When trauma goes unacknowledged by caring adults, students can feel suffocated by the burden of their experience. Research shows that traumatic experiences can drastically hinder students’ academic development, and that “children who have three or more Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) are three times more likely to experience academic failure, five times more likely to have attendance problems, and six times more likely to have behavioral problems than those with no ACEs.“
These findings, coupled with the fact that almost half of the students in the U.S. have experienced at least one or more traumatic experiences presents a significant barrier to academic success for a large population of students.
As educators, we work with a diverse group of students, not only in the range of their academic abilities, but also in their various experiences and social-emotional needs. The goal of trauma-informed teaching is to help all students feel known and supported. And the good news is that today, we know that using trauma-informed teaching strategies can benefit all students, regardless of their experiences.
Trauma-informed teaching for all students
Oftentimes, students’ traumatic life experiences will emerge as challenging behaviors. Research shows children who experience trauma can develop learning and behavior problems such as poor self-regulation, negative thinking, and challenges with executive functions. Therefore, using traditional punishments (like sitting out at recess, suspension or even expulsion) fail to address the actual cause of such behavior.
Instead, educators ought to consider implementing trauma-informed teaching in the context of their school’s social-emotional learning initiatives. Indeed, incorporating trauma-informed practices with SEL is an important first step to creating a healthy learning environment and improving academic performance and development.
Here are three strategies that combine SEL with trauma-informed teaching:
1. Build a common language. Children exposed to trauma may internalize their feelings because they lack the vocabulary to express their experiences. Before teachers and students can begin to have meaningful conversations among themselves and with each other, they need to develop a shared language to understand and express their feelings. I emphasized this need for a common language at a recent workshop, during which teachers and I worked through 24 character traits, outlined in Love In A Big World’s SEL curriculum, that help to develop a common SEL language for an entire school community, a critical step in helping students recognize and manage their own emotions.
2. Develop a nurturing environment. Additionally, the classroom must evolve into a safe environment where students can work through and express their feelings. Allowing students the time, space, and support to work through their feelings can help students feel safe so they are ready to focus on learning. Educators and school staff can help create a positive school climate where students feel known and supported. For example, teachers can create a dedicated space in the classroom for students who are feeling upset or frustrated, so they have a space to work on coping with these feelings. Teachers can also provide a worksheet or similar activity to help guide students through their feelings, which keeps them in the classroom and helps get them back on track.
3. Prioritize self-care for all. The saying “practice what you preach” applies to trauma-informed instruction. It is natural for educators to take on the mental and emotional burdens of their students’ traumatic experiences. However, the stress these burdens can create can build over time, leading teachers to need their own coping strategies. Today, schools are encouraged to provide teachers with the tools and resources necessary to prioritize their own self-care. In one school I’ve worked with, for example, teachers use a “tap-in and tap-out” program that encourages teachers to lean on each other and request a short break to refresh and recharge.
Moving students from risk to resilience
As educators, we can’t expect students to check their trauma at the door so they are in the right mind frame to learn. Rather, we must help equip our school staff and students with the language and skill sets to acknowledge their feelings in order to drive more purposeful behavior choices and create conditions where students are ready to succeed, inside the classroom and beyond.
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