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How to create a trauma-informed classroom, part 2

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Understanding how trauma impacts developing brains and applying that knowledge with love are key components of the trauma-informed model. Armed with this new perspective, the following tips from The Guidance Center’s It’s About T.I.M.E. (Trauma-Informed Movement in Education) program that I developed can help you integrate this approach into your classroom.

1. The foundation of being trauma-informed is understanding.

Applying the trauma-informed approach means seeing the children through the trauma-informed lens. Changing your perception starts with understanding what trauma is; what it does to the child’s brain and nervous system, and how that physiology can result in the troubling behaviors we see in students, like difficulty learning, [being] easily distracted, low motivation, defiance, irritability, anger outbursts, substance abuse, etc.
Understand that these behaviors are always attempts at soothing emotional distress (dysregulation). And, understand and truly believe that much of what these children do is out of their conscious control.

2. It’s not necessarily what you do, but rather who you are to the child.
Memorize these words: “Relationships are the agents of change and the most powerful therapy is human love.” — Dr. Bruce Perry

It all starts with love, but what does that look like in action? You must be patient, kind, understanding, empathic and nurturing… unconditionally. Healthy relationships start with a bond of trust, and trust can be established when children see that you will continue to love and accept them— even when they’re at their worst.

Take time to truly understand them. They will test you to determine if you really are a safe adult. Be patient, and they will let you in at their own pace. Connect with them. Listen to what they are trying to tell you. They will try to share their pain, but often in a veiled manner. Just listen, reflect and validate.

Picture this: A child comes to school in an angry mood because his father berated him about being lazy and stupid that morning. Instead of responding with, “Well, I’m sure your dad loves you.” Try instead: “That hurt you so much to hear him say that to you.” Don’t try to minimize their feelings or help them see things in another way in hopes they won’t think things weren’t or aren’t really that bad. Most likely, their life experiences are that bad.

Instead, give them hope of what good relationships can be like, what they can be, what a safe community can be. They likely have never known any different than what they’ve experienced and assume that’s just how the world is. They have an inner child that is deeply wounded. Search for that inner child and connect with them there.

3. Give them something to do with their hands (and other sensory regulating experiences).

While disruptive behavior is the outward expression of dysregulation, here is what’s going on inside their brains: A dysregulated brainstem causes a cascade of other brain areas to not function properly, which then results in an inability to effectively manage emotions. The neurophysiology for learning and willful control of emotions is literally off-line.
Patterned, repetitive, and especially rhythmic sensory experiences literally organize and regulate the physiology of the child’s most primitive and unconscious parts of the brain (the brainstem), thus soothing their anxiety, anger and emotional dysregulation. Only then can they access the neocortex, which allows them to act at an academic level beyond fight or flight.

Proactive (and reactive as needed) sensory regulating experiences need to be administered in doses throughout the day. Tailor sensory experiences to the unique sensory profile of each class as much as possible. Experiment to find the right recipe of fine motor, gross motor, music, movement, rhythm and vibration.

Here are a few practical recommendations of sensory experiences for the classroom:

• Play with Play-Doh
• Put on lotion or hand sanitizer
• Offer a therapeutic pencil topper chew
• Give high-fives
• Take music breaks
• Verbally walk them through guided-imagery meditation
• Lead deep-breathing exercises
• Go through a few yoga poses
• Take a stretch break
• Organize the class for a little marching
• Lead positive chanting
• Play American Idol and get them singing
• Try clapping along to lessons and repeating key phrases for memorization
• Make lessons into games (Charades, Pictionary, create a rap, sculpt or draw)
• Give restless children tasks (deliver a note, pass out papers, door monitor, etc.)
• Have them stand at their desk, instead of sit
• Replace their chair with a yoga ball
• Bring certified therapeutic animals into the classroom
• Consult with occupational therapists

4. Limit-setting, structure and classroom management are still required. 
Children who are traumatized and experiencing dysregulation are typically very reactive to attempts to control or direct their behaviors. In a classroom, control and direction are necessary, but it’s the way in which this message is delivered that makes all the difference.

You are the responsible adult, meaning you have to be response-able. In other words, you must be able to respond appropriately to the child. It starts with you. A dysregulated and frustrated adult cannot regulate a dysregulated child. Take care of yourself to remain as regulated as possible. Actually take breaks, make sure to debrief with your colleagues, breathe, practice meditation— anything that helps you feel like the “best you.”

Once you’re regulated, you’re now in a place where you can deliver those limits and directions in a way that will promote regulated reactions from students.

Try Therapeutic Limit Setting. Once you’ve provided a sensory intervention, you can begin setting appropriate limits through a conversation following the ACT model adapted by renowned expert Garry L. Landreth, Ed.D., LPC, RPT-S:

1. Acknowledge the child’s want/need. 
2. Communicate the limit. 
3. Target a re-directive.

“I know you’ve had a rough morning and listening to music right now on your phone is helping you calm down, but right now is not the time to use our phones. I’m here to help you calm down in other ways (offer two to three sensory ideas), and maybe we can take an earlier break today if you still feel you need it.”

Instead of just taking away what they want/need to do or simply saying “no” , empower them. Help them choose an activity that may be more appropriate. Also, give them some power in other ways completely unrelated to whatever the undesirable behavior is. For example, you can make them a class leader, have them run an errand for you, pass out papers, etc.

When a disruptive student is so dysregulated that they must be removed from class, take the opportunity to have a conversation with them. Ask them who they think can help them to feel more regulated or comfortable, such as the school counselor, custodian, campus security, etc.

“I can see you’re having a really tough time right now, and that’s OK. I’m here for you when you’re ready, but I still have to teach the rest of the class. Let’s take a few minutes to think of who you could spend some time with to feel better, then you can come back when you’re ready.”

5. Don’t let perfect get in the way of good.

Although it can be extremely rewarding, working with children who have experienced trauma can also be incredibly challenging. Change can be very slow, and often the process follows an up-and-down trajectory than a clear path to transformation. Don’t expect perfection.

We helpers are many times putting the pieces back together daily from community or home stressors/traumas that are beyond our reach. Helpers can begin to feel the pain of those they are helping, so self-care is a must.
Start by working to create a trauma-informed school with hopes of creating a trauma-informed community. Reach out to parents in ways other than complaints of attendance or discipline. Draw them in with school events and linkage to community resources. Utilize mental-health resources in the community. Connect with parents to make referrals to get these children the additional support they require.

At the end of the day, know that you are making a difference. You are likely giving these children a unique experience of what non-judgmental, unconditional love and acceptance can be.

The above is the second portion of a two-part commentary. For part one, visit Swaringen is the developer of It’s About T.I.ME. and a clinical therapist at The Guidance Center, a nonprofit child and family mental-health agency headquartered in Long Beach.

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How to create a trauma-informed classroom, part 2