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School-Aged Youth & Trauma: How Education Communities Can Help

Written by
March 8th, 2018

This article was co-written with Julie Ziegler. To continue the conversation, please reach out to them respectively at jharris@illuminateed.com or jziegler@illuminateed.com.

When you look around your schools, would you believe that 1 out of every 4 students has experienced at least one traumatic or adverse childhood experience? In fact, 1 out of every 2 people have experienced significant stress and trauma. A study in 2007 by Copeland, Keller, Angold and Costello reported that 68% of students had experienced at least one traumatic event by age 16.

Now, we’ve all experienced stressful situations from time to time, but what is different about trauma is our reaction or ability to respond to these events. Trauma is the result of an acute crisis event or chronic adverse experiences. Traumatized youth are often focused on survival, thereby affecting their ability to learn, socialize, and develop the proper skills that are needed to thrive. The brains of traumatized youth physically change, and these students are truly functioning in a flight or fight mode.

Nadine Burke Harris gives the analogy of walking in a forest and seeing a bear and how the brain and body respond to this with increased heart rate and producing cortisol, a stress hormone, that allows you to respond by running away or fighting the bear. This is fine, she says, if this is a random one-time event in a forest. But for people who experience trauma, this physical response happens over and over again, whose long-term effects can change the wiring of their brain and even affect their health. So, when we think about students in our learning communities, we should challenge ourselves to see our students and misbehavior through a trauma-sensitive lens.

What ed communities are seeing

How do you spot the kids who may be facing trauma? Trauma can manifest itself in many different ways, and as previously noted, is not always the result of a singular violent incident.

One way to determine if a child is facing trauma is to build relationships with your students. Get to know them. This allows you to create a baseline. All kids who are quiet are not necessarily dealing with trauma. However, if a student is generally gregarious and then begins to seclude themselves, this may be an indicator. Alternatively, a student who is generally reserved may begin to act out or start acting rambunctious.

The child who is “always acting up” or the “class clown” may actually be suffering from something greater inside. When I was in the classroom, I had a student who would always climb into the classroom cabinets. Generally, a teacher may see this as unruly behavior. The real reason was that the student had dealt with a series of traumatic events as a young child and was searching for containment.

In addition to behavioral changes, students suffering from trauma or adverse experiences may exhibit physical, social, emotional or cognitive signs as well. For instance, these can be students who don’t appear to have relationships with their peers; students who have repeated ailments such as headaches or stomach aches; students who have difficulty focusing or show signs of hypervigilance. Toxic stress, caused by trauma, has now been proven to alter students’ brain chemistry which can alter ability to stay focused, complete a task, stay organized or remember instructions.

What we can do

Given that so many students are affected by trauma, it’s important to know what we can do to create trauma sensitive school communities. Schools that are trauma sensitive have systems in place such as PBIS (Positive Behavior Intervention Systems) or COST (Coordination of Services Teams). Many education communities will also set up early warning systems (EWS) such as On Track in Illuminate or setting thresholds in eduCLIMBER to alert teachers and admin if a student is not on a positive trajectory.

At a tier one level, classrooms can begin incorporating universal strategies and providing staff and parent workshops around coping with stress. These strategies should focus on building positive, adaptive systems by building positive climates, developing social-problem solving and coping skills, facilitating growth mindset, and teaching common behavior expectations.

Educators who are trauma-sensitive approach “misbehavior” from a curious standpoint. Rather than assuming that a child is trying to garner attention or act up, ask, “Why might this student be behaving in this way? What happened right before the misbehavior?” Sometimes, even asking kids flat out “what is going on?” and how you can help them is a good starting point.

At our recent user conference, one school district shared how they have created safe, soothing spaces for students to access during high-stress times such as recess and lunch. The space is a classroom that has flexible seating, dim lighting and calming music. This type of environment allows students to relax and reset. In addition, predictable routines and warnings when you will deviate from the routines are important for students.

For students who continue to have difficulties responding adaptively, additional interventions that are effective focus on remediating adverse effects and working to ensure the student doesn’t get re-traumatized. Referrals to outside agencies or working closely with your school counselor, psychologist, and social worker to integrate cognitive-behavioral strategies, community-based services, and wrap-around care may be needed.

Finally, maintain awareness of your own well-being. As educators, we’re often wearing many hats and have many opportunities everyday to steer situations in positive or negative directions. Make sure to practice self-care so you can be present and level-headed when supporting students. In the bigger picture, when schools are supportive and trauma-sensitive, both students and adults will learn to thrive.

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Illuminate Education is a provider of educational technology and services offering innovative data, assessment and student information solutions. Serving K-12 schools, our cloud-based software and services currently assist more than 1,600 school districts in promoting student achievement and success.

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