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Traumatic Experience - School’s and Researcher’s Reports Indicate Attention to Trauma Has Benefits, Especially in Student Behavior

There are a lot of things we don't yet know about trauma, a concept that has gotten increasing attention in education over the last decade. However, two things are clear: It is probably to some degree is troubling the majority of students in your classroom, and, as a result, it is likely the cause of much of the misbehavior you see.

The research has grown –dating back to the late 90's when perhaps the most famous study got widespread attention. The Centers for Disease Control reported that probably two out of three children had suffered trauma, or adverse childhood experiences (ACES), and found that it has multiple detrimental outcomes.

Among the most prominent: troubling behavior in school.

The Child Mind Institute, a non-profit working on child mental health and learning disorders, says that the most common inappropriate behavior by students if they have suffered trauma are familiar to teachers:

  • Trouble forming relationships with teachers
  • Poor self-regulation
  • Negative thinking
  • Hypervigilance
  • Executive function challenges

Other work by researchers now has shown that schools can improve those outcomes. A report released about a year ago following nearly 100,000 students over 18 years showed that social and emotional learning interventions had a significant affect on their well being and their approaches to education.

Throughout the school

School wide, making social emotional learning part of the structure of the school can have a significant affect on the school culture, suspension numbers and behavior and, generally, on student performance.

An organization called ACES Too High has a wide variety of resources, but also provides detailed case studies of schools that have made trauma a priority.

Those reports include one detailing the work done at Park Middle School in Antioch, CA, where "staff couldn’t corral student disruptions and teacher morale was plummeting". By midway through the year nearly 20 percent of the students had been suspended.

“I was watching really good people burning out from the teaching profession and suspending kids over and over and nothing was changing behavior-wise, and teachers were not happy about it,” says John Jimno, who was in his second year as principal at that time.

The school adopted an approach called The Sanctuary Model, developed by researchers at Drexel University in Philadelphia, It revolves around a seven principles that prioritize things like emotional intelligence, communications and social responsibility. Teachers had regular training, emphasizing that much of the bad behavior they witnessed was a result of trauma – not just students who had not been disciplined or who were "out of control".

Rather than thinking "what's wrong with you", administrators began interactions with students misbehaving by thinking "what happened to you”. One teacher noted that she began to understand that "it has nothing to do with who you are as a teacher, classroom control or their respect for you" but rather something in their lives. She gave one girl a chance to take a break outside, asked others to develop a plan for better behavior.

Suspensions dropped more than 50% in two years and the staff reported much better behavior and much higher teacher satisfaction.

Similar approaches are recommended by other advocate groups:  HEARTS (Healthy Environments and Response to Trauma in Schools) CLEAR (Collaborative Learning for Educational Achievement and Resilience), Turnaround for Children and Compassionate Schools.

Another example is provided from Lincoln High School, an alternative school  in Walla Walla, WA, which saw suspensions drop 85 percent when it implemented a similar program focused primarily on discipline. Referrals and expulsions dropped dramatically too.  Staff at the school, which enrolls 50 students who could not function in their own school "acknowledged the kids’ hardships and asked them to work to move past those things, but not to ignore the effects of their circumstances". The school got attention when it was recognized in the documentary Paper Tigers.

The principal at the time for Lincoln, Jim Sporleder notes that trying to reform discipline practices is challenging and requires buy-in from school staff and parents, training and the resources to provide extra support for students. Anyone on the staff can at tmes worry about chaos unfolding, and students not having any fear of consequences. But Sporleder says such efforts require patience – and pay off.

"A trauma-informed approach sets high expectations, teaching boundaries and connecting students to a safe, caring adult, says Sporleder, now a consultant, advising schools on the approach. "And we have to reframe our language. We have to understand that our own personal regulation is the key to connecting with students. A dysregulated adult working with a dystregulated student is a lost opportunity."

In the classroom

Sharon Saline, a clinical psychologist and expert in issues related to adolescent mental health, explains that children who have been traumatized often are using what she calls the “survival regions of the brain". "This is very adaptable but there’s a cost: less time in the cortex or the thinking brain and more time in the limbic system, or the feeling brain."

That means under stress, they can be more reactive and impulsive because of weaker self-management abilities and more challenges with putting their feelings into appropriate words and actions.

"Relying more on the quick fight or flight reactions means that it’s easier for these kids to jump to anxiety and agitation. It can also be harder for them to form lasting friendships, to know how to soothe themselves when upset, and to process their feelings appropriately. Often, they mature more slowly, hanging out with younger kids and preferring comfortable social situations.

"Teachers can help these children by taking a holistic approach that grasps how the past trauma has resulted in ineffective, coping mechanisms and an inability to see other options under stress, she says

She says teachers should try to consider what has happened in this child’s life to make them behave this way before incidents occur and should be troubleshooting potential solutions with the children in advance. It takes having some experience with the student and can't be accomplished in all cases, but having a collaborative plan in place for common sticky situations improves a student’s buy-in and cooperation".

 She recommends an approach where teachers and the misbehaving student stop and slow things down and both think about what has happened and then together come up with a plan – one that can be used in the future.

"They want to have a say. Traumatized children really benefit from having input about their choices," she says. "Participation in the outcome helps them exert appropriate autonomy and improve self-management skills

Written by Jim Paterson, Education World Contributing Writer

Jim Paterson is a writer, contributing to a variety of national publications, most recently specializing in education. During a break from writing for a period, he was the head of a school counseling department. (