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Student Trauma Is Real. But Connection Can Heal.

By Gary G. Abud, Jr.

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Connection is a powerful human experience, and it can help to reverse the impact of childhood trauma.


Can...can you...can you hear me now?

As humans, we are hard-wired for connection with each other. When we face challenging life situations, we often seek out and lean on others. Relationships are our human cell phone signals. In The Power of the Other, Dr. Henry Cloud compares our strong desire to develop meaningful relationships to how a cell phone constantly seeks connection in order to function.

Like a phone after powering up, people begin to seek connection as soon as they enter the world, and they never stop.

There are many factors that can interfere with connectivity; and if our signal gets disrupted, we relocate until a good connection can be restored. When we establish a strong connection with others, we want to maintain it, but we don't always have a 4G LTE network of relationships. Just as dead zones can disrupt cell signals, there are myriad factors, including trauma, that can disrupt our personal connections with others and limit our functioning.

The Reality of Trauma

Traumatic events, such as war, death, or violence can have a serious influence on one's health, stress, and anxiety; for kids, this is especially true, as they lack the social and emotional skills to deal with the impact of trauma. Trauma can even cause physical pain, including when a traumatic event is non-physical. In recent years, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention has helped to expand what qualifies as trauma to include more social and emotional events, such as poverty, divorce, and food insecurity.

When kids are exposed to Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) like abuse, neglect, or household dysfunction earlier in life, there is a larger risk for negative impacts on learning, health, and wellbeing in later years. That is because both emotional and social pain as well as physical pain are neurological.  

Pain is more than a metaphor, as UCLA Neuroscientist Matthew Lieberman found in his research. Social separation in infants causes pain and triggers a physical response. Acetaminophen has been shown to alleviate the pain of a broken heart just like it can ameliorate back pain. Years after a traumatic event, one is more likely to remember the pain associated with a lost loved one than the pain of a broken arm. And, like Cloud, Liberman also acknowledges that connection with others is among our greatest human needs.  

Trauma, ACEs, Empathy, and Learning 

ACEs have more than an emotional impact on children, they change the brain, affecting memory, cognition, and learning capacity. Some children born during the Great Recession have been found to have deficiencies in nutrients that are key to cognitive development and mental healthsuch as folate, choline, and omega-3 fatty acids—as a result of poverty, food insecurity, and parents' inability to purchase costlier whole foods. Stanford psychologist Hilit Kletter points out that this might lead kids to act out, exhibit big emotions, or struggle with impulsivity in school, which gets them in trouble or is mistaken for ADHD.  

For many who experienced financial struggles and other ACEs in the past decade, there was a high level of shame. The shame associated with social and emotional pain breaks down connection with others and isolates us from each other. Brene Brown's model of interpersonal connection spans a continuum, ranging from empathy (most connected) to shame (least connected). According to her shame-resilience curriculum, vulnerability is the key to helping us connect, which in turn yields empathy, and can overcome the destructive impact of shameSo understanding and empathy from a caring adult can help contextualize symptoms of trauma as maladaptive behaviors, not misconduct.  

In order for students to be receptive to new learning, there needs to be a supportive ecosystem around social and emotional development in schools, which includes awareness among educators, a trauma-informed MTSS, and a school-wide social emotional learning curriculum taught by teachers, like the Second Step Program. Researcher Chuck Saufler explains that this type of network of structure and support to kids, founded on authentic, trusting connections, changes the brain in a positive way. It decreases the stress response in the body, removing cognitive inhibitors, and creates a climate of relaxed alertness in the brain, leading to better learning.  

Students who have strong connections in school perform better, because relationships are central to learning and development, since they create a sense of doing school with, rather than doing school to, kids. That's why forming strong connections with students between educators and the classroom environment, is crucial. This yields relational literacy among students, too, and it all begins with adults who develop understanding and empathy for the students in the context of trauma.  

Connection Is the First Step

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During a time when many students have experienced some form of trauma, even a single nurturing personal connection can work to reverse the negative aspects of trauma for a child. According to a recent report by the National Network of State Teachers of the Year, this is because that personal connection engenders in students a sense of belonging at school, especially students in poverty. Moreover, the report notes that teachers play a key role in fostering social and emotional competencies and skills in students through strong positive relationships.  

In Poor Students, Rich Teaching, Eric Jensen describes the belief of teachers in their own ability to bring about powerful change in the classroom and overcome the impact of poverty on students as the "Relational Mindset." He cites that relationships, in particular for students from unstable homes, influence classroom engagement, allow low-income students to perform equal to higher-income peers, and can help build resilience to protect students from the effects of early-life trauma.  

A Relational Mindset requires teachers to adopt a more psychological perspective on student behavior, says Jensen, but that mindset shift can start with changing our words and beliefs, according to the Continua GroupOur personal beliefs and values inform our thoughts, words, and actions. So to adopt a belief that behavior skills (including social-emotional ones) are as important to academic success as reading and math, we should adjust our language around student behavior from an "I can't believe the student did this!" view to "why did the student do this?"  

This will lead us to build relationships, maintain them, and work to repair them when connections are disrupted, eventually a relational mindset will help students develop relational literacy themselves. And this would have an impact on how we build our Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS) and Response to Intervention (RTI) systems to not only help some students, but to support all students. To make sure every kid succeeds, RTI expert Mike Mattos says we must treat behavior like we do reading and math. Just as we don't punish kids for struggling to read—and instead give them the targeted reading support they deserve—we should not just punish students for struggling with social, emotional, or behavioral skills. From a trauma-informed perspective, we should realize kids need interventions, coaching, and support to develop social-emotional skills, not punitive measures.  

Because teachers play an important role in students' social-emotional skill development through relationships, one way they can work to enhance those connections in the classroom is by building on the ways children learn from each other in a social context. Teachers can make sure there are ample opportunities for student-to-student discussion, collaboration, and feedback in the learning environment within students zones of proximal development. Better communication will yield stronger relationships and better connections, working to undo the harmful effects of trauma. 

chain-2364831_1280.jpgRestorative Practices

Restorative Practices are flexible and responsive approaches to establishing, developing, and restoring relationships that enable people to develop a shared sense of community in an increasingly disconnected world. Restorative Practices empower students to resolve conflicts on their own and in small groups, and it's a growing approach around the country to building community and addressing student behavior issues in schools.  

One way to better test scores and less discipline problems in schools is to adopt restorative practices. And what educators wouldn't want that, especially when approximately 5% of students represent 50% of all disruptive behaviors in schools? In classrooms or schools, the intent is to first make relationships with studentsthen maintain them, and (when things go wrong) repair the harm to those relationships. This happens through one-on-one, small, and large group interactions, bringing students together with adults to dialogue and discuss issues or questions with one another.  

Restorative Practices have three main goals:  

  1. Developing competency to increase the pro-social skills of students, help them realize when they have harmed others, and address underlying factors that lead youth to engage in maladaptive behaviors. 

  1. Ensuring safety by directing students to recognize the need to keep the school community safe through strategies that build relationships and empower them to take responsibility for the well-being of one another. 

  1. Sharing accountability through providing opportunities for wrongdoers to be accountable to those they have harmed, and enabling them to repair the harm they caused to the extent possible, not just serving a punishment for the offense, which often leaves the victim out of it. 

According to the International Institute for Restorative Practices (IIRP), a fundamental tenet of the Restorative Practices philosophy for schools is that students are happier, more cooperative, and more successful when educators do things with them, rather than to them or for them. Restorative Practices revolves around safety of all, meeting the needs of each individual, and focusing on the harm done to others through words and actions.  

Brain research on stress, motivation, learning, and memory supports the use of restorative practices in schools. These practices have the aim of fostering strong connections between students and others in schools, and then using that as the basis for addressing issues that come up in the school setting. It is not a single strategy, set of talk moves, or group of activities; it is a philosophy of interpersonal connection between students and adults in schools that can support social-emotional development in students and learning in schools. 

Implementing Restorative Practices at your school requires training and coaching of staff and students, progress monitoring of the practices themselves and student interactions, and debriefing about the implementation process along the way. But because Restorative Practices emphasize the values of empathy, respect, honesty, acceptance, responsibility, and accountability, it is especially promising as a schoolwide means of supporting students social-emotional learning in a trauma-informed way.  

It provides ways to effectively address behavior and other school issues, offers a supportive environment that can improve learning, and ensures student wellbeing by allowing for the reparation of harm. Restorative Practices are not about enforcing rules; the focus is on repairing harm done to others, fulfilling a need not met, and ensuring the safety of all. They can be incorporated into MTSS or a Positive Behavior Intervention and Supports (PBIS) system.  

At their core, Restorative Practices require the formation of strong connections and the building of relationships. From there, harm to relationships can be repaired and connection can be restored. Because of our strong desire to connect with others, as people we do not typically want to harm those with whom we have a relationship.  

Changes of behavior do not come from a punishment anyway, they come from a change of heart. That happens when three factors are present in addressing behavior: the impact of one's actions on others are made known, the possibilities of alternate actions are shown, and the opportunity to repair the harm done is given. After all, you cannot restore a relationship with, or repair harm to, someone with whom you have no relationship in the first place.  

And in a school, with kids and adults who are longing to connect with others against a backdrop of trauma, our hearts' desire should not be for punishment, it should be for for the connective power of empathy, teaching, and forgiveness. Forgiveness doesn't excuse behavior; forgiveness prevents behavior from stepping on your heart.  

Through the healing power of connection, and by installing restorative practices at a school or in a classroom, educators have the potential to positively influence school climate and strengthen social connections between students and staff. Restorative Practices can enhance the climate of a classroom and school much better than extrinsic rewards or threats of punishment ever could, because they empower students.  

This philosophy and pedagogy meets the vital need to help students develop social-emotional skills, support interpersonal relationships, and be non-confrontational with even the most challenging students. In the end, Restorative Practices prioritize relationship building and mutual understanding over finger-pointing and retribution. With the primary 'rule' being "do no harm," Restorative Practices becomes a tool to fight against the negative impact of poverty and the harmful effects of trauma. Through the power of connection, it teaches students how to become the people we want them to be, and does not just expect them to do so on their own.  

Seven Ways to Make & Maintain Connections 

For any educator to connect with their students is a given, but it isn't always easy to do, especially once the school year gets busy. But because it is so crucially important to build connections with kids, even those not in your classroom, the work must be made a priority.  

Here are seven activities that can be used with students or adults in the classroom or school setting. These can help to make connections, but also maintain them as well. This is especially important for the use of Restorative Practices later on to repair relationships. But it should not just be about the connections with kids. Remember that building connection and community with the adults in the building is key too, as it will set the tone for doing the same with students. Many of these activities are great ways to get the school year started, too: 

  • Daily Check-Ins & Check-Outseach staff member drafts a set of students with whom they make sure to briefly check in and out each day  

  • Community Building Circles —using Restorative Practices circle format to get to know one another in the classroom, discuss topics, and have shared experiences 

  • Team Building ActivitiesTeampedia has a variety of easy and quick team-building activities for both small and large groups 

  • One and Donein the first 30 days of the school year, demonstrate a single act of empathy (e.g., doing a favor) for a different student each day 

  • Two by TenIdentify one or two students who need a connection early on in the year. For 10 consecutive days, invest two minutes each day with them to talk about anything but school 

  • Three in ThirtyAsk enough questions to discover three things about every student in the first 30 days of the year 

  • Me BagHave each student, and teacher, fill a bag with two to three items that represent who you are, and then provide an opportunity to share what everyone packed in their bag with each other 

A Personal Connection 

My favorite class in high school, also taught by my favorite teacher, was AP English. Despite struggling as a reader throughout school, due to a visual impairment, I loved literature. For me, reading was a private means to a very public end. I looked forward to what came as a result of reading: the opportunity to dialogue about a text with others in class. Even when I found reading to be tiresome or difficult, I persisted, because I loved discussing literature, especially poetry. 

Nearly 400 years ago, English poet John Donne famously declared, "no man is an island." Like Cloud referred to cell phones, Donne was speaking of connection in the island metaphor. To this day, I can vividly recall discussing Donne's poem in 11th grade. Because of the social context of the class, AP English developed in me a sense of belonging, a growth mindset, and the grit necessary to succeed against the setback of having a degenerative eye disease. 

Now, I realize that my affinity toward English class likely had less to do with the literary content and more to do with the personal connection I felt in the classroom.  

Gary G. Abud, Jr. is an educational consultant, speaker, and writer. Previously, he served as an elementary school principal, taught high school science and technology, and worked as an instructional coach for PreK-12 schools. In 2014, he was selected as the Michigan Teacher of the Year and consults with educators, schools, and organizations on topics of curriculum, instruction, assessment, and technology. He resides near Detroit, Mich. with his wife and fellow educator Janice, and their preschool daughter Laina. Connect with Gary on Twitter @mr_abud. 

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