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Childhood trauma takes many forms: enduring divorce or family separation, experiencing household mental illness or substance abuse, witnessing violence, and being victimized by abuse.

The damaging effects on the physical, mental, and behavioral health of those who experience childhood trauma start in youth and affect students’ ability to learn and teachers’ ability to instruct and manage their classrooms. Trauma-sensitive schools are needed to help kids feel safe so they can learn. There are ways educators can help.

Stop Child Abuse and Neglect offers these tips:

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  • Create a safe space. When a child feels unsafe, he isn’t capable of understanding, reason, or learning. If he is overwhelmed, it might help him to visit the restroom, sit in a private classroom corner sectioned off as a safe place, or pull up a hoodie and put his head on his desk until he decompresses.
  • Build connected relationships. Teachers often struggle to convince traumatized students that they care. Perhaps there has never been a trustworthy adult in the child’s life, or she doesn’t want to bond with her teacher because she dreads separation at the year’s end. With time, most children can sense if compassion is sincere, and it can make all the difference in calming an overwhelmed student.
  • Help kids regulate their nervous systems. Traumatized children become quickly stressed into hyper-arousal (explosive, irritable) or hypo-arousal (depressed, withdrawn). There are many strategies to restore balance to the nervous system, but each child has to find what works for him. Sometimes it’s as simple as a squeeze ball or being sent on an errand to the office. Help recognize and encourage what works.
  • Support development of a coherent narrative. When kids experience trauma, it causes chaos in their environments and their minds. Creating predictability through structure, routines, and reliability helps reduce the chaos a child may feel and allows her to start creating the kind of logical connections that support learning.
  • Practice “power-with” strategies. A traumatized child suffers a loss of power and control. If he finds himself back in a situation of helplessness, he may flashback to the original trauma. Instead of power-struggles, model ‘power-with’ relationships with children to help nurture them into adults who treat others with dignity and respect.
  • Build social-emotional skills. Trauma robs children of time spent developing social and emotional skills or adults to model them. When confronted with challenging classroom behaviors, a teacher’s compassion, recognition of a child’s potential, and example of a safe, stable, nurturing relationship, may be the difference between a child who hopes and knows love and a child with a negative view of himself and the world
  • Foster post-traumatic growth. A child might not be able to control the circumstances of her life, but she can learn to have some control over her reaction to them. Teachers can offer stories of how other people have dealt with trauma, teach problem-solving, and encourage focus, self-control, and support seeking.

Responding to a child’s behavior in a trauma-informed way takes a lot of empathy. As challenging as it may be, understand that the child is just trying the best they can to communicate the pain inside of them. Instead of asking “What is wrong with this child?” ask “What happened to this child?”

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