Mental Health

Creating Safe Environments for Students Recovering From Trauma

An excerpt from the new book The School of Hope looks at how educators can help students who have experienced trauma.

May 24, 2022
monkeybusinessimages / iStock

To create safety for students we need to make a valiant attempt to listen and respond to the thoughts of every person in our care. When my adopted children arrived, I wanted to have a relationship from the moment they walked in the door. I was unaware of stimuli in the environment that would trigger instability.

The quick way to alleviate possible stressors is to make sure every person has the opportunity to express their needs and concerns as routines, rules, and procedures are developed.

Consistency: Rules, Procedures, and Routines

Routines and norms offer consistency, which conveys safety and stability. It provides predictability that lets us know what’s going to happen and when. When going over rules, routines, and procedures, consider allowing people to ask questions and give input in their creation.

Cover art for The School of Hope
Courtesy of Corwin

As much as possible, co-creating classroom norms allows all students, including those who have experienced trauma, to have a voice in shaping a space that fosters a sense of safety. Creating rules, routines, and procedures with others provides a sense of security, value, and ownership, which enhances personal safety. It gives the person who might have experienced trauma the chance to bring up concerns and helps avoid recreating triggering situations where students felt like they weren’t in control. It can stop potential problems from happening.

This safety practice also begins to foster psychological hope in the brain. Setting a collaborative goal gives students ownership of their environment. The class works together daily to achieve the principles set in their goal. Students get to experience how this collaborative goal works to shape the classroom culture. This reinforces the power of setting goals and future planning. This practice shows students they have power to shape and change the world around them and builds hope as students see how their efforts impact the goal principles and classroom culture.

I like to start off the year by having students agree on the community principles they want to use as a goal to create their ideal classroom environment. Students give input on what attributes should form the foundation for classroom interactions. To get them started I provide them with examples by asking questions. Should we be able to trust each other in the classroom? What is necessary to keep you engaged, happy, and safe? From their individual lists, we create a large list of principles on the board. The students then group similar characteristics until we come up with a list of four or five attributes for the classroom.

Classroom ideals might include trustworthiness, humor, collaboration, and kindness. The class then works together to create one rule that will ensure that each of these ideals is honored. For example, trustworthiness might have a rule that we honor each other by being honest even when it’s hard. Humor might have a rule that states we use school-appropriate jokes or puns when suitable to make class lighthearted. Collaboration might have a rule that we work together as a class to accomplish goals and to build comradery. Lastly, kindness could have a rule that states we always try to make others feel welcome by acting in a way that shows respect and caring. This allows students to see that the rules work to form a pathway to the goal of keeping them safe, comfortable, and happy.

Once the rules are created, I print out the principles and rules and give a copy to each member of the class. Each of my six classes creates principles and rules they will follow. It’s important to go over rules and procedures often to remind people of the way to act in certain situations, to show the structures of consistency that are in place, and to convey to students and staff that safety is a priority.

We can’t mitigate all stressors, but students are more likely to demonstrate resilience if they know they have a say and the support of a consistent, caring teacher. Even with a good foundation, however, problems may arise. The best thing we can do in any situation is reaffirm safety and take the time to be curious about behaviors. When students do exhibit challenging behaviors, we can reaffirm safety by approaching them in a calm, respectful way. Rather than asking, “What’s wrong with you?” and labeling a kid, we should remain curious and shift the question to, “What’s happened to you?”

My own children kept huddling together in my home. Instead of becoming full of frustration, I asked them questions about the huddling behavior. My oldest son, C.J., later told me that huddle-hugging made them feel safe. I continued asking questions and found out they would group together to prevent severe injury. In the past, their father would isolate one of them to abuse, and they knew if they ran and hugged each other he might still hurt them, but not as much as if they were alone. They shared the pain. My children found safety in the clinging hands of their siblings, so when they arrived at my house they clung to each other not to snub their new life but because they wanted safety. This learned behavior was a way to self-soothe and find security during a gigantic change.

Change is hard, but it’s even more difficult for those with trauma. Even though my children were in a safe environment, their brains and bodies did not recognize that there was no danger. Consistency over time helps soothe the brain and gives comfort. After a few weeks of following the same routine, listening to my kids, and setting principles for the household environment, my children started to smile, play, and laugh. Your consistent words and actions matter beyond measure!

Communication: Mental Health Check-In

How do you handle your bad days, when hope is a distant star and “Happy” is just a song blaring from a radio? When you are exhausted, stressed, and just don’t want to try? You might play video games or read a book. Perhaps you distract yourself with the Internet, YouTube, or Netflix. A jog in the park might make you feel better. We have ways to cope, but do they solve the problem? They numb the pain, but do they remove it?

Coping mechanisms might get you through a tough spot, but it takes more to help foster healing. According to a study done by Pennebaker, Kiecolt-Glaser, and Glaser, “Simply talking about our problems and sharing our negative emotions with someone we trust can be profoundly healing—reducing stress, strengthening our immune system, and reducing physical and emotional distress.”

We need to talk more about mental well-being because a lack of communication will block us and stop us from forming connections. Communication helps people deal, heal, and cope with hurts. It also allows us to show students new ways to channel their feelings.

It’s important to have numerous opportunities for every person to check in and communicate their mental state. Each chance creates a net to catch, respond to, and assist in healing hurts as they arise. Mental health communication can be done in numerous ways in the classroom and school setting. Teachers can create spaces physically or remotely where every student can check in. Communication allows teachers to gain insight into student safety concerns, feedback, and traumas.

Consider creating a check-in using a Google Form that asks first about a positive part of a student’s day. Then inquire specifically about the student’s mental state. Using multiple-choice answers can help students feel less intimidated to complete the check-in. Offer choices such as “I’m great,” “I’m OK,” “I’m struggling,” or “I’m having a hard time and would like a check-in.” For younger students, consider using happy/sad faces that show varying degrees of emotion from happy to upset. Use an open-ended question to ask if the student has particular needs that can be addressed. You can make a copy of the Google Form I use with my students. Pass out the link, post it in a digital classroom, or create a QR code for students to scan to allow easy access. Provide a few minutes for students to fill out the chart at the start of class. Quickly scan the results for any people in need of a physical check-in and follow up.

The greatest thing of value in a school is the people. Taking the time to check in and help others shows people that they matter. It allows safety to bloom and alleviates fear. Having open conversations about mental health promotes a school culture of mental wellness. Trauma can touch anyone at any time, but with open communication we can be there when it does.

Care: Self-Care Plans and Asset-Based Teaching

When trauma shows up it arrives like an earthquake, which can wreck consistency. Even when it stops, aftershocks occur. Stressful moments are the breeding place of rash decisions. Why? Because without proper planning, we react to the moment. The reality is that over time acute traumas touch all of us: death, sickness, accidents, divorce, and natural disasters, to name a few. Schools prepare and run drills for shootings, fires, and tornados. In California, they even build schools with the knowledge that earthquakes may happen. Addressing mental wellness is just as important as preparing for a fire. It’s important to have tools at our disposal to provide care for those we serve. In order to do that, we need to plan for bad days and moments of emotional turmoil.

A self-care plan is an intervention that keeps a person from being completely sucked into an emotional reaction. It can give a sense of control and safety during escalating feelings. Having a self-care plan is like earthquake-proofing a building. It won’t stop the earthquake when it hits, but it will give a person a choice in how to respond. Each person creates his or her own self-care plan. It’s a preventative measure filled with their favorite self-care activities, self-regulation tools, and ideas for how to utilize the people who support them.

Having a plan takes the guesswork out of what to do and where to turn in a moment of crisis. It helps a person respond instead of react to the situation at hand. It allows them to take time to think about what they want to do and how they want to do it. You can write your own self-care plan and get students to do the same. Having students create individual plans gives teachers tools to support students who show signs of distress and provides teachers with strategies, activities, and tools to help each student.

For example, Jordan struggled with feelings about her dad going back to prison. In her plan, she wrote that her dad being in and out of her life was a stressor and sometimes caused her to shut down. I knew from her self-care plan that I was an adult she relied on and that art was a tool she used to feel better, so after she finished talking, I suggested she take a few minutes to draw when she went back to the classroom. By taking those few minutes, she was able to find a safe space to deal with her feelings. Creating plans with students allows them to utilize their own neuroplasticity to reshape a moment of chaos into one of control.

To begin a self-care plan with a student, have them recognize support structures, people, and hobbies that help them feel better. Start by asking the student to list activities that they currently utilize to help them feel calm or happy. It’s best to model an example plan to students as they create their own. I have each of my students fill out this Google Doc when they are creating their plan.

To model, I go through the self-care plan and fill one out for myself. I go through it step by step and explain out loud my thought process for each part. For calming activities, I give students suggestions of activities such as music, exercise, coloring, art, meditation, etc. Next, I have them list one or two people whom they can turn to for help and support. In the same section, they should write down what resources they have access to in the school building. For example, if your school has a school counselor or a focus and recovery (FAR) room, students can utilize those. By writing this list, the student can take mental stock of tools at their disposal in times of turmoil.

Once students complete the support section, they should list stressors or things that might act as a speedbump to their mental well-being. This section will serve as a guide for moments when you might utilize a student’s self-care plan. Thinking through a typical school day or school year might help them hone in on specific areas of stress, such as transitions between classes, a specific time of year, or perhaps a situation like a fire drill. Then they should list barriers outside of school that might affect their mental well-being. Lastly, they should create a plan to address each of the stressors and barriers. They can use tools from their feel-good activity list or other strategies they might want to try. Have them list what they could do to cope when they start to feel overwhelmed.

Remind students that they can use their self-care plan even when they are not in your class. They can revise and use it at their discretion as new barriers appear, new coping tools are learned, and new life circumstances arise. That way the next time an earth-shaking moment hits them, they’ll have a plan, and it might be just enough to keep their world from crumbling.

Reprinted with permission from The School of Hope: The Journey From Trauma and Anxiety to Achievement, Happiness, and Resilience by Cathleen Beachboard, published by Corwin Press. Copyright 2022 by Corwin Press.

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