Develop a Lens, Invite Choice, Consider Your Words and Practice Mindfulness
Learn About Trauma
As teachers, parents, mental health professionals and caregivers, we are tasked with creating healthy connections, consistent guidance and safe places to help others grow and thrive. But challenges abound, and resistance happens. For a dysregulated student, a single word or seemingly neutral gesture can trigger shutdowns and confrontations that then bring about hurtful behaviors and loss of connection. Those living with trauma react to events, emotions and challenges by either acting up or closing down. Learning stops.
One cause for these challenging outcomes is trauma. We need to assume, when dealing with human beings that there is trauma in someone’s past, whether recent or distant, and respond based on that. Most trauma occurred in a choiceless moment - when an event overwhelmed one’s own inner resources. These all-too-common incidents occurred when outer resources (a healthy attachment or a dependable relationship) were also weak or unavailable.
Research on ACE scores (Adverse Childhood Experiences) across populations shows the prevalence of trauma in younger years effecting so many. Therefore, it is appropriate to utilize strategies that take into account that victims of physical, emotional and sexual abuse are in our classrooms, known or unknown. Trauma-informed teaching begins with a realistic perspective of our students and proven strategies to support all who enter our classrooms.
Develop a Trauma-Informed Lens
Trauma-Informed teaching begins with recognizing universal needs through a caring, non-judgmental lens. Consider that all of us are affected by trauma. This lens doesn’t require that we know or learn the initial cause, long-term source or personal details behind anyone’s wounding, but just that we know and feel that it possibly exists. Trauma is in the room.
This sort of lens involves mindfully, openly and proactively seeing what we do in a different way, including our behavior practices, interactions, words we use and how we model our own self-regulation. Developing this lens enables professionals to empathize with students, lessen triggering behaviors and create a safe learning space.
Bring choice back into the daily lives of students, all students, not only to those living with that choiceless moment of trauma and the dysregulation that follows. Choice doesn’t mean removing structures, ignoring rules, or lowering standards. Even minimal choice-making ensures that where options can be provided, students get to reclaim the power they lost, maybe even long ago.
Some teachers might wonder, “If students get to choose for themselves – chaos will follow. What if they don’t do what we want them to do?” Great question!
Here’s a common example: the class sits in chairs during a sleepy, mid-morning work time. Is there an opportunity for choice? Absolutely. First, we model awareness then choice. We take time to sense our own experience, mindfully. Then we model awareness followed by choice and encourage our students to do the same. “I am sitting here feeling drowsy and need to stand for a few minutes. Notice how you feel. Stay in your seat or stand behind it to feel more awake. It’s up to you.” Students participate by noticing and choosing for themselves.
Classrooms are filled with even simpler opportunities for choice: how to sit at circle-time, which book to read, what color of crayon or pen to use, where to settle for solo work, or which mindful practice to try when agitated. Triggering is minimal when we encourage individual choice in big moments and small.
Consider Your Words
For years, we believed that we could say anything and not harm or trigger others - as long as we used a calm or nurturing voice. Our tone is undoubtedly important. But language is powerful, especially the words we use in a classroom. Some need to be replaced because they can be triggering to anyone who has been victimized.
Consider these commonly used words: deep, spread, and bend. We integrate them into instructions almost every day. “Take a few deep breaths and then begin your test. When you write your answers, spread out your digits so I can read your numbers. Clean-up time, bend over and pick up any scraps of paper under your desk.”
In a trauma-informed classroom or counseling office the trained professional would be aware of the possibility of re-activating trauma and would use safe words instead. “Breathe out all the way a few times and then begin your test. When you write your answers, put space between your digits so I can read your numbers. Clean-up time, look and reach below to pick up any scraps of paper under your desk.”
Parker Palmer’s assertion that, “We teach who we are,” means that the nervous system we bring to the classroom will impact our ability to connect with our students. Because second-hand stress is real and transferable, we are responsible to care for ourselves first, then bring our best selves to our relationships and our work.
Trauma-informed teaching requires educators to mindfully respond to students rather than react on impulse - effected by our own stress and dysregulation. Mindfulness is the practice of paying attention, on purpose, non-judgmentally and with compassion, as defined by Jon Kabat-Zinn. Finding a mindful practice that nurtures teachers in their own lives will enhance the responsive presence they need in the classroom. Combining a clear understanding of trauma, choice, language and self-care is critical training for all teachers wanting to create a safe learning environment for their students.