Children with histories of trauma face academic, behavioral, and relational challenges. Often, these students have poor academic performance, drop out of school, or end up in alternative education settings. Students have diverse backgrounds, and some are exposed to traumatic factors.
What is a trauma-informed school? It is a setting where trauma is understood, recognized, and responded to in ways that empower those who are affected. The goal of trauma-informed schools is to put in place supports that help children cope. Read this article to learn more.
Understanding the Effects of Trauma
Let’s discuss first the definition of trauma. Trauma is caused by a deeply distressing or disturbing experience. In psychology, it refers to the emotional response to a terrible event such as accident, abuse, violence, or natural disaster. It involves actual or perceived threats to the well-being and safety of an individual.
Large numbers of students from diverse backgrounds create an environment where disruptive behaviors can occur. There are external and internal factors each student brings to the classroom. It is important how teachers address these factors within a trauma informed classroom.
Educators are noting an increase in disruptive behavior in schools. When students feel unsafe, they react by shutting down, acting out, disengaging, or running from their environment. Anxiety, fear, outbursts, irritability, absenteeism, difficulty with authority, and change in academic performance are becoming increasingly present in classrooms.
Safety is important in establishing creative and healing environments. When an environment has a safe and welcoming atmosphere, it can foster a stronger connection among students. This, in turn, will allow students to experience a sense of belonging and security.
Recovery from trauma requires students to be in places and situations that are predictable and safe. To achieve this, teachers should have a better understanding of their students’ identities.
Strategies for Trauma Informed Schools
- Reframe student behavior as a survival strategy instead of willful disobedience.
- Recognize developmental risk factors (abuse, neglect, or trauma) and how they affect student behavior. Use this info to determine how to respond accordingly.
- Nurture relationships with students. Take an interest in your students’ lives. Make eye contact using soft eyes. Ask questions. Listen.
- Create a school environment where students can feel safe. Establish predictable environments. The classroom should be organized, not overwhelming in terms of colors, lighting, or materials.
- Address the students’ physiological needs.
- Practice self-regulation skills and calming techniques (breathing exercises, relaxation, meditation, etc.).
- Be proactive. Teach skills and behaviors before they’re needed or required.
- Have fun. Think of activities that can lighten the mood, such as games and team building exercises.
Supporting Students Who Have Experienced Trauma
Although there are behavior programs to address specific traumatic events, there seems to be a lack of programs that address underlying student concerns. Students need skills to observe, understand, and reflect on the events unfolding around them. They also need to learn how to respond to different situations.
Psychoeducational therapy addresses the effects of trauma and facilitates empowerment and skill acquisition through the use of non-invasive and non-judgmental forms of therapy. It encompasses a range of activities that combine education, counseling, and supportive interventions. See our blog on Mindfulness to find ways to implement this in your school.
Expressive arts therapy (aka creative arts therapy) integrates art, music, movement, and creative writing as catalysts for personal discovery and growth. Students can use expressive arts to act out what they may find unspeakable. The use of expressive arts can be on an individual or group level. Group art-making contributes to a sense of camaraderie among group members. Encouraging each student to gain social, emotional, and behavioral skills to be safe in the classroom is key to authentic group therapy inclusion.
Schools should promote an understanding of trauma that will establish collective recovery, facilitate engagement, and improve resilience. Through trauma informed schools, growth can be achieved through social healing, empowerment, and reconstitution of a student’s identity within the classroom.