George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Brain-Based Learning

5 Ways to Help Students in Trauma

Teachers can create a calm classroom atmosphere that helps troubled students be more receptive to learning.

A Student With an Unclear Past

Natalie is a 15-year-old student in eighth grade. She was held back in fifth grade and possibly another time, but she is new to her school and the staff is unsure of her complete history. She generally attends her first two periods only three out of five days a week, and her absences are accumulating. Natalie rarely completes any work and is quiet and withdrawn. Most days she shuts out the world, putting her head on her desk, glancing at her phone, or scanning the hallway or classroom windows for any activity. Her mind always seems to be elsewhere. 

The school knows she lives with an older sister and three younger brothers. Her parents’ whereabouts are unknown, and it appears that she is one of the primary caregivers in her family. She is a “young carer”—a child or adolescent who provides emotional and physical support and embraces household responsibilities while also looking after his or her own needs. Young carers have likely missed out on significant developmental stages in their own lives. How can teachers recognize and help students like Natalie? 

What Is Trauma? 

As I shared in “7 Ways to Calm a Young Brain in Trauma”—the first article in this two-part series—trauma can manifest as a tired, hungry, worried, rejected, or detached brain accompanied by feelings of isolation, worry, angst, and fear. Adverse experiences that lead to feelings of isolation, rejection, and mistrust can be abrupt or gradual, but the neurobiological changes caused by such experiences create a fear response. In adolescence, this fear can manifest itself as defiance, depression, anxiety, and sometimes violent and aggressive behavior. 

How Does Trauma Affect The Brain?

When we feel negative emotions, our brains and bodies prioritize survival over all else, and we pay attention to the messages flooding through our brains and bodies triggering the question, “Am I safe?” Reactions become hard-wired pathways in the emotional centers of the brain, shutting off the frontal lobes—the part of the brain that executes decision making, problem solving, and emotional regulation. Our ability to mindfully respond is compromised. The excessive secretion of the hormones cortisol and adrenaline pumping through our bodies, coupled with the activation of the fear response, can damage other parts of the brain responsible for cognition and learning.

There is a fundamental reorganization of the brain when significant adversity has occurred in our lives. Just like Natalie, children and adolescents may come to school mistrusting adults if throughout their development they were lacking emotional attachments with caregivers. These young people have brains that are in a constant state of alarm.

Be Mindful of Your Own Triggers

Many youths feel the need for privacy and are reluctant to appear in need of the emotional support they deeply desire. As educators, we have our own histories. We need to be aware of our own triggers and brain states as we interact with vulnerable youths. To stay connected with a youth is a challenging responsibility for any educator.

How Can Teachers Help?

Psychiatrists Bessel van der Kolk and Bruce Perry are pioneers in the study of trauma, studying how past trauma can be retriggered by memories, flashbacks, visual images, the sound of a voice, or anything that is a reminder of that trauma. The very event that has caused so much pain often becomes a source of meaning and identity and a place of familiarity, no matter how dysfunctional it feels. To help counter these reactions, the best approach is to acknowledge the negative feelings and give the student a safe place for a few minutes, allowing the brain and body to calm down.

I am learning that with students like Natalie, we must create an emotionally safe environment that provides them the opportunity to feel connected and understood; where “that was then, and this is now” becomes a primary understanding and motto in the classroom. These strategies are beneficial for all students, especially those who come into the classroom carrying negative emotion.

  1. Begin and end each class with deep breathing. Inhaling deeply brings an oxygenated glucose blood flow to our frontal lobes. Taking just three deep inhales and exhales calms the emotional brain and begins to release the anxiety and fear accompanied with the onslaught of past-trauma-filled memories.
  2. At the entrance to the classroom, designate an area with a jar or basket where students can leave notes with either words or drawings of their feelings. They can choose to share the feelings with you or not. When we release our feelings and thoughts, we create space in our working memory.
  3. Begin class with a 90 second hand massage. Offer each student a drop of lotion so they can perform this relaxation process. The neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor has found that our bodies and brains rinse clean of negative emotion in 90 seconds if we attend to those feelings and the thoughts that stir them up. 
  4. Take a bucket inventory. Explain to your students that we each carry two internal buckets with us each day. One is a stress bucket, which sometimes is so full it just takes a drop or two for it to overflow. The other is a bucket of good feelings that needs to be filled by those around us and ourselves. Which bucket is full? Which feels empty? How can we help fill or empty each bucket? Students are encouraged to help fill one another’s good feelings bucket or assist in emptying out the unneeded stress. What are the ways this could be a part of your class rituals and routines?
  5. Create trigger lists. Older youths (those in grades 5 to 12) who have experienced trauma sometimes know their triggers—those sounds, sights, and experiences that spark negative emotions. A few times each week, I check in with all students and have them create a list of triggers that can block learning and relationships, and also list those experiences, people, or celebrations that enhance positive emotions. This is also a great way for educators to collect perceptual data and build trusting relationships with students.

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