5 Essential Strategies to Reach Students Who Have Experienced Trauma

5 Min Read  •  Community Connections

Did you know that between half and two-thirds of the students in your class, regardless of socioeconomic or cultural background, have experienced trauma? Trauma is defined as toxic stress in a child’s life that is beyond his or her coping skills. The CDC’s Adverse Childhood Experiences Study uncovered the link between childhood trauma and the chronic diseases people develop as adults, as well as social and emotional problems. In fact, experiencing trauma under the age of eighteen actually changes the way the brain works. When a child is under constant toxic stress, their cortisol level is always high. This heightens their “fight or flight” response, and they are unable to regulate it on their own. 

As teachers, we have an important role in helping these students. As we know, some children are so resilient.  They are able to bounce back from these terrible circumstances and grow to be successful adults. So why is it that some students are resilient and some aren’t? Research has found that the common thread with those resilient students was a caring, supportive adult.

Every child who winds up doing well has had at least one stable and committed relationship with a supportive adult. -Center on the Developing Child, Harvard University

We are those adults. Our job is to not give up on children regardless of how challenging their behavior may seem. Our daily interactions can make or break the day for a student.

How can you tell if a student is experiencing trauma?

This is a trick question. Students who have undergone trauma may present with behavioral problems. These are your “shark” students, who lash out at you or others, who don’t follow directions, who seem oppositional, manipulative, or extra needy. Even if behaviors present in a shark-like manner, we need to remember that that child is really a goldfish on the inside, and still needs his or her basic needs to be met.

Other students may completely hide the fact that trauma has occurred. You may never know that these students have experienced trauma, because they put on the mask of a goldfish, while really feeling shark-like inside. It is more difficult to directly meet the needs of these students because you simply don’t know they are struggling.

“Don’t judge me. You only see what I choose to show you.”

What can we do? 

Luckily, it doesn’t matter whether we know trauma has occurred or not, the same best practice responses will work for all students. Here are a few ways that you can make your classroom a safe environment for students undergoing trauma:

  • Increase predictability with solid classroom routines – the less change, the better. Many times we change our routines because WE get bored. Doing this can have a negative effect on a student that is in need of stability.
  • Nurture positive relationships – Reflect on the students who you don’t know as well. Seek to build relationships with students who are hard to like or who are shy. Find out their personal interests and work on making a connection.
  • Provide regulating opportunities and teach self-regulation – Incorporate yoga or mindfulness into your classroom. There are many online resources that can lead your class through short exercises if you are not comfortable leading them.
  • Use restorative practices (teach behaviors instead of punishing them) – Rather than assigning a punishment for a student, match the consequence to the behavior and seek to find the reason the behavior happened. Work with the student to help him fix the problem that occurred.
  • Teach to Strengths – Instead of finding and trying to “fix” problems with a student, help that student find his or her inner worth by highlighting and building upon his or her strengths.

The Arts and Trauma-Informed Instruction

The arts can play a huge part in reaching students who have experienced trauma. If you combine the research for Arts Integration with the research on Trauma Informed Practice, it is clear that integrating the arts is best practice for a multitude of reasons. In the article “How Art Can Help Children Overcome Trauma” from Education Weekly, “Psychiatrist Bruce D. Perry found that areas of the brain can be reshaped and reorganized through activities that include touch and movement—the foundation of creative expression. Just as trauma is experienced—through nonverbal sensation—it can be released.” Creative expression in a safe environment can have healing effects for all. Creating art can lower the high cortisol levels. Students can recognize this as a strategy for self-regulation.

Some students undergoing trauma can have academic gaps due to missed school or the inability to learn at potential due to their situation. If academics are a huge part of their day and they are not feeling successful, this is a barrier to their resilience. The arts are a place for students to shine, whether or not they are struggling with academics, helping students to build self-worth. Arts as a special are an extra opportunity for students to build a strong relationship with a caring, supportive adult in addition to providing that creative outlet.

Arts integration can provide even more opportunities for students to find their self-worth through success with the arts AND academics. Integration helps students master content areas through the arts, which provides a new way of looking at content that may have been seen as a challenge on its own. It helps them find connections that they hadn’t previously noticed. Arts Integration allows students to express themselves creatively on a daily basis, rather than just during their weekly art or music class.

Moving Forward

Helping students who have undergone trauma is not a quick fix. Sometimes, it seems like we’re doing everything we can and we don’t notice a difference. Even if you’re not seeing a major change, keep going- remember, it only takes one caring adult to reverse the effects of trauma – you can make a lifelong difference in the resilience of your students!