A Trauma-Informed Approach to Teaching Young Students
While teachers don’t need to know the details of preschoolers’ adverse experiences, offering appropriate care and support is crucial.
Early on in my social work career, I read the book Ghosts from the Nursery: Tracing the Roots of Violence, by Robin Karr-Morse and Meredith S. Wiley. Through case histories and research, the authors explain why some children commit violent crimes—connecting the dots between their subjects’ earliest life experiences and what is known of them in the present. The knowledge I gained from this book became the foundation for a guiding principle in my work: that early life experiences matter.
Educators don’t always have the benefit of knowing what our students’ earliest experiences were like. Children don’t necessarily develop explicit memories until toddlerhood, so our young learners don’t have the ability to tell us what they’ve been through. I’ve learned over time, however, that we (educators and other support staff) don’t need the details of what a child’s infancy and toddlerhood were like if we’re being faithful to the concept of trauma-informed care in our classrooms. This includes developing an awareness of the impact of preverbal trauma and how it may present in the classroom while understanding that a young student may have some ghosts of their own.
Understanding Preverbal Trauma
Preverbal trauma occurs when children experience abuse, neglect, or other adverse childhood events during early childhood, prior to developing speech/language skills and explicit memory. Our youngest children are particularly at risk for experiencing preverbal trauma because they are completely dependent on caregivers for survival.
According to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, it’s estimated that over half of all children aged 2–5 have experienced a severe stressor in their lifetime, including physical abuse, exposure to parental substance use and mental health issues, domestic violence, community violence, disrupted attachment, and neglect.
The Body Remembers What the Brain Might Not
It can be difficult to acknowledge that bad things can happen to young children. My colleagues and the families I work with look to me for reassurances that children have forgotten their negative experiences or hope that their young age acts as a protective shield. The hard truth, however, is that age isn’t a protective factor. Bessel van der Kolk, MD, discusses this truth in his book The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma.
What Van der Kolk, an expert in the field of trauma and post-traumatic stress, means by the phrase “The body keeps the score” is that the body always remembers what the brain might not. Our bodies hold on to the imprint of trauma, fear, and the other physiological sensations we experience in those moments; they are stored within our muscles. Because bodily memories are created from the emotional and physiological sensations experienced during traumatic events, young children, despite not having developed the ability to visually recall what happened to them or the words to associate with the traumatic event, may experience the fight, flight, or freeze response when triggered and have no idea why.
This can be confusing and frustrating for everyone involved because it’s not always obvious what triggered a child in the first place. Many children have experienced chronic trauma, neglect, or toxic stress, even at a very young age. Because of this, their body’s alarm system is constantly in work mode, dumping cortisol and adrenaline into their nervous systems even when they’re safe. Their fight, flight, or freeze response has been turned on too much with no opportunity to turn it off and move the stress hormones out of their bodies.
To make this easier for others to understand, I compare this process to the smoke detector above my oven that is so sensitive it wails at the slightest wisp of smoke, letting the neighborhood know I’ve burnt dinner again. There is no real risk, and yet it thinks the house is going to burn to the ground. This is how many of my students come to school each day—ready to fight, wanting to flee, desperately needing all of us adults to understand something they don’t understand themselves.
Apply Trauma-Informed Support Strategies
Many of my students are described as defiant, a behavior problem, or worse. I understand why, because when a chair is thrown across the room or they are hitting or yelling or running out of the classroom, it’s easy to forget that they’re young children who aren’t able to “use their words.” When it comes to trauma that’s experienced preverbally, words are meaningless.
Young children just don’t have the words to describe abuse and neglect or what they’re experiencing within their body when triggered. Understanding and remembering this during charged moments in the classroom can be effective in de-escalating students who are in fight or flight mode and help classroom teachers and staff respond rather than react to certain behavior.
Responding thoughtfully instead of reacting from a place of heightened emotion is never easy. It can also be difficult to have empathy in charged moments, especially when you or another child is on the receiving end of a child’s aggression and your own fight, flight, or freeze response is set off. Recognizing when this happens and using coping skills such as deep breathing, counting to 10 before responding, muscle relaxation (making a tight fist, then releasing), or even asking for support from a co-teacher or other staff are small but powerful ways to co-regulate rather than co-escalate.
Being able to co-regulate in different ways with young children will help turn off their body’s alarm system. Here are examples of some effective strategies that educators and support staff can implement to help children become regulated:
- Implement a consistent and predictable routine, incorporating movement such as animal walks or yoga.
- Have “heavy work” stations in the room to provide proprioceptive input and help encourage calmness through physical activity.
- Offer activities that provide a sense of rhythm and attunement (mirroring games, rolling a ball back and forth, calming songs that rhyme).
- Provide a quiet, soothing space for students to go to in the classroom.
Early childhood educators and support staff are in a unique position to start building up a child’s resilience by cocreating safe, supportive relationships with their young students. Knowing that their teacher is an adult who cares about them, can handle and tolerate their big feelings, and will welcome them back with open arms after difficult moments creates an important sense of safety for young children. This is a gift that will eventually lead to young children understanding that they can control their ghosts, and not the other way around.