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Trauma Sensitive Classroom Strategies: 5 Ways to Connect with Students

I'll admit it - I found it traumatizing, just watching it on TV.

The events that transpired at our nation’s Capitol on Wednesday, January 6, 2021, not only revealed how fractured we are as a nation - they were confirmation we are still on an unpredictable roller coster ride in education and beyond. It’s clear that 2021 is going to have its own share of unsettling events that take us by surprise and turn our lives upside down. This clearly has an impact on us as teachers, but even more so on our students as they grow and make sense of the world around them.

You can listen to this blog post as a podcast episode here or using the player below.

Like many of you, I watched the riots at the nation’s Capitol unfold as Congress met to certify the 2020 presidential election. While I was horrified at the carnage that transpired and fearful for those whose lives were in danger, I can’t say that I was surprised at the unrest and upheaval - once again. The rhetoric, emotions, and misinformation leading up to confirming the electoral college votes certainly foreshadowed some kind of clash - but I wasn’t - and perhaps neither were you - expecting the magnitude of destruction and violence. Maybe I believed it could happen but hoped it wouldn’t get to that point.

I live 90 minutes from D.C., and many people in my community either commute into the District for work or are originally from the metro area. So whether it’s breeching the U.S. Capitol, the Black Lives Matter protests, or any other major event in that vicinity, it feels likes it happening in my backyard. I’ve always considered it a privilege to live so close to the seat of our nation’s government and to have had the opportunity to see many of the historic buildings and monuments there that many wait a lifetime to see. The anticipated threats and violence expected on inauguration suddenly make it feel too close.

That’s how I’m processing the events of January 6th as I continue to learn and see more of what went down. And I have to think, how is a child, who’s learning right from wrong, whose brain and body is developing, supposed to process not only this, but everything that has happened since last March? And honestly, for many children, the trauma goes deeper than COVID, Black Lives matter, or political unrest. It’s not knowing where the next meal is going to come from, or if there will be any one at home to take care of them, or even worse, hoping someone doesn’t come home to hurt them. It’s a recent topic in my Monday Message, an email I send out weekly with encouragement and strategies for the week ahead. You can join here.

This next chapter of life in the classroom requires teachers to change our mindset, but it’s going to also mean we prioritize the needs of our students differently. Because we, with our rational adult brains, fully actualized, are affected by the insanity of this year, but we’re wired to respond and recover from this. A child physically and psychologically growing and processing this unrest in this world right now - that’s a different story. Their ability to make sense of the trauma - which is the impact of distressing, dangerous events - requires a greater level of concern and care.

It makes our job as teachers that more important. Not because we need to go into recovery mode when we get back to a traditional classroom environment and need to catch up on all the standards and materials that have been missed. No. As I said in a blog for NNSTOY back in October, the data doesn’t matter and I stand by that. It’s because we’re going to need to reconnect as people. As a classroom community. And that will entail addressing a great deal of the trauma that has been witnessed over the past year through trauma sensitive classroom strategies.

I’m going to share 5 ways - the 5 As if you will - to creating a trauma sensitive classroom environment starting today, even if the only contact you have with your class right now is thru distance learning. Along with this I’m going to share some neuroscience to back up why these over arching practices will help with addressing trauma in the classroom.

1. The first step is to ask your students if they have things they want to discuss regarding the unrest in the world right now, and letting them ask questions in return.

Ignoring what happened won’t make it go away. Chances are that they have seen events on the news or on social media that may have scared them, angered, or confused them. Let them ask questions if needed. Set the norms for how questions and discussions can be held respectfully. We need to stay connected on a personal level to process how the events of the world affect us. We also need to acknowledge each others’s feelings and de-stigmatize being afraid as part of our trauma informed practice - and that’s especially true for boys, who are often made to feel

like they shouldn’t cry or be scared. While I don’t condone teachers sharing political viewpoints with students, we can, in a matter of fact way, discuss what happened, why it happened, and the potential consequences of those actions. The depth you go into will vary greatly based on the age of your students. The important thing is that we seek to understand. Let them know it’s okay to be concerned about the future and their feelings are valid.

Let’s talk about the brain for a moment. The amygdala region is about the size of your thumb, located between your ears. It processes emotions and detects fear. When you’ve been exposed to something traumatic, it becomes hyperactive, and it becomes harder to relax and concentrate. So if that’s true for an adult, can you imagine how difficult it is for a child to “turn off” fear mode? They can’t. It’s even harder to unsee what’s happened for them. So if they’re turning to you with questions, if they feel the need to seek answers for the why or how of what’s going on, it’s important to make room for that to address trauma in the classroom. Their brains need it to relax and to understand.

2. Another trauma sensitivity strategy is to assure students of their safety and well being.

It’s your classroom (I know, it’s your students’ classroom too, even in a Teams meeting) but you are the teacher and you set the tone. Even online, your presence can give students’ peace of mind. Along with asking questions comes giving the reassurance to your students that they are safe and loved with you - and that you are a safe person they can communicate to in times of distress. That’s ultimately why it’s so important teachers to set boundaries and take care of themselves - our job is too important to not be fulfilled and healthy on our end so we can confidently and whole heartedly address the needs of our kids. You can also reassure them of the procedures and likelihood of events happening that may be causing anxiety, and what is in place to protect them. I don’t mean that we sugar coat what’s going on or say that everything is fine (because it certainly isn’t), but you can diplomatically remind them of the things that are in place to keep them safe and to keep the country running properly.

Back to the brain for a moment - the hippocampus is connected to the amygdala, in the shape of a “C”. It stores our memories and helps us discern past and present events. When you’ve experienced trauma and the amygdala is over firing, the hippocampus has a harder time telling the difference between the past event and the present, even if the danger has passed and you’re now safe. People that have experienced severely traumatic events even have have a smaller, lower volume hippocampus, which is often indicative of post traumatic stress disorder. So with that being said, it’s why assuring kids of their safety as a trauma classroom strategy and their ability to rely on you and their classroom community is so important. Their memories are rooted in the emotions they experience, and it’s even harder to separate from the past from the present.

3. The next step is to anticipate - think ahead and prepare for classroom interactions related to the traumatic event.

You know your class dynamic. If there are topics or subjects you will be teaching about that may serve as triggers for student anxiety or heightened emotions, you can prepare for them and be ready to address the issues that arise. For example, as a former fifth grade teacher, a unit on the

three branches of government, a lesson on the bill of rights, causes and effects of the Civil War…I could anticipate, based on my students needs, beliefs, experiences, and what is going on in the world right now, what I would need to be prepared for so we could have an emotionally safe learning environment for all in the class. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t teach those things, you absolutely should. But you, especially by the second semester, have a better understanding of your students as individuals at this point - even through a computer screen - and what could lead to heightened emotions or cause conflict. Part of trauma sensitivity is thinking ahead and using what you know about your students to prepare for the conversations that may take place and the feelings that will arise.

4. Another way to create a trauma sensitive environment is to adjust your plans when the need arises to discuss events that have impacted your students.

If there’s anything we have perfected this school year, its’ this one, because we have sure had to be flexible. There may be times when students need to talk about what’s happening in the world or their feelings, or a lesson leads to a conversation about a bigger topic or big feelings that they are having about the world. Let them have those conversations. The unplanned teachable moments may do more to address the impact of trauma more than any planned social emotional learning. Taking class time to focus on feelings or questions isn’t a waste of time or being too soft…

Because - one more neuroscience moment for you - of the prefrontal cortex. This regulates emotions and reacts to the amygdala - if the amygdala is your thumb, then your four other fingers closing over it is the equivalent to the prefrontal cortex. This is where the executive function happens - decision making, paying attention, making behavior choices based on consequences, impulse control - I can almost see you nodding your heads as I’m sure these are all issues you have to address with your students in the classroom! (Me too.) But in the presence of trauma, it’s harder for the prefrontal cortex to make rational decisions. To think things through. To process the things that they “should know how to do at this age or grade.” Reconnecting and developing the “muscle” of the prefrontal cortex takes time. It’s not going to heal with benchmark assessments or computer programs promising to catch kids up on missed skills. It’s going to require adjustment of our expectations and and redirecting our focus from an academic, instructional viewpoint.

5. Which leads to the last strategy, which is to accept the impact of the traumatic events on our lives and students.

This doesn’t mean accept wrongdoing or to normalize intolerance or violence. Quite the opposite. Many of us - myself included - greatly awaited the clock striking midnight on December 31, 2020, because we wanted to put the events of that year behind us - and rightly so. The truth is, the beginning and possibly a great portion of 2021 will be a continuation of the crisis that began last year. The pain and problems won’t go away overnight, nor should they. Some of the issues that have presented themselves boldly this year, such as intolerance and social injustice, have been neglected for ages, and rebuilding trust and stability in our country will take time. Healing is needed.

It’s also important to note that, yes, our students may very well have learning gaps and not be where we would expect them to be emotionally or academically for years to come. They shouldn’t feel bad about that, or worried that they aren’t “good enough” or wrong for the things they don’t know and didn’t get a chance to learn. Projecting the mindset that we are in recovery mode to our students is important to their progress as well. It’s easy to feel defeated when setting goals and what you are looking forward to in the future doesn’t pan out, something I talked about in episode 5 with setting goals and boundaries for the new year. Accepting the brokenness and time it will take to repair the damage is a trauma sensitive classroom practice that creates an environment where students feel accepted and receptive to the work ahead.

To recap, here are five ways to create a trauma sensitive classroom environment in these uncertain times:

Together, we’re going to make it. Giving ourselves the room to grow and heal will get us there in time.

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Are you a new teacher who could use some guidance on how to weather the rest of this unprecedented year? Get my free ebook The Thrive Guide: Beginning a Teaching Career in Uncertain Times below!


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