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A trauma-informed approach requires educators to spot critical indicators in student behavior--here's what to look for

4 key pillars of a trauma-informed approach during COVID-19

A trauma-informed approach requires educators to spot critical indicators in student behavior--here's what to look for

There’s no doubt that the pandemic has been traumatic for children and adults alike. District and school staff member must remain especially diligent in being aware of and implementing strategies that help mitigate trauma.

A trauma-informed approach means teachers, administrators, staff, students and families recognize the behavioral, emotional, relational and academic impact of trauma, and address the impact through developing skills and providing specific trauma-informed supports.

Related content: 3 ways to combine trauma-informed teaching with SEL

There are four key pillars that guide educators in following a trauma-informed approach: focusing on wellness, building relationships, providing predictability and addressing students’ regulation deficits.

This post will explore the impact of trauma, provide an overview of each pillar and provide strategies for incorporating trauma-informed practices in remote, hybrid and in-person classrooms.

The impact of trauma: What are Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs)?

In the mid 90’s, Dr. Vincent Felitti and Robert Anda studied over 17,000 adults in an effort to understand more about stressful or traumatic childhood experiences, like neglect, abuse and family turmoil. They called these types of events “Adverse Childhood Experiences”, or ACEs.

There are three major categories of ACEs:

1. Abuse
a. Physical abuse
b. Emotional abuse
c. Sexual abuse

2. Neglect
a. Physical neglect
b. Emotional neglect

3. Household dysfunction
a. Family mental illness
b. Incarcerated household member
c. Witnessing domestic violence
d. Parental separation or divorce
e. Substance abuse in household

ACEs are extremely common and tend to occur in clusters, meaning most people don’t experience just one type of ACE. The number of different ACEs a person experiences in childhood increases the risk for health, social and behavioral problems throughout their life, such as depression, substance abuse, physical health and diseases and developmental delays.

Before COVID-19, nearly half of kids had three or more ACEs, and that number has only increased since the pandemic started. Given the widespread impact of ACEs, it’s important that school staff are equipped to take care of their students while also being able to take care of themselves.

Pillar #1: Focus on educator wellness: Only a well-regulated adult can help a student regulate. Working with students who have experienced trauma can be stressful, especially for educators who have also experienced ACEs.

Consider some of the potential sources of stress that school faculty and staff face:

• Regularly interacting with students who exhibit challenging behaviors.
• Hearing about abuse and neglect students have experienced.
• Worrying about a student’s safety or future.
• Feeling responsible for (or powerless) to help a student.
• Trying to engage all students in distance learning

And, now that we’re all dealing with challenges and uncertainties caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s become all the more critical that educators learn about and engage in self-care.

Self-care practices for educators and staff:

• Be aware of your own trauma and the potential impact that working with students who have experienced trauma can have on you.

• Give yourself permission to care for your mind, body and spirit in ways that work for you.

• Get social support from friends, family or colleagues.

• Connect with yourself through self-reflection and engage in mindfulness practices.

Pillar #2: Build relationships: Strong relationships build trust.

A quote from Education Week’s Arianna Prothero sums it up best: “This can’t be emphasized enough: Strong relationships will be essential to students’ academic success and well-being this coming school year.”

Educators must remain proactive in building relationships with students and families, even when it might feel impossible.

In person…
• Show genuine interest in your students. Chat with them before or after class, ask how they are doing and try to keep track of where their passions lie. These small actions add up in a big way. Remember that is not the quantity of time you spend with each student but the quality of each interaction that counts.

• Establish classroom rituals that help build connections and a sense of belonging, such as providing greetings and goodbyes, complimenting students and initiating traditions and celebrations.

• Model positive relationships with your fellow staff members so your students can see how well-functioning adults communicate, solve problems and support each other.

Distance or hybrid learning…

• Check your students’ social and emotional vital signs, like how they are feeling and if there are any challenges that are distracting them from school.

• Show appreciation for students’ efforts to complete assignments. It’s important to remember that students are likely dealing with many different home life situations while simultaneously trying to maintain their academics.

• Since being online dampens non-verbal signs, it’s important to exaggerate any non-verbal signals you want to send.

• Create space in your routine to check in with students and learn more about their interests and activities.

Pillar #3: Provide Predictability: Students with ACEs, who are stressed out or have a lot going on aren’t going to respond well to unexpected changes. When learners are in this state, they aren’t able to think flexibly. It’s important to let students know what’s going to happen, why, when and how.

In person…
• Post and follow a regular schedule, and inform students of any upcoming changes in advance.

• Designate specific areas in the classroom for specific activities so that students are able to familiarize themselves with the routines and locations where activities occur.

• Ensure that any reactions from adults are predictable and feel safe.

• Continually clarify your expectations so students always know what successful behaviors are.

Distance or hybrid…
• Communicate regularly with students and their families.

• Provide information in digestible amounts and provide plenty of opportunities for questions to ask clarifying questions.

• Share a daily schedule (on-screen), preview upcoming tasks and check-off any completed ones.

• Establish and follow routines that support your schedule.

Pillar #4: Teach Regulation: Regulation is the way people manage their thinking, emotions, attention and physical reactions. Understanding regulation is critical to creating a trauma-informed learning environment.

Effective regulation involves a person’s ability to manage their thinking, emotional responses, attention and physical reactions. Students with a history of ACEs often have a lot of difficulty with regulation, and many of the challenging behaviors these students demonstrate are linked to problems with regulation.

There are several ways to help students develop regulation strategies:

In person…
• Teach and practice new coping skills for managing stress and uncertainty.
• Schedule and provide opportunities for students to regulate before they are frustrated
• Create safe, calming spaces for students to take breaks as needed.
• Don’t use screens or screen-time for regulation.

Distance or hybrid…
• Intersperse regulation breaks within instruction.
• Use specific words or phrases during your routines (e.g. “Take a deep breath”, “What feeling am I having?”).

o Use these phrases and skills at the beginning of an instructional task to increase opportunities for practice.

Trauma-informed practice makes the difference.

When a trauma-informed approach is collaborative, it’s all the more impactful. If your school or district isn’t currently using trauma-informed strategies, I highly recommend bringing it up. These practices don’t only help us better serve students, but they better serve the people who are working with those students.

Remember: only a well-regulated adult can help support and regulate others. Educators can rely on resources to help them develop and strengthen skills to support themselves and their students, and create and maintain a culture of care.

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