From the October Newsletter: Teaching through trauma

From the October Newsletter: Teaching through trauma
Posted on 10/20/2017

Racing heartbeat. Sweaty palms. Upset stomach. Being on alert for any danger that may come. Being unable to retain new information for long or focus on anything other than staying alert and staying alive.

These are just a few of the symptoms most people have when they’re in a state of alert, or worse, terror. They’re also what children who have experienced trauma feel much of the time.

Research estimates anywhere between 25 and 40 percent of students in any given school in the U.S. have experienced something traumatic enough to rewire their brain. Most people respond to a variety of events with fear or calm or something in between. The traumatized brain is much more familiar with responding to events with terror than with calm. Like tire tracks on a muddy road traveled daily, the neurological pathways in their brains have become well-worn routes to fear in response to events that others may shrug off.

When students have been traumatized – whether it’s by one event or chronic exposure to traumatic situations – they may not know why they act out in class sometimes. Their teachers, too, may be stumped. What’s important for both student and teacher to know is that every action a person takes is driven by those well-worn pathways in the brain that lead the student to respond calmly or out of fear. When in a heightened state of alarm due to trauma, disruptive behavior is the result of those pathways. Knowing this removes intention and choice from the equation, and helps both the teacher and student handle the behavior in a more effective way.

District 51 teachers have been learning more about handling trauma and students who have been traumatized through Trauma Informed Classroom Trainings. Trainings began in spring 2017 with a quick, 45-minute presentation for staff about Trauma Informed Classrooms and what trauma does to the brain. Staff also learned simple strategies for making classrooms more sensitive to trauma. Over the summer, more staff went through two eight-hour trainings to learn even more about Trauma Informed Classrooms and learn techniques for helping students rewire those pathways to fear so they can feel calm and safe in the classroom. Trainings will continue throughout this school year, and the district is offering numerous supports for staff interested in trauma.

It’s helpful to know about how trauma affects the brain and behavior so that both students and staff understand the root cause of certain behaviors. Knowing the root cause helps staff target that root cause – the state of high alert in a traumatized person’s brain – and effectively neutralize it by modeling calming techniques, teaching about self-awareness and self-management, and remaining calm themselves to help students feel safe. Once they feel safe, they can learn and retain new information, and participate in the academic learning going on in the classroom.

“Trauma Informed Classrooms are about creating safety – that can be psychological safety, that can be physical safety, but that whole idea is about creating safe, optimal learning environments for both our staff and our students,” said Cathy Ebel, D51 Prevention Services Coordinator.

“If we all decide that we agree a relationship is acting with empathy, that builds a relationship, that builds safety. Relationships are the key that hold it all together because kids learn and adults thrive.”

Ms. Ebel works with four trained trauma coaches in the district who help support schools: Margery Brennan, Tammara Dickerson, Shannon Hoffman, and Mary Beth Luedtke. Ms. Brennan points out that districts put a lot of time and effort into lockdowns and shelter-in-place drills designed to protect students’ physical safety.

“I am completely convinced that we can do the same for psychological safety,” she said. “Learning about social and emotional well-being and real learning will take place with this model.”

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