Supporting students affected by childhood trauma

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Many teachers have students in their classrooms who have lived through childhood trauma but they might not receive training on how best to support them. One teacher shares what she has learned through her own experiences.

According to the Center for Treatment of Anxiety and Mood Disorders, trauma, including childhood trauma, can be defined as “a psychological, emotional response to an event or an experience that is deeply distressing or disturbing.” Traumatic events are not only those that lead to severe emotional pain, but events such as a car accident, losing a loved one. Merely going through a divorce or breakup can be quite damaging.

When children go through childhood trauma, it can cause them to disconnect from people, including family and friends, and to become angry and depressed and withdraw from society. Immigrants are more susceptible to trauma since they may have suffered from severe despair.

After resettlement in the United States, immigrant children start attending school and they carry with them both hope and fear of the unknown. There are some actions that teachers can take to lower the level of anxiety in traumatized children.

1. Establishing an emotional connection and showing that the child can communicate with you without judgment is the foundation to build trust.

You may never understand what children who survived childhood trauma went through. You may never know their complete story. Letting the student know that you will be available to support him or her to become a successful individual is important. Your student is trying to regain some control of his or her life. If you are overwhelmed and feel as though you are not the right person to provide the kind of help the student needs, designate an adult who can provide additional support.

2. Children benefit from an established routine.

If you plan on doing an activity that is out of the ordinary or if you plan on changing the classroom routine, please warn children who are suffering from trauma. They may be getting used to maintaining usual routines. Sudden changes may trigger old memories or the feeling of not knowing what to expect, which causes insecurity and fear.

3. Be sensitive to the content and language used when teaching.

A classic example happened in my classroom a couple of years ago. It was my free period and I was in the classroom. A substitute teacher was working with one of our students who was a refugee and had suffered recurrent, severe trauma throughout his childhood. The substitute teacher started reading a newspaper article about family trees with him. She was taken aback when he said he was not sure what his mother and sisters’ names were, though he lived with them. This child had a difficult relationship with his mother and would very rarely communicate with his sisters, so for him, they were just people he lived with. I actually think he knew their names, but saying that he didn’t was a way for him to express that he did not feel as though they were his family.

Given how badly that went, the substitute teacher moved on to another article. I can’t remember the exact topic, and at first, there were no red flags or anything that I thought would trigger him. All of a sudden, I hear his voice shaking. He starts fidgeting on his seat; knowing him, I knew something was not right. I asked him in Spanish what was wrong and he told me that the article reminded him of the death of his baby brother. Luckily, I was able to recognize the signs of trauma and speak with the substitute teacher who immediately commiserated. Anticipating situations that may trigger students’ memories is vital. Being able to advocate for that student with other professionals in the room is a way to ensure we are providing a safe learning environment.

4. Finally, recognize behavior problems, especially those that can be related to childhood trauma, but establish clear and firm expectations.

Students who have experienced childhood trauma may show disruptive behavior. They may include not following classroom rules, lack of commitment to academics, lying and even fighting/arguing with teachers and peers. Instead of taking punitive actions, try speaking with the student first in order to find out the root of the problem. Immigrant children may feel constantly frightened, confused, tired and even hungry. They may be angry because they have been separated from their families or just generally unhappy about their current situation. Whatever the reason may be, try addressing it in a respectful manner while still reiterating to the student the purpose of the rules in the classroom and the importance of achieving academic success, especially in the United States. It is possible that doing well in school is not a priority for students who may have faced several types of abuse. Reminding them of their purpose here may be helpful to get them back on track.

There is no formula to help students who have suffered through childhood trauma. Being open to listening to them and reaching out for help whenever necessary, along with educating ourselves about trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), may be the starting point to helping all students, one at a time.

Maeve Sanchez is an immigrant from Brazil and an ESL teacher in Montrose, New York.

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