Being Trauma Responsive: Building Resilience in Challenging Times
Students are grappling with greater complexity these days. Their struggles often become apparent in school and in the form of trauma. It’s hard for them to cope, and it’s difficult for teachers, who are typically not trauma informed, to help them.
Teachers need support to address their students’ trauma in and out of school. In the edLeader Panel, “Practicing Resilience with Trauma-Informed Practices for Adults and Students,” educators highlighted trauma-responsive practices that, when implemented schoolwide, can bolster student resilience and their ability to navigate complexity.
The National Child Traumatic Stress Network defines a traumatic event as any frightening, dangerous, or violent event threatening a child’s life or bodily integrity.
When trauma is triggered, the brain focuses on danger. A child can’t think of anything else until the danger is gone, leaving them feeling unsafe and unable to process learning and build the executive functioning skills to manage upsetting and unexpected events productively.
Knowing the signs and symptoms of trauma helps educators shift their mindset to embody trauma responsiveness in all interactions. There is no magic bullet for addressing student trauma, but educators who practice trauma-informed empathy and flexibility can help build resiliency in several ways.
Forming personal connections with students builds understanding and awareness of their situations. Educators begin to see that a student’s trauma-driven behavior is not meant to push their buttons. Their responses are unintentional: They are often distracted, worrying about what will happen next. Teachers should not personalize situations; they should aim to help the students feel secure enough to learn.
Harrison Orpe, Paralympic Hopeful and Classroom Champions mentor, explained that mindful rapport creates safety, which helps students discuss a traumatic event and ways to redefine it to move forward in life.
Small positive interactions—like greeting a student in the hall, starting a conversation about the sports team they joined or the art they produce in class, or sharing favorite websites—are not insignificant, explained Laurie Nociar, a seventh-grade teacher in Bear Creek Elementary School in Surrey, B.C., Canada. They provide an opportunity to get to know students to avoid triggering situations while building resiliency.
“I know when I have students, once you get to know them and their moods and can read their body language and facial expressions better, then you can tell when a kid’s having a bad day,” she shared.
Nociar checks in with students to see if they need time to themselves or a chat with her at recess. They might not want to go outside but remain in a quiet space where peers don’t surround them. She also develops connections with families, who provide background knowledge that helps teachers better understand their students. These relationships aid in bridging school and community to strengthen students’ support systems jointly.
Establish a Schoolwide Community of Support
Teachers should shape a safe and supportive holistic community where all staff can reach out to students, regardless of their role, said Dr. Janet Ilko, Instructional Coach and Administrator at Howard Gardner Community School in San Diego, CA. It’s not always the teacher or the counselor who can speak to a student with trauma. It’s best to “match” the student with someone in school who recognizes and knows how to approach a student in need.
To do this, the school community must learn the strengths of all its staff. At Howard Gardner Community School, staff participates in a morning circle twice a week (instead of a formal staff meeting). They get to know each other and talk about their issues, goals, and aspirations while discovering their strengths. Those strengths will inform who interacts with specific students when they need support, especially when trauma is a concern.
“When I think about education and our kids, we know that we have to have that entire community wrapped around a kid and a family,” urged Ilko. “The more you invite your families and the more that you are transparent and willing to go the mile, the more successful our students will be.”
A student sleeping, their head on the desk in the classroom? For some teachers, this is “bad” behavior. A trauma-informed educator recognizes that the student might not feel safe enough at home to sleep but does in the classroom. Nociar sees classroom sleeping as success—it means that a student has found a safe space, where teachers adopt a preventive rather than reactive approach to navigating behavior, thus fostering a resilience mindset.
Orpe urged educators not to single out a child with trauma with pull-out programs or counseling. The goal is to help students identify and navigate what’s in their control. Through trauma-informed interactions, teachers can help students develop a positive and forward-thinking mindset, which they can control.
Removing the Mental Health Stigma
Nociar underscored the importance of understanding, exploring, and discussing mental health in school, creating awareness of causes and impact, and helping students begin to develop coping strategies. Five years ago, she partnered with colleagues to teach formalized mental health, focusing on its science (i.e., how the brain works and develops) and introducing coping methods.
Students began looking at family traits and discussing mental health issues. The program has destigmatized mental health in the school and has created a wraparound approach to the issue, supported by district leadership, childcare workers, counselors, and other staff. Teachers are also discussing their mental health with students and each other.
Teachers are known for their empathy and compassion but are not necessarily prepared to address trauma. Training teachers to be trauma responsive is essential.
Such training should include, said Ilko, ways to focus on academic acceleration instead of remediation (working from students’ learning strengths, not their gaps), fostering communication and relationship building with families, and generating mindfulness and social-emotional learning for students and teachers.
In the mix are self-care and boundary setting that enables educators to navigate the complexity of trauma that supports their well-being, too.
Learn more about this edWeb broadcast, “Practicing Resilience with Trauma-Informed Practices for Adults and Students,” hosted by Classroom Champions and sponsored by ClassLink.
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Blog post by Michele Israel, based on this edLeader Panel