Being “trauma-informed” has become a bit of a buzzword in education these days.
A previous series in this blog attempted to provide an introduction to what it might mean for teachers.
Today’s post tries to provide further clarity.
Limiting Trauma’s Effects
Antoine Germany is an assistant Principal at Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento, Calif. He has a particular interest in equity and access for all students and instructional practices in urban education:
Trauma-informed practice is an approach to schooling that acknowledges the prevalence of trauma in schools and with students in particular. Trauma-informed practice also recognizes how trauma affects all people in the school setting and seeks to use this knowledge to limit trauma’s negative impact on student learning and well-being.
The word “trauma” was used widely during the global pandemic we all experienced, and rightly so; however, trauma has had a profound effect on youth for many decades preceding COVID 19. Without understanding trauma, we are more likely to misinterpret it when it manifests itself.
Trauma can derive from an event (acute), a series of events (chronic), or a set of circumstances (complex) that has an adverse effect on a person’s physical, social, and emotional well-being.
Trauma can manifest itself in a variety of ways, but in the school setting, it often presents itself in student dysregulation. Student dysregulation is when a student’s behavior is out of sync with the situation. This typically means a student is aggressive (fight), is disengaged or shutting down (freeze), or is restless or hyperactive (flight). These symptoms of trauma are typically triggered when the amygdala (the part of the brain that is instinctive and assess threats) overrides the prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain that controls executive function and rational decisionmaking) and causes a person to engage in instinctive behavior—fight, flight, or freeze.
Imagine a time when you were daydreaming and walking peacefully in a park when suddenly a large, aggressive dog barks and approaches you menacingly. Your reaction is typically to gasp in shock/horror and to freeze for a moment. That frozen moment is an “amygdala hijack.” That is when your brain pumps your body with adrenaline and you stop all rational thought. Your mind for that moment is only thinking about survival and overrides any complex thoughts. People with trauma often have an overactive amygdala and are triggered to have amygdala hijacks more frequently and with greater intensity.
What can a classroom teacher do for students that have hyperactive amygdalas and have a higher likelihood for dysregulation?
Recognize the Signs of Dysregulation
An untrained instructor might assume a student that consistently puts his or her head down on the desk during class is not getting enough sleep at home or a student who is frequently requesting to see the nurse because of stomach issues is sickly.
Although this could be true, it could also be that a student is showing signs of dysregulation. Instinctively, a student who is experiencing amygdala hijack will manifest it through either aggressive behavior (confrontational to peers or teacher) or “freeze behavior,” which typically looks like disengagement. Students seeking to leave the classroom (frequent restroom breaks or trips to the nurse’s office) are often exhibiting “fleeing behavior.”
Recognizing this behavior for what it is is the first step in addressing it. Far too often in the past, teachers and administrators sought to punish this sort of behavior in an attempt to correct it. We know now that this is not the right approach to addressing a mental health issue.
Typically, dysregulation begins with a trigger (a comment or a problem on a test a student is challenged by), and it escalates into full dysregulation. A trained educator can often avoid full dysregulation by noticing that a student is triggered and seeks to calm them down before it escalates into full dysregulation.
When a student is elevated and is showing signs of dysregulation, the wrong approach is to enter into a power struggle. Giving the student commands (what we typically call redirection) might make the situation worse. Instead, offer the student a choice. Typically, that choice centers around the student finding another environment in some way. “Would you like to step outside and get some water or would you like to finish your work outside for a bit?”
Typically, limiting a student’s audience is a good first step in helping a student gain composure. Classmates often cause anxiety for students or make them feel like they have to perform in front of their peers. Limiting the student’s audience during times of distress is a good first step in students regaining regulation of their emotions.
The goal when a student is in a heightened stage of dysregulation is to develop what some call “therapeutic rapport.” This simply means you are trying to build a connection with the student that allows them to feel understood, comfortable, and ultimately safe.
Building therapeutic rapport takes training and skill, but typically, it involves mirroring a student’s body language and paraphrasing their language back to them. Body language and personal space are important to observe when you attempt to build rapport as is your paraverbal tone. Keeping your speaking volume appropriate to the situation, speaking in caring and supportive tones, speaking at a pace that can easily be understood are all ways to build rapport with a student in a heightened state of distress.
Finally, after the episode has ended (perhaps the next day), you want to circle back with that student to reflect on what happened and what can mutually be done to prevent it from happening again. We typically call this “reflect and restore.” We want the student to reflect on his or her triggers and restore the harm that has been done to the classroom community in a civil and thoughtful way.
We all want our students to realize their potential. By building trauma-informed classrooms (which can include natural lighting, warm colors, and welcoming signage, along with the previously mentioned practices), we can have a learning space that is mindful of the many triggers that our students bring into the classroom and seek to limit its impact. Allowing students a moment of mindfulness (guided-breathing exercises or writing in journals) is another research-based way to prepare students for learning.
The strategies I’ve shared here are just a few elements of trauma-informed instruction. Learn more here.
Thanks to Antoine for contributing his thoughts!
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