The Impact of Trauma in the Classroom

By Daria Lorio-Barsten, M.Ed., Kara McCulloch, M.S., and Nick Kier, M.A.T.

You begin your third period class like any other. The students come in, get out their materials, and start the warm-up activity. You notice that when Chelsea walks in, she does not interact with anyone else in the class. She gets out her materials but promptly puts her hood up and lays her head down across her arms.You approach her to ask her to get started, but she ignores you. You prompt again, and are met with an annoyed, “Get away from me!” The other students are starting to notice, so you remind the class that you cannot move on until everyone is finished with the warm-up.  Chelsea now throws her pencil on the floor and storms out of the classroom. You alert the office that she has left and move on with your class.

For the next two days, Chelsea doesn’t come to class. Mr. Wright, the school counselor, comes by your room to let you know that her mom was incarcerated after a violent altercation with her stepfather. Chelsea was home at the time, witnessed everything, and will likely be involved in the court case going forward. When he leaves, you start to wonder what impact this traumatic event will have on Chelsea’s life as well as on her performance in your classroom. How will she react to you when she returns? Will she refuse to work? Will she run out of the classroom again? How should you handle this? What can you do to support students like Chelsea?

Students with Trauma

Almost half (45%) of children in the United States have experienced at least one adverse childhood experience (Centers for Disease Control [CDC], 2016). Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) refer to potentially traumatic experiences and events that threaten a child’s emotional or physical well-being (Sacks & Murphey, 2018). The CDC (2016) divides ACEs into three categories: abuse (emotional, physical, or sexual), household challenges (mother being treated violently, household substance abuse, living in a household with mental illness, parental separation or divorce, or living with a household member with a criminal record), and neglect (emotional or physical). With the high prevalence of children being exposed to trauma, inevitably more students come to school unable to fully engage with the learning experience, as a result. Some avoid school altogether.

Trauma negatively affects a student’s school performance by reducing frustration tolerance, flexibility and creativity in problem solving, attention, abstract reasoning, and executive functioning skills while increasing anger and noncompliance (Resler, 2017).  Children vary and experience trauma in different ways (Resler, 2017). While some present minimal symptoms, others may demonstrate serious negative lasting effects on health and well-being throughout childhood and later in life (Resler, 2017).  The exposure to multiple ACEs is particularly associated with harmful and significant effects (Sacks & Murphey, 2018). The more ACEs a child experiences, the more likely he or she is to experience heart disease and diabetes, poor academic achievement, and substance abuse later in life (Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, 2018).

Impact of Trauma on the Brain

As children grow, their brains develop continuously and adapt to daily experiences to ensure survival (Hertel & Johnson, 2013). Exposure to trauma overstimulates the brain and increases hormones that can become toxic to the brain and negatively impact the functioning of the cerebellar vermis (the part of the brain responsible for regulating cognitive functioning) and the hippocampus (the part responsible for converting short-term memory into long-term memory). Such trauma can lead to fear, perceived threats, unpredictability, instability, pain, or cognitive impairments, which change a child’s perception of the surrounding world.

Resler (2017) describes this process as the reorganization of the two brains: the “survival brain” pushes the “learning/thinking brain” out of the way and causes it to go offline in order to survive.  This resembles being stuck in a permanent fight-or-flight mode, and is challenging in the classroom because students need to be able to access the “learning” part of their brains at all times. If they function primarily in fight or flight, they are not able to learn and master the content that they need in order to be successful.

Making a Shift in Thinking

Gaining an understanding of the impact of trauma on brain development and functioning can help teachers shift their perspectives on some of their students’ behavior and needs. That is, in order to support the student in the learning process, rather than focusing on “What’s wrong with the student?,” we need to ask, “What happened to the student?” (Jennings, 2018). When we shift our thinking like that, we can better understand the function behind the behavior and put supports in place to foster a successful educational experience.

Three Keys in Supporting Students

In her book The Trauma-Sensitive Classroom (2018), Tish Jennings outlines three keys to supporting students who have experienced trauma: cultivating supportive relationships, creating safe spaces, and building on strengths by supporting adaptation.  These keys can be achieved through many of the identified best practices for effective classroom management (Simonsen, Fairbanks, Briesch, Myers, & Sugai, 2008), such as maximizing structure and predictability, defining and teaching behavioral expectations, and implementing a continuum of strategies to address appropriate and inappropriate behavior.

When establishing these universal practices, teachers can consider all students’ needs, including those of students in crisis. For example, these students may benefit from specific classroom procedures (Jennings, 2018). Perhaps it would be helpful for the students to take breaks when they are feeling frustrated or to inform the teacher of their need for additional support in tough moments. Classroom entry routines designed to build community and foster the development of positive relationships can include a greeting from the teacher and possibly responses from students.  Establishing specific routines for asking for help or materials will aid all students, but may specifically support students who have experienced trauma and who may not know healthy or effective means of getting the assistance they need. Explicitly teaching, modeling, and reinforcing classroom procedures provides predictability and structure for students that they may not experience in other settings but that are essential to classroom success.

Teachers can also consider how to support all students when establishing behavioral expectations for the classroom. For example, including social-emotional skills such as self-regulation and self-care could help students who have experienced trauma learn additional skills. The common classroom expectation for students to “Be Safe” includes specific behaviors like keeping hands and feet to self, using classroom materials and equipment appropriately, walking during transitions or in the hallway, etc.  Other behaviors like “talk to an adult if I’m feeling sad/angry/scared” or “check in with friends and classmates to make sure they are okay” fit nicely into “Be Safe” as well.

Effective coping strategies and acts of resilience for use when faced with adversity can be explicitly taught and reinforced in classrooms the same way that walking in line as a class, reading, long division, transitioning between classroom activities, or any other school behavior are taught.  These are just a few examples of how to adjust simple practices in order to enhance student support within the classroom. “Simple” is important because a teacher’s job is not an easy one. Students come to school each day with a variety of strengths and needs, and it is challenging at times to reach and teach them all. With today’s prevalence of childhood trauma, it is especially important that educators are equipped with knowledge and skills to address the needs of these learners.

Future Link Lines articles will highlight specific strategies to build upon the overview provided above.   In addition, the Additional Resources section below offers ideas for working with and supporting students experiencing trauma.

Additional Resources

Books

Amendola, M., & Oliver, R. (2015). Empathy and social competence training. Champaign, IL: Research Press.

Jones, A. (1998). 104 activities that build: Self-esteem, teamwork, communication, anger management, self-discovery, coping skills. Richland, WA: Rec Room.

Marshall, N. (2014). The teacher’s introduction to attachment: Practical essentials for teachers, carers and school support staff. London, UK: Jessica Kingsley.

Websites

National Child Traumatic Stress Network

Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning

Teaching Social Emotional Competencies Within a PBIS Framework

References

Centers for Disease Control. (2016). About the CDC-Kaiser ACE study. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/acestudy/about.html

Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University. (2018). What are ACEs? And how do they relate to toxic stress? Retrieved from https://developingchild.harvard.edu/resources/aces-and-toxic-stress-frequently-asked-questions/

Hertel, R., & Johnson, M. M. (2013). How the traumatic experience of students manifest in school setting. In E. Rossen & R. Hull (Eds.), Supporting and educating traumatized students: A guide for school-based professionals (pp. 23-35). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Jennings, P. A. (2018). The trauma-sensitive classroom: Building resilience with compassionate teaching. New York, NY: Norton.

Resler, M. R. (2017). Facing the facts: Trauma-informed schools. Richmond, VA: Family & Children’s Trust Fund of Virginia.

Sacks, V., & Murphey, D. (2018, February 12). The prevalence of adverse childhood experiences, nationally, by state, and by race or ethnicity. Retrieved from https://www.childtrends.org/publications/prevalence-adverse-childhood-experiences-nationally-state-race-ethnicity

Simonsen, B., Fairbanks, S., Briesch, A., Myers, D., & Sugai, G. (2008). Evidence-based practices in classroom management: Considerations for research to practice. Education and Treatment of Children, 31(3), 351-380. doi:10.1353/etc.0.0007

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