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Helping Students Who Have Experienced Trauma

Alex Shevrin

Teacher/leader & techie at independent, alternative, therapeutic high school
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A closeup of a teenage girl sitting slouched, resting her head in her cupped hands. She's looking up and to the side with tears in her eyes. She's sitting in a naturally lit room with couches, comfy chairs, coffee tables, and a small, potted tree.

When educators talk about "the whole child," we recognize our students as humans with complex lives that include interests, joys, passions, experiences, fears, needs, and hopes. Sometimes their lives may also include traumatic experiences, either in their past or ongoing even as we interact 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 incorporate 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. For more on responding in the moment, see this guideline from the Australian Institute of Family Studies (PDF), which is specific to abuse but applicable to many types of trauma that a student may disclose. Be sure that you know your state's mandated reporting laws and follow through on any in-school systems that may be in place.

After receiving this information -- in whichever way it comes to you -- now what?

Here are some considerations and steps when integrating it into your practice in a way that best supports your student.

1. Absorb the information.

Take the time you need to process your own response to learning about the trauma, in a place that is safe for you. We all respond in different ways to hearing about our students' experiences with trauma. My own reaction to information about my students' lives has covered a spectrum from sadness to anger, heartbreak to disbelief, and sometimes the information impacts me in ways I didn't anticipate. In order to best serve my students, I need to adequately process these emotions until I am 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.

2. Recognize emotional truth.

Remember that the factual truth is unimportant compared to the student's emotional truth. As a teacher, your role is not to investigate 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 a huge variety of 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 impact the student in your school setting.

3. 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 try 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.

4. Seek to better understand "problem behaviors."

Once you develop an understanding of how the student is impacted 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, I might instead understand it as a marker of a missing emotional self-regulation skill. A student who can't sit still and paces around the classroom? With an understanding of trauma impacts, I might now recognize how that student has a heightened sense of vigilance around safety in her environment. Once I reframe these behaviors for myself, I can now respond to the core issue rather than the behavior itself.

5. Coordinate with others.

Students can develop a sense of safety when multiple adults in their lives respond in consistent ways. Using common language, offering the same set of strategies, or using similar cues can help a student internalize positive ways of addressing challenges. Even without coordinating specific strategies, a common mindset toward the child goes a long way -- see Unconditional Positive Regard or Kids Do Well If They Can as examples.

6. Learn from the experts.

While every student responds differently to trauma, there are tons of resources out there for better understanding impacts 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 strategies 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 opportunity to develop their answers.

7. Continue checking in with yourself.

Being in a supportive role to someone who is managing the impacts of trauma can be challenging, and may result in vicarious trauma or compassion fatigue. Check out NCTSN's Self Care for Educators resource (PDF) for more information and tips on these challenges. 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 strategies and supports with our best understanding. Though it is difficult to find out that our students may be in pain, this knowledge is also the first step in helping them move forward.

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TODD SENTELL's picture
TODD SENTELL
Author of the hilarious schoolhouse memoir, "Can't Wait to Get There. Can't Wait to Leave"

And then on a Saturday morning ... you wake up, rested and refreshed, and refresh your school e-mail ... and Principal Lurlene says to all of her teachers that we've just learned that Shoshana's father has committed suicide. Just so you'll know. We'll meet about it Monday morning, she says. Hang in there and thanks for all you do.

Then the next e-mail is a 673 word cacophony and bad grammar from a mother who's upset about her son's B+ grade. Two sentences, maybe, would have complained about the B+ just fine.

Some days, especially on a Saturday morning, who do I worry about the most? It ain't the kids. So what do you do now? I go to Walmart and buy a new vacuum cleaner.

I come home and put the vacuum cleaner together, vacuum, and then go into the garage and hit the heavy bag. When you hit a heavy bag you don't always win, but you don't always lose, either.

A few days later I met some students on a Saturday field trip at a museum. I agreed to take Shoshanna to lunch, and then home, after our history seeking. I took Shoshana to a cool restaurant called the Buckhead Diner. When I was a kid it was a blue jean store.

Across the table Shoshana kept pushing a wad of money at me.

I wouldn't take it.

She said she doesn't eat meat or fish, so thank God there were some soups and salads for a hungry kid. She was already wolfing down the bread sticks. She got a bowl of tomato soup and a Caesar salad. After every bite she wiped her mouth with the napkin. She sits low in the seat and over in the corner real tight. Shoshana speaks in a whisper, and when I asked her to make the choice on dessert Shoshana kept whispering something just to herself and the patient waitress leaned down ... then farther down ... and ended up a foot from Shoshana's face.

I said after we finish I'd like to stop up the street at a cigar store I know of to get a couple of good cigars if that was okay with her.

Shoshana whispered that her father enjoyed cigars. She said he had a lot of boxes filled with cigars in a big cabinet in the room where he died.

You hang in there, I said. I reached over and held her hand for a moment, and then let it go.

She looked at me for a long time. She didn't cry, and I thought she would. I was about to. Shoshana finally smiled.

And then we spoke of other good things--academic, historic, and culinary--over a warm brownie covered with vanilla ice cream and a spider web of chocolate syrup. A teacher and a silently grieving little girl. And two spoons.

Linda's picture
Linda
Exployer

I really hope that teachers face such problems in rare cases. It's hard time for students, his parents and teachers. I think special standards should be involved in educational system for such cases and for foreign students. Here is the opinion on this problem and why it should be solved in recent time - http://venturebreak.com/2016/01/02/should-academics-adapt-their-teaching... I partly agree with the author, it should be different programs for students of different academic level, but I'm not sure about foreign students. Such questions need to be solved in every region or school/college.

Abigail Pollak's picture
Abigail Pollak
Marketing Assistant

Mindfulness is a fabulous tool for counteracting the impact of trauma. However, it can also be threatening for children who have experienced trauma, as the practice may bring up scary and painful emotions and body sensations.

(1)
Wendy Gassaway's picture

My son has a background full of trauma that has a huge effect on his classroom behavior. Since bringing him home nearly four years ago, I have become so much more aware of the students in my classroom and what they are dealing with or have gone through. It doesn't mean I know the solution to working with them, but it does mean I have more empathy and am less likely to respond from a place of control and anger. Hypervigilance is a common response to trauma, as is a push/pull dynamic with others, longing for and fearing closeness at the same time.

(1)
Rusul Alrubail's picture
Rusul Alrubail
Edutopia Community Facilitator/ Student Voice & Literacy at The Writing Project

Alex, this is such a useful post. Number two puts a lot of things in perspective and is an important reminder, what we consider truth shouldn't be linked to our perception of how students should feel. I'll be sharing this post with a group who is supporting Syrian refugees here in Canada. Thank you.

Maria A. (MSW student, SJSU)'s picture

Thank you Alex for publishing this article. I am a student in the MSW program at SJSU and am currently working with families, children, and youth. Although you mentioned in your article to "be sure that you know your state's mandated reporting laws and follow through on any in-school system that may be in place," I want to emphasize that mandated reporters are not only people employed at public or private schools, but also in other positions such as animal control officers, custodians, and clergy.

In California, Child Abuse Reporting Law is found in Penal Code Sections 11165-1174.3 and must be obeyed because it is the law. More importantly, by making a report people may help a family who is at risk or help a child who is a victim of abuse and/or neglect. Likewise, mandated reporters should know their duty is to report when they have knowledge of child abuse, neglect, or they have reasonable suspicion that a child may have been the victim of child abuse or neglect. Teachers must have good communication with their students, but also must be observant to recognize red flags and help students experiencing trauma.

Many times, teachers may be able to recognize child abuse/neglect when children externalized or internalized behaviors at school. For example, when a child suddenly changes his/her behavior or school performance; when a child is excessively passive or does not want to go home; or when a child is overly alert, as through preparing for something bad to happen. As a result, teachers must work together with other professionals and families to ensure that they provide appropriate interventions and support to the students at all times.

Once again, thank you for your article and the suggestions in how we can help students who have experience trauma. I really liked the Unconditional Positive Regard link you included and I invite teachers, teachers' aides, and administrators in schools to watch this small video and put it into practice.

(1)
Alex Shevrin's picture
Alex Shevrin
Teacher/leader & techie at independent, alternative, therapeutic high school

Maria, thank you so much for all that information, that is super helpful!

Emily Lavender's picture

Very helpful information! Every teacher has to deal with students who have experienced trauma and it is important to know how to handle it! I like what you said: "As a teacher, your role is not to investigate the details of a student's trauma, or even know all or any of them." It's easy to want to know all the details, but that really isn't what's important as a teacher.

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