with your student and combine those to determine the best intervention to help him/her get back to a regulated and learning ready state.

Good news! These are some possible interventions to consider based on your answer.

Relational:

"HI Julie. I sure have been noticing that you seem to be struggling with 3rd period lately. I am worried about you. It is so hard to see you so upset and I can imagine that learning is pretty difficult when you are feeling this way. Would you like to come and sit next to me today while we go over the lesson? I am more than happy to give you some extra support because I care about you and I want you to be successful in math. If you don't want to be by me, is there a friend in the class who would be helpful to your learning? Would you like to sit next to him/her for a bit to help you get back on track today? Julie the main thing is I think you are wonderful and capable and I want you to be successful in my class. Maybe we can find some extra time this week to see what we can come up with in terms of ideas that will help you best."

Responsibility:

"HI Julie! I am so glad you are here today. I have been thinking a lot about you lately and have noticed that third period has been a bit difficult for you. You seem so frustrated and I am sorry to see that. I want school to be a safe and successful place for you. You know Julie, I could really use your help in third period. I am wondering if you would be willing to help me out with a task or two when you come to my class? I need someone who would be willing to .... sort/file/keep track of/ support...this for me (fill in the blank with what works for you and with what would work with her skill set...could be sorting manipulatives...keeping track of time or answers...scouting the room for positives in others) Do you think you could help with out with that?"

Regulation:

"HI Julie, it seems to me like you are in your downstairs brain a lot in third period. That must be so hard to come to class and not be able to focus the way that you would like to. I am not sure if it is math that is causing this or the time of day. Do you have any ideas? Let's see if we can find a tool that will help you to get back upstairs." Ideas could include the following:

  • A new seat in the classroom that meets her vision and regulation needs
  • A healthy snack--is she just plain hungry
  • A regulation tool such as a stress ball; worry stone; exercise ball; stretch band
  • A transition break--she just needs a few minutes at the start of class to adjust to being in a new classroom and subject matter--she can take 5 minutes to help herself to "re-set" as long as it is a healthy choice and the expectation is to return to the learning ready state.
  • A bathroom visit
  • A safe break to help her regulate

The ultimate goal we have for Julie is to return to a learning-ready state and to be successful as a team member in math.

Keep in mind the importance of your own regulation and need for support. Students can be both challenging and difficult. We need to be mindful of our own triggers and how we can be "de-railed" by the behaviors of our students. Please don't be afraid to ask for help or to seek out a trust colleague for support. You are not alone in this work!

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Responses From Readers

Bret Gosselin:

Understanding the trauma a student faces and responding in accordingly isn't just best practices, it's being a good person. So many teachers see the behavior as face value and label a child as bad and continue the cycle of failure for that student.

 

Thanks to Susan, Rhonda, Patricia, Eric, Joe and Kristin, and from readers, for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment  with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at [email protected].When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it's selected or if you'd prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

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