Building Relationships with Students who have Experienced Trauma

09/28/2018
Let’s talk!
By Dr. Billie Jo Cowley
 

What is trauma? How may trauma affect my student’s academic performance? What can I do as a teacher to help students who have experienced trauma? What are ACEs and how do they affect my students? These are commonly asked questions by teachers and professionals working with school-aged children.

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In their study, Felitti and Anda describe how Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) such as abuse, divorce, parental incarceration, homelessness, bullying, or death of a loved one have significant impact on child development and academic success.

“Trauma is an exceptional experience in which powerful and dangerous events overwhelm a person’s capacity to cope” (Rice & Groves, 2005). In their study, Felitti and Anda describe how Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) such as abuse, divorce, parental incarceration, homelessness, bullying, or death of a loved one have significant impact on child development and academic success. In an average classroom of 25 students, two students will have three or more ACEs; three students will have two ACEs; five students will have one ACE; and 14 students will have no known ACEs (Souers & Hall, 2018). Trauma is one of the most powerful risk factors in developing a mental health illness. Even though an individual may have experienced trauma, it doesn’t mean a mental health prognosis will occur; it just increases the chances. Trauma that has occurred in early childhood may not be apparent until adolescence. Adolescent behavior can be misconstrued as defiant or disrespectful rather than a response to an event that triggered fear or physical reaction to the traumatic event that occurred. A child may not recall the traumatic event.  However, the child’s body has the power to store the trauma. The experiences are often stored in the body, not in the mind.

The Brain

Brain research correlates to how students who experienced trauma respond to triggers. The neocortex, also known as the rational brain, helps control the ability to think, reason, use higher order thinking skills, make decisions and maintain flexibility (Forbes, 2012).  The neocortex is the outer layer of the brain and sometimes referred to as the “upstairs brain” (Souers & Hall, 2018). When this part of the brain is regulated, the child can focus on learning. In contrast, the limbic system, or “downstairs brain” (Souers & Hall, 2018), regulates mood, memory, attention, and hormone control. This part of the brain houses the child’s survival mode and “is concerned with self-preservation, fear, and protective responses related to defense such as fight or flight” (Forbes, 2012, p. 24). Learning cannot happen when a child is functioning in the “downstairs brain.” The last part of the brain, reptilian, includes the brain stem and cerebellum. This part of the brain also is concerned with self-preservation and is ready to respond at all times during the day. “Mental health issues such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and panic disorder have roots in this part of the brain” (Forbes, 2012, p. 25). Knowing where the child is in their brain helps the teacher know how to respond accordingly.

Student-Teacher Relationship

Educators can create a trauma-sensitive learning environment to help students who have experienced trauma. Building a positive student-teacher relationship should be the first priority in the classroom (Forbes, 2012). This relationship provides security and safety for the child, who can then focus on his  academics. Academic achievement happens when the child is calm and secure. A child doesn’t care how much you know until he knows how much you care. Being genuine, knowing yourself, and asking the right questions are key to building a healthy and safe student-teacher relationship. Rather than asking, “I wonder what’s wrong with that person?” rephrase the question to “I wonder what happened to the student that caused them to behave that way?” Some teachers tend to respond to negative behaviors such as classroom outburst, verbal defiance, or anger by resorting to traditional discipline measures that are not effective for students who have experienced trauma. Time-outs, seclusion rooms and staying in from recess have a direct impact on the child’s safety; therefore, these techniques are ineffective.

Teachers need to ask more questions
of themselves such as:

  • What is driving the behavior?
  • What else is really going on?
  • What does this child need?
  • How can I change my perspective?
  • What is this behavior communicating right now?
  • What could be triggering this behavior?
  • What negative beliefs does the child have about himself?
  • In what ways are my expectations triggering him?
  • Where is the child in his brain? (Forbes, 2012)

Teachers need to stay true to who they are when trying to build relationships with students who have experienced trauma.

Strategies When Talking with a
Youth who has Experienced Trauma

A child who has experienced trauma may have many questions or choose not to talk about the event at all. Either way, a teacher may be the trusted adult in which the child confides. If the child asks questions, the teacher should try to answer them. If the teacher doesn’t know how to answer a question, admit that to the child. A child should never be forced to talk about his traumatic experience before he is ready. When the child is ready, he may choose different outlets such as writing, drawing, or playing with toys. As the child is sharing the experience, the teacher should avoid telling the child how he should feel. Teachers should expect strong emotions from the child; assure the child that it is okay to feel upset (Mental Health First Aid USA, 2016).

Strategies to Help with Regulation

Self-regulation happens when a person recognizes he is operating in the emotional “downstairs brain” and needs to regulate back to the “upstairs brain.” Many adults are able to recognize when they are about to “blow their tops.” When they feel this way, some go for a walk, take deep breaths, read, or exercise. Teaching a child about self-regulation is important. If the child is in the “downstairs brain”, the teacher can help teach the child how to regulate so he gets back to the “upstairs brain.” There are many regulating strategies to use to assist the child.

  1. Be present with the child. Listen to what he is saying and validate his feelings. Use reflective listening and clarifying statements to help the child talk through his feelings.
  2. Integrate the upstairs and downstairs brain by asking for facts such as “What is 4 times 5?”.  Ask open-ended “What would you do”-type questions. This strategy keeps the child from thinking so emotional (downstairs brain) and using his upstairs brain to answer the questions. 
  3. Have the child mimic your breathing pattern. This strategy can help the child focus on breathing until he is ready to talk.
  4. Help the child find appropriate regulating strategies. When the child feels he will have an outburst, teach him how to regulate on his own. As part of the student-teacher relationship, the teacher will need to know the child’s interests and help him decide what will work for him. For example, he may need to walk the halls, read a book, or go to a safe place in the room designated for him. Whatever it is, the teacher should communicate the child’s decision [on how he will self-regulate] to others in the building.
  5. Integrate self-help strategies throughout the school day. Some effective free websites to assist with this are: Stop, Breathe, and Think: https://www.stopbreathethink.com/; Calm: Some effective free websites to assist with this are: Stop, Breathe, and Think: https://www.stopbreathethink.com/; Calm: https://www.calm.com/; Insight Timer: Some effective free websites to assist with this are: Stop, Breathe, and Think: https://www.stopbreathethink.com/; Calm: https://www.calm.com/; Insight Timer: https://insighttimer.com/; Mindshift: Some effective free websites to assist with this are: Stop, Breathe, and Think: https://www.stopbreathethink.com/; Calm: https://www.calm.com/; Insight Timer: https://insighttimer.com/; Mindshift: https://www.facebook.com/MindShift.KQED/; Smiling Mind: Some effective free websites to assist with this are: Stop, Breathe, and Think: https://www.stopbreathethink.com/; Calm: https://www.calm.com/; Insight Timer: https://insighttimer.com/; Mindshift: https://www.facebook.com/MindShift.KQED/; Smiling Mind: https://www.smilingmind.com.au/; Super Stretch Yoga: Some effective free websites to assist with this are: Stop, Breathe, and Think: https://www.stopbreathethink.com/; Calm: https://www.calm.com/; Insight Timer: https://insighttimer.com/; Mindshift: https://www.facebook.com/MindShift.KQED/; Smiling Mind: https://www.smilingmind.com.au/; Super Stretch Yoga: https://adventuresofsuperstretch.com/; and Go Noodle: Some effective free websites to assist with this are: Stop, Breathe, and Think: https://www.stopbreathethink.com/; Calm: https://www.calm.com/; Insight Timer: https://insighttimer.com/; Mindshift: https://www.facebook.com/MindShift.KQED/; Smiling Mind: https://www.smilingmind.com.au/; Super Stretch Yoga: https://adventuresofsuperstretch.com/; and Go Noodle: https://www.gonoodle.com/.

Conclusion

Students today are entering the classroom with many different experiences. Some of these experiences have been very positive, whereas, others have left a negative impact on the child’s development. As teachers, recognizing and responding to students’ trauma or adverse childhood experiences that affect the child’s behavior will be more effective than the traditional reactive approach to negative behavior. Building positive relationships with students is the key to help with social and emotional development.

Dr. Billie Jo Cowley is the Chair of Master’s of Education Program and an associate professor at Upper Iowa University.
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Issue 20.2 | Fall 2018

          Arkansas State University