Whole Child Learning Part 1: The Logic Behind Trauma-Informed Teaching 

Take a moment to think about what comes to mind when I say the words “student trauma.”  What images or thoughts immediately come to your head? If I had to guess, I would say most people typically think of war, a terrible car crash, loss of a family member, abuse, etc. Unfortunately, those are all examples of trauma-inducing events that our students experience and carry with them to school each day, whether they realize it or not. 


But as I have expanded my own learning about trauma, I have learned that it can also come from some not-so-obvious places - and that educators can have a tremendous impact on how students grapple with all the emotions and reactions that come with it. Some of these approaches might be construed as non-traditional, so I challenge you to read on to understand the logic behind our teachers’ actions to help curb the impact of trauma on learning. 



What Research Tells Us


Students who experience what is called “toxic” or “chronic” stress can have some of the same responses to different triggers as students who have experienced what you might traditionally define as a tragic event. A student who stresses endlessly about grades or a student who comes into a classroom worried every day about being embarrassed, for example, can also experience the adverse symptoms of trauma.  


“Trauma is an exceptional experience in which powerful and dangerous events overwhelm a person’s capacity to cope.” (Rice & Groves, 2005, p.3). We are learning that the impact of an event or series of events is more important in regard to trauma than the actual nature of the event. Depending on how much support a student has and on his/her capacity for resiliency, trauma can impact a student daily

Furthermore, it used to be thought that trauma was experienced in the brain and that the person was thinking actively about the adverse event when experiencing the symptoms of trauma. What we now understand is that the effects of trauma are physical. That is because, when we sense danger, we go into fight or flight mode. 


A student who goes into fight or flight may not even know when it happens or what the trigger is. When this occurs, we are  encouraging teachers to describe these times as going “offline.” Dan Siegel is a clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine and Executive Director of the Mindsight Institute.  His research and work has resulted in an understanding of what he calls the “hand brain.” In this video, Sarah Buffie, a consultant and trainer we have utilized in Lakota, explains the hand brain.


Sarah talks about “felt safety” in the video. As I travel around the district and observe in classrooms, I think understanding this idea can be one of the most important ways we can transform Lakota into a trauma-responsive organization. 




What It Looks Like to be Trauma-Responsive


We, as educators, are very used to the idea of building relationships with our students. Our teachers go above and beyond every day to connect with their students. They invest in learning about their students’ backgrounds, interests, and extracurriculars. They give positive reinforcement and support them every day. Felt safety adds the element of consistency and an environment that allows students to come “online” and engage in learning. Opposite of “offline,” going “online” means that students are regulated and ready to deal with cognitive tasks (logic, reasoning, etc.). There are so many ways our teachers increase felt safety in their classrooms:

  •  Mental health check ins: Having students evaluate how they are feeling as they enter the room helps them take a moment to self-check and think about what they need to be successful in the classroom.  It also allows teachers to adjust plans and check in with students who might be struggling.
  • Yoga/mindfulness: Taking a few minutes each day to do a yoga pose or a breathing exercise helps tour students (and the teacher) bring their bodies to a calm state to be sure their thinking brains are online. The idea here is to teach these techniques to students and to use them regularly so that the students know it is OK to check in and use a strategy to get their minds online, if needed. There are countless free apps and websites our teachers use, like The Calm app and this example of a belly breathing video for young students.  
  • Calming corners & flexible seating: More and more teachers are incorporating calming corners in their rooms to allow students a space to go if they need a moment to come back to being online. Flexible seating can also provide a comfortable space for students to get what they need physically, while engaging in the learning environment.  
  • Morning meetings: Starting class with a group discussion can be a great way to build community and give students a safe space to address or share what they bring into the classroom, address the needs they bring to the table and prepare to engage in their education. Morning meetings also allow classrooms to create a shared vision of the learning environment.                                                                    
 
  • Time-In: This is the idea that, when a student is offline or needs redirection, the teacher provides more time with the student, instead of time away from the student. Counter to this is asking an administrator or counselor to deal with an offline student. It may de-escalate the situation, but it takes away from the relationship between the student and the teacher. Often, the de-escalation and trust building ends up happening between the counselor or administrator and the student. Therefore, the teacher and student may still have a strained relationship. Instead, a counselor or administrator is utilized to support the rest of the class, while allowing the teacher to work directly with the offline student requiring more attention.

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In addition to the things we can add to our classrooms to increase felt safety, we have learned that there are some practices we can decrease because they can trigger trauma reactions and decrease felt safety: 

  • Arguments or power struggles: Many times, students who are argumentative or challenging to authority are functioning with an offline brain at that moment. That means that the student is using packaged or go-to responses or behaviors, rather than using logic and reasoning. If the teacher engages in that interaction or becomes offline also, the student will most likely increase the fight or flight response while  the offline brain is in control. It is best to stay calm and help guide the student to felt safety and body regulation before trying to reason. That doesn’t mean that the student doesn’t receive a consequence for his/her actions. Rather, it just means that addressing consequences while the student is offline will not yield the intended results and could wait until they are mentally prepared to engage in reflection and rational discussion. 

  • Public behavior charts: These can cause humiliation for a student especially if the student experiences offline behaviors due to trauma or stress.  

  • Time-out: As discussed in the time-in section, it is best for offline students and other students in the classroom to see the teacher calmly, competently, and confidently address offline behaviors. That allows the other students to see that body regulation is something that all students are learning, and we address it just as we would an academic struggle. The only caveat here is that time-outs, or leaving the room, may be what a student needs to come back online and regroup. That is different than using removal from the classroom in a disciplinary or punitive way.



Trauma Training a Priority for Lakota

Just as I have personally engaged in a learning journey around trauma, Lakota, as a district, is on a similar journey. This year, all Lakota teachers will receive four training sessions about trauma provided by Lakota school counselors and based on the book Fostering Resilient Learners: Strategies for Creating a Trauma Sensitive Classroom by Kristin Souers. Our administrators received trauma training from Sarah Buffie over the past summer, and Sarah will return to train our counselors, school psychologists, and community liaisons this fall.  We have 15 employees who have been trained and are trauma-certified practitioners, and we are looking to increase that number throughout the year. We are currently working to build our next layer of professional development for teachers to focus on building resilience in students and teachers. Resiliency is what allows a person to overcome the effects of a traumatic situation.  

In my 17 years in education, no topic has captivated my interest like trauma has. It has caused me to question my long-held beliefs around student behavior and how to interact with a struggling student. Most importantly, when teachers sometimes feel unprepared to deal with the myriad of experiences and needs that our students present, learning how to help students deal with trauma has provided me with tangible, simple, and teacher-friendly ways to support our students. It has reinforced my belief that, no matter the challenges, we can make a difference in the lives of our students.




Social & Emotional Learning a Community Issue


Trauma-informed care is a critical part of Lakota’s commitment to our students’ social and emotional well-being. Lakota is extremely proud of our teachers who were involved in writing Ohio’s new Social Emotional Learning Standards that passed this summer. 


To support learning and understanding around social emotional learning, Student Services is hosting a three-part series with “Trauma Informed Care” being the first installment of the series. The second installment will focus on understanding anxiety and will look at strategies to help students manage their anxiety. To close out the series, Lakota will offer a free viewing of Angst, a film that promotes discussion around mental health, to all staff and community members. After the film, there will be a unique panel comprised of mental health professionals, parents, and students. 



Lori Brown headshotAs the Director of Student Services at Lakota Local Schools, Lori Brown oversees the district’s programs and services supporting students’ social, emotional and mental health needs. Connect with Lori via email at lori.brown@lakotaonline.com


Posted by lauren.boettcher@lakotaonline.com On 16 October, 2019 at 12:15 PM  

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