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With Larry Ferlazzo

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Teaching Opinion

Response: Students Exposed to Trauma Are ‘Full of Promise’

By Larry Ferlazzo — December 21, 2016 15 min read
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(This is the second post in a three-part series. You can see Part One here.)

The new “question-of-the-week” is:

How can educators best learn about--and respond to--trauma that students have experienced or are experiencing?

In Part One, Mary Ann Zehr, Dr. Jennifer Davis Bowman, Cindi Rigsbee, Kenneth Baum, David Krulwich, Judie Haynes, Dr. Debbie Zacarian, and Lourdes Alvarez-Ortiz, PhD contributed answers to this question. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Jennifer, Cindi and Marry Ann on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

Today, Adeyemi Stembridge, Sarah Kirby-Gonzalez, Signe Whitson, Natalie Patterson, Josh Patterson share their thoughts.

Response From Adeyemi Stembridge

Adeyemi Stembridge, PhD provides technical assistance for school improvement with a specific focus on equity. He works with districts around the country to identify root causes of achievement gaps and formulate pedagogy- and policy-based efforts to redress the underperformance of vulnerable student populations. Follow him on Twitter at @DrYemiS:

In order to discuss (first) how we learn about and then (second) respond to trauma, we must acknowledge that ongoing-trauma will mitigate the efficacy of even the most profoundly impactful school practices. When students’ basic needs of safety, food, and shelter are not met, their attention to the expectations of school will be relegated accordingly. Therefore, it is a given that when children are obviously suffering, the first order of support is always to identify and redress, as much as possible, the on-going trauma. Otherwise, one will never know the potential efficacy of strategies for responding to the needs of traumatized children.

I often find that the word “trauma” itself stifles the imagination of effective supports for students. While the lived experiences of students should never be ignored, teachers must resist thinking of students exposed to trauma as inherently damaged but rather as requiring protective factors that allow them to feel an authentic sense of community and empowerment. The question for practice becomes: What protective factors can match and mitigate the risk factors the student currently encounters? This reminds us that a student exposed to trauma should not be thought of as incapable. The child is full of promise—if the risk is mitigated. The balance of risk and protective factors is a function of “vulnerability.”

The instructional strategies that mitigate the risks associated with trauma are those that deepen students’ sense of personal empowerment, engagement, and belonging in the school community. Great teachers understand that authentic learning never occurs in isolation, but rather in a rich web of human context, experience, and emotion. Prioritize empathy. Share your own experiences with trauma and personal stories of resilience. Emphasize safety. Rehearse your own capacity for patience, look for those indicators of authentic relationship... and yet, don’t expect trust to be extended right away.

Perhaps the most corrupting effect of trauma is the debilitating sense of disempowerment. Schools should act thoughtfully to counteract this effect through fostering a strong sense of community and intellectual safety. The challenge, of course, in supporting our most vulnerable students is that we don’t always know of the presence or specific nature of trauma. Learning experiences should be designed to center students’ voices as a medium through which content connections are made. Instruction should be seen as an instrument and pathway for empowering students to own their investments in the learning. The task of the teacher is to create an environment in which students feel like they are safely supported by a community that allows for human connection and makes profound engagement possible.

There are three critical underlying pedagogical premises that make it more likely for the root-causes of student underperformance to be revealed and addressed in the context of teaching and learning: First, great teachers know that there is depth and richness in every student’s personal story. Lived experiences are dynamic texts for emotional and intellectual development when they are leveraged responsibly.

Second, powerful pedagogy nearly always features some sort of “serve-and-return” opportunities in which students can respond to ideas and also have their own ideas acknowledged and responded to in turn. And third, trusting environments are facilitated by adults who authentically affirm students’ character. Trust and empowerment are best served when we speak to whom our students are and not merely what they do.

In addition to seeking the collaborations and supports to address ongoing trauma, the task of the teacher is to create spaces in which students feel like they belong in specific communities of learners who prioritize respect, support, and appreciation for others.

Response From Sarah Kirby-Gonzalez

Sarah Kirby-Gonzalez is a National Board Certified Teacher, 2011 Folsom Cordova Unified School District Teacher of the Year, and Area3 Writing Project Teacher Consultant. Sarah currently teaches 5th grade in Rancho Cordova and serves as Vice President on the Washington Unified School Board in West Sacramento, where she lives with her husband and two young children—a kindergartner and preschooler:

Teaching students of trauma

Building a strong classroom community, using the power of writing, and enlisting the support of a village are my essentials when teaching students who have suffered trauma. Below, I will discuss ways to develop and rely upon all three of these.

The first priority is creating a safe and caring classroom, where kindness is the norm. There are many ways to do this, and each class comes with different challenges and needs for getting there. I have pulled many strategies from The Morning Meeting, by Carol Davis and Roxann Kriete, and Reaching All by Creating Tribes Learning Communities by Jeanne Gibbs. It’s important to note that a community-building focus, including modeling other-oriented behaviors, conversations and discussions, should be built into teaching every subject throughout the day, rather than applied only when facilitating class-meeting blocks. Read alouds of books, such as Wonder by R. J. Palacio and Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul, also help foster rich discussions around empathy and looking at issues from multiple perspectives, and can help inspire student-planned and executed service projects.

Writing is a powerful tool. According research cited in a 2013 article in Time Magazine, How Writing Heals Wounds—Of Both the Mind and Body by Maia Szalavitz, “Writing improves mood and reduces levels of stress hormone.” Teaching students to use writing to work through their emotions is an empowering skill they can take with them to use for the rest of their lives. While my typical writing instruction is focused on mini-lessons of various strategies, the students know that if they have something heavy on their minds that they want to work through on paper, they can opt to do a free write during individual-writing time.

They also know that they don’t need to be concerned with format or correct spelling at this stage. They are writing from their core and expressing what’s in their minds and hearts. Students in my class meet daily with a writing partner, but if their topic is personal, or could be upsetting to their writing partner, they can opt to skip the writing conference or conference with me. I have had students write about topics ranging from past abuse and losing loved ones to heated disagreements on the playground. The National Writing Project operates sites across the county to help with creating writing-centered classrooms. Ralf Fletcher’s book, A Writer’s Notebook: Unlocking the Writer Within You, is a great resource, directed toward the student audience, and he also has published many books written for teachers.

It takes a village to help students who are suffering. We need to make sure our school principals, yard supervisors, office staff, and other important adults on our campuses know the children who are struggling and can help when they see a need. If your district offers intervention programs, sign the child up! Help connect these youngsters with YMCA offerings, Big Brother and Big Sister programs, or other youth-oriented groups. If you suspect ongoing abuse and need help reporting, turn to veteran teachers at your site or in your district. Special education teachers offer a wealth of helpful knowledge in working with students who need something different. Reach out to your village.

Lastly, thank you—thank you for making a difference in the lives of children who need it the most.

Response From Signe Whitson

Signe Whitson, a licensed social worker, school counselor, and author of 8 Keys to End Bullying and the 8 Keys to End Bullying Activity Program for Kids & Tweens, is COO of the Life Space Crisis Intervention Institute and presents workshops nationwide for parents and professionals on bullying prevention and helping kids manage anger. She lives in the Lehigh Valley of Pennsylvania:

Look beyond behavior. These three simple words are the keys to understanding and responding effectively to students who have experienced—or are experiencing—trauma.

According to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, one in four school children has been exposed to a traumatic event that overwhelms their brain, their body, and their behavior. Even a single exposure to trauma can cause significant symptoms, such as anger, jumpiness, social withdrawal, and difficulty concentrating. For young people exposed to repeated and prolonged traumatic events, persistent problems with mood, emotional regulation, impulsive behavior, and decreased academic performance may become the norm.

To truly understand the impact of trauma on a child, educators must understand that the young person’s brain is operating in a chronic state of low-level fear (Perry, 2016). When teachers are able to look beyond disruptive, disrespectful, and disengaged behavior and see the scared child beneath, they put themselves in a better position to support these students and help them begin to heal.

Educators can help traumatized children by:

1. Providing consistency and predictability

The chronic, low-level fear experienced by children with complex trauma means that they are hyper-vigilant to threats in their environment. Traumatized children are particularly sensitive to changes in their routine, as a lack of predictability threatens their sense of safety. Whenever possible, establish routines and provide structure to the school day. Teach rules and expectations. Write agendas on the board. Stick to plans and patterns. When change can be anticipated, such as a fire drill or a field trip, make time to tell the child about it beforehand. When change happens unexpectedly, pay special attention to reassuring the child that he is safe and secure.

2. Offering choice and control

Students with a history of trauma often struggle to gain a sense of control in their lives. When teachers offer students reasonable and realistic choices in the classroom—such as where to sit or what to play during free time—they enhance a child’s sense of control over her environment.

3. Nurturing and supporting the student

Many traumatized children have been hurt or left unprotected from abuse by at least one adult in their life. Lack of trust is a very common characteristic of children who have experienced trauma. Educators have an amazing opportunity to be among the first trustworthy adults in the lives of these vulnerable young people. By truly listening to children and making them feel heard and understood, you show kids that they have worth and value. By providing a hug when a child asks for it, you show him that he is loveable. By responding to their crises with calm, you model that challenging situations can be overcome and that you will help them handle their pain.

4. Consulting with professionals and parents

While classroom teachers are often the people with the most contact with a traumatized student, they do not have to go it alone when it comes to effectively reaching out to these students. Teachers do children a great service when they reach out to those who know the student well and to mental health professionals who can provide information and resources about the symptoms and impact of trauma exposure.

It is understandable for educators to feel angry and frustrated by challenging students who disrupt class time, defy expectations, and display impulsive and even aggressive behaviors. Yet the flip side of anger is compassion; when teachers are able to look beyond behavior and recognize that a vulnerable child may be communicating her pain in the only ways she knows how, they can re-think their responses from punishment and alienation to support and connection.

Response From Natalie Patterson & Josh Patterson

Natalie Patterson is a writer, licensed therapeutic foster parent, and mother of four. She writes for multiple outlets but focuses mainly on trauma and the effects of attachment on adoptive families.

Josh Patterson, PhD is the principal of Oakland Elementary School in Spartanburg, S.C. He serves as president-elect of South Carolina ASCD, is an ASCD Emerging Leader, and advocates for evidence-based practices that support the development of the whole child:

As a teacher I understood that the students within my classroom had unique needs, and as an administrator I became exposed to a broader range of students with a broader range of needs. But I had 12 years of experience as an educator under my belt before I came to understand the impact that trauma can have on the development of a child and, in turn, his or her needs in a classroom setting.

My enlightening came through my role as a father, and a husband. Watching my wife advocate for our now-adopted daughter who came to us through foster care helped me to see what parents want their child’s teacher to know: that each child is unique and comes with a special set of needs. And sometimes trauma can be a silent disease of sorts, where we see a lot of symptoms but we aren’t sure what is causing them.

As foster parents we received a significant amount of training, and as adoptive parents we have worked to become students of the traumatized brain. What we have learned in this role that I am able to transfer to my role as an educator is that children are not capable of engaging and utilizing their full brain when they are in fight, flight, or freeze mode. And while many students will have an appearance of “normal,” the situations at home or in their past have not allowed them to experience felt safety - not just where they are safe, but where they feel and know it.

Understanding the effect that trauma has on the developing brain allows us as educators to respond more intentionally and uniquely to students from difficult backgrounds. As parents, we have to use different strategies with one child because our conventional methods are not going to effective with her due to the baggage and experiences of her past. Similarly, as educators, we may find that our traditional approaches are not best suited to meet the needs of the child from trauma. Here are some helpful resources to help you learn more about the effects of trauma on your students.


Fostering Resilient Learners: Strategies for Creating a Trauma-Sensitive Classroom (Souers & Hall, 2016) - This text will help readers understand the growing concern of childhood trauma and its impact on the school experience. While grounded in research, Souers and Hall provide many strategies for creating a safe classroom environment while cultivating a strong teacher/student relationship.

The Whole-Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind (Siegel & Bryson, 2011) - This resource will provide caregivers with a clear understanding and appropriate strategies for dealing with typical, everyday struggles. By equipping parents with strategies to engage the whole brain, children can develop healthy emotional and intellectual development to live more balanced, connected lives.

The Connected Child: Bring Hope and Healing to Your Adoptive Family (Purvis, Cross, & Sunshine, 2007) - While this text speaks specifically to adoption and attachment, the suggestions and strategies will support any child from a traumatic background. Topics within this text range from building bonds of affection and trust to appropriate discipline techniques.

Supporting and Educating Traumatized Students: A Guide for School-Based Professionals (Rossen & Hull, 2013) - This work, written for educators who work with traumatized students, provides practical, implementable evidence-based interventions and strategies for use in all educational settings.

Thanks to Adeyemi, Sarah, Signe, Natalie and Josh for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

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