20 April, 2016
When educators talk about “the whole child,” we acknowledge our students as humans with complex lives that include interests, joys, passions, experiences, fears, needs, and hopes.
There are times when their lives may also include traumatic experiences, either in their past or ongoing even as we communicate with them day to day.
As a teacher, you have a few ways of finding out that a student has experienced trauma. Some IEPs will integrate this information. Sometimes a counselor or social worker may fill you in, or a parent or family member. The trauma may be a known part of your community’s fabric — for example, a natural disaster that destroyed a student’s home, or a war in the country where your student used to live.
A student may also personally disclose that he or she experienced current or past trauma. After receiving this information — in whichever way it comes to you — now what?
The following are some considerations and steps when incorporating it into your practice in a way that best supports your student.
- Absorb the information.
Take the time you need to process your own response when finding about the trauma, in a place that is safe for you. We all respond in various ways to hearing about our students’ experiences with trauma. Reactions have covered a spectrum from sadness to anger, heartbreak to disbelief, and sometimes the information influences teachers in unexpected ways. In order to best serve students, adequately process these emotions until you grounded enough to be supportive to others. Whether it’s private journaling, talking to a trusted friend or colleague, or accessing your own therapist or counselor, start by working through your emotions, whatever they may be.
- Recognize emotional truth.
Remember that the factual truth is insignificant compared to the student’s emotional truth. As a teacher, your role is not to examine the details of a student’s trauma, or even know all or any of them. Your role is not to challenge the student’s or family’s description of what happened or ask whether it really occurred. Humans respond in different ways to stressors, and so your time is better spent understanding how your student emotionally responds to the traumatic experience, and how that emotional response may affect the student in your school setting.
- Be clear about your role.
A true community of support for a student requires a few different roles, depending on the situation: teachers, social workers, mental health professionals, and care providers/family, to name a few. Don’t attempt to take on every role on that list — it’s not healthy for you or for the student! If you’re not sure who else is involved in a student’s constellation of care, make it your first priority to find out, and if you have the permission of the student and family, communicate with those people.
- Seek to better understand “problem behaviors.”
Once you develop an understanding of how the student is affected by trauma, use this context to reframe what might be thought of as “problem behaviors.” Example: Instead of seeing a student’s rude outburst as a sign of willful disrespect, understand it as a marker of a missing emotional self-regulation skill instead. A student who can’t sit still and paces around the classroom? With an understanding of trauma impacts, recognize how that student has a heightened sense of vigilance around safety in her environment. Once these behaviors are refraned, respond to the core issue instead of the behavior itself.
- Coordinate with others.
Students can enhance a sense of safety when multiple adults in their lives respond in consistent ways. Using common language, providing the same set of strategies, or using similar cues can help a student internalize favorable ways of addressing challenges. Even without coordinating specific strategies, a common mindset toward the child goes a long way.
- Learn from the experts.
While every student responds differently to trauma, there are tons of resources out there for better understanding effects of trauma, ways to be supportive in and out of the classroom, and how to build positive social and emotional skills. One of the best experts, though? The student! Ask your student what he needs to feel supported, what methods work or don’t work when he’s having a hard time, and how you can help him be successful in your class. Some students might surprise you with their insight, and some might never have been asked and will benefit from the chance to develop their answers.
- Continue checking in with yourself.
Being in a supportive role to someone who is managing the impacts of trauma can be difficult, and may result in vicarious trauma or compassion fatigue. But the bottom line is taking care of yourself and getting your own support so that you may support others.
Our students benefit when we thoughtfully align our techniques and supports with our best understanding. Though it is challenging to find out that our students may be in pain, this knowledge is also the first step in helping them move forward.