Forty-seven percent of children nationwide have been exposed to one or more instances of trauma, including abuse, neglect, and witnessing violence or death, according to the National Survey of Children’s Health. Such experiences have been linked to disruptive and even violent behavior, leading to negative social and educational outcomes for troubled students.
Teachers and administrators often resort to suspension and expulsion when a young person repeatedly acts out; however, employing trauma-sensitive measures in the classroom has been shown to improve student success dramatically. These approaches to behavioral issues — based on recent research on the effects of childhood trauma — are emerging in schools of education at colleges and universities.
What is Trauma Sensitivity?
When Lauren Dotson, EdD, assistant professor and education department chair at Emory & Henry College (E&H), was a school administrator, she continually saw the same students for the same disciplinary concerns. Like many administrators, Dotson followed prescribed punishments for them, such as conferences with guardians and suspensions, to no avail.
In the midst of her frustration, Dotson began reading that traumatic experiences — also known as adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) — are often the root cause of children’s bad behavior, and that research-based, empathetic responses from well-trained teachers can help transform learning and social outcomes for troubled youths. As a result, says Dotson, she embraced a fundamental shift in her thinking — from wondering “What’s wrong with this child?” to considering “What happened to this child?”
“The majority of the students I worked with in terms of discipline … came from less than fortunate home situations, typically having one or multiple experiences with trauma,” she says.
To address this issue, Dotson began implementing trauma-informed approaches such as anticipating emotional triggers and providing opportunities to express negative feelings in a healthy manner. She created a “cool off spot” — a predetermined safe place where a child can deescalate feelings of anger, anxiety, and frustration — and offered redirection activities like drawing, journaling, or calmly talking with students while taking walks around the school together. She made connections with the children based on their individual interests.
As a result, Dotson and the teachers in her school saw dramatic improvements in behaviors, including reduced emotional and physical outbursts, fewer disciplinary referrals, better academic achievement, and less stressful classroom and school interactions. Students also exhibited improved ability to cope with anxiety and stress.
Witnessing the transformative power of trauma-informed approaches inspired Dotson to help prepare future teachers to apply these practices in their own classrooms. She says that higher education institutions have an important role to play in teaching about the physiological implications of trauma on cognition and learning processes.
“We must provide teaching candidates with necessary instructional and classroom management strategies to handle behavioral problems with confidence, compassion, and empathy,” Dotson says.
Poor behaviors like those Dotson encountered are common. Children who suffer trauma are more likely to receive negative school reports, have difficulty concentrating and learning, and receive lower grades, reports the National Child Traumatic Stress Network.
As adults, individuals who have endured ACEs are more prone to enter the criminal justice system; those who have been abused or neglected are 59 percent more likely to eventually be arrested, according to data from the National Institute of Justice. Similarly, many studies have shown that school punishments like suspension and expulsion are often the first steps to a child entering the school-to-prison pipeline. Furthermore, the American Civil Liberties Union has found that these punishments are more often applied to African American students and students with disabilities, thus increasing their likelihood of being incarcerated later in life.
Earlier this year, the College of Education at Concordia University-Portland (CU-Portland) began offering a Trauma and Resilience in Educational Settings concentration. The one-year, 30-credit hour concentration is built on the premise that when teachers offer effective responses to student trauma and help instill resiliency skills needed to thrive in the classroom, children have better learning outcomes in school and in life.
The program’s four core online courses teach about resilience because the ability to adapt, persevere, and move forward after trauma is critical to individual wellbeing and survival, says Sheryl Reinisch, EdD, dean of the CU-Portland College of Education. Participants also learn how to create trauma-sensitive classrooms and schools and develop professional practice and leadership skills.
Additionally, CU-Portland’s trauma-informed curriculum recognizes the vicarious trauma teachers may experience as they support children in the classroom. “Self-care becomes critical in building teacher resilience and efficacy in schools,” Reinisch explains.
The online program was inspired by and aligns with the university’s collaborative teacher preparation and community support program, called 3 to PhD, where CU-Portland education students work with children in underserved communities while partner organizations provide additional support from early childhood to college.
Ultimately, both programs seek to close opportunity gaps for children who may be disadvantaged due to ACEs or other life challenges by preparing teachers to effectively engage them and help them succeed.
Early Childhood Educators
With a similar objective, the Center for Early Childhood Education and Intervention at the University of Maryland’s College of Education (CECEI) is developing a trauma-sensitive curriculum for early childhood educators based on advanced research in cognitive and neuro-science and education.
Funded by the Bainum Family Fund and in collaboration with Pennsylvania State University, the Trauma Sensitive Pedagogy for Young Children (TSP) will focus on trauma education across the developmental spectrum, including family, societal, and community influences.
The program will also offer sustained support for educators through ongoing professional learning communities and mentored experiences.
“We will [also provide] opportunities to engage in conversations with other practitioners and experts in the field,” says Christy Tirrell-Corbin, PhD, executive director for the CECEI.
This kind of trauma-sensitive programming is particularly important for teacher candidates who will work in underserved communities where ACEs are more prevalent, according to Tirrell-Corbin.
“It helps educators understand individual differences in how children who have experienced trauma learn and the specific instructional strategies that will meet those children’s needs,” she says. “It is only when teachers and teacher candidates understand trauma’s effects on behavior and learning and know how to respond proactively that we can change the trend of suspension, expulsion, and low expectations.”●
Kelley Taylor is a contributing writer for INSIGHT Into Diversity. This article published in our April 2018 issue.