The Tough Issues: Teaching Traumatized Students

Trauma can lead to many different things. Students may become withdrawn, they may act out, they may stop focusing on school work, and any combination of these and many more things. The types of trauma can vary, from eviction to abuse, family arrests, drug abuse in the home, and so much more. There’s not one specific way to approach trauma in the classroom, because each student responds to trauma in a different way. While this can make it difficult, there are steps you can take to help these students as much as possible.

Recognizing trauma versus simply acting out can be a challenge, so today we are just going to focus on how to help students that you already know have had traumatic experiences.

  1. Focus on positive reinforcement, not punishment. Often students who are misbehaving aren’t doing so for the sake of it. They may be worked up from a situation at home, or worked up about what will happen when they leave school. Punishing these students will not help the situation. If you know your student has gone through trauma, respond with kindness and understanding, but remind them they must act appropriately in school. If appropriate, you may choose to take them aside and speak with them about the situation. Remind them that their behavior must be adjusted before immediately jumping to punishment.
  2. Have a calming space in your classroom. This may not be something you have officially set up on a regular basis, though it can be if there’s recently been a traumatic event in your school or community. All this has to be is a quiet corner away from the rest of the students where an individual can go when they are overwhelmed or trying to control an emotional response. You can do this in different ways. Maybe you set up a tented area, or a listening station with relaxing music which allows for quick, quiet meditation. You have to be sure this isn’t abused by students who just want to get out of class time. You are doing this so students are able to focus on school so they don’t fall behind, while they are in a supportive environment. Use this area sparingly, but allow it when it is clear it is needed.
  3. Have a routine. Routine is familiar and predictable. Students who experience trauma often find comfort in routine, especially if they are undergoing trauma currently, such as a lack of a stable living environment. Of course you can’t do the same thing every day, but try to follow a similar routine. Use the same transitions to move from one activity to the next. Another great way to add predictability to your day is to write out the daily schedule on the board, which can benefit all your students, not just those who are dealing with trauma.
  4. Help students feel accomplished and like they have control. Trauma can make students feel as if they have no control over their lives. This is especially true for younger students. If you are growing up in an area surrounded by violence, are always moving from place to place, or have seen something horrible happen to a loved one, you will feel like you don’t have control over your life and that it is difficult to accomplish what you want. Create opportunities to help your students succeed and feel like they are making a difference. It is also important to incorporate choice into your classroom, so your students can feel they have more control. Give them a choice in choosing books to read, let students pick their seats, or let them choose from several activities for an assignment. It can make a huge difference.
  5. Be there for your students. Stress can make it incredibly hard to focus, but by giving your students a safe space and a stable adult to go to, students are more likely to be able to focus while in the classroom. Allow them to meet with you so they can share their story if they want to. Ask them what they need. Your student may just need something as simple as permission to put their head down and breathe for several minutes during class without your interrupting them. If appropriate extend your reach outside of your classroom. Let other teachers and even bus drivers know about the situation (as much as you legally can, at least). Do what you can to make your classroom and your school overall as safe a space as possible. You want your students to feel safe, even if they are facing situations at home that are unsafe or have made them feel unsafe. Having a stable adult in their lives can make a huge difference.

Here’s a few other tips that don’t require as much detail. Reach out to family members, when appropriate. Get in touch with the school counselor. Make sure you take care of yourself, as dealing with the trauma of someone else can cause mental health issues of your own. And remember this; a student that is traumatized is not broken. They still have the capacity to learn, grown, and succeed. Do not minimize their suffering, but maximize their potential in your classroom. While recovering from trauma, understandably, school may not be their priority. Your job is to help keep them on track the best you can with all the compassion you are capable of.

Many of us will experience trauma at some point in our lives, and we all handle it differently. You may find different ways to work with students who experience trauma, and that’s ok. What is important is you find the right techniques for the right students, and that you help them through a tough time without allowing them to fall behind.

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