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Sunday / June 24

Guiding Principles for an ACEs-Sensitive Classroom

In our book, Building Resilience in Students Impacted by Adverse Childhood Experiences: A Whole-Staff Approach, my co-authors and I propose a multi-tiered framework for supporting students affected by adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and trauma. Yet we realize many teachers work in schools that have yet to begin the journey toward becoming ACEs- and trauma-informed. You may be the educators who, for the sake of your students, have to take the first step in this journey, while encouraging your coworkers to join you along the way. So, for all of you trailblazing, heart-centered educators out there, I offer a few key principles and strategies to help you create ACEs-sensitive classrooms in which your students succeed and thrive.

Focus on relationships.

Research has shown that students who have endured ACEs and trauma are significantly more likely to exhibit behavioral issues such as externalizing (aggression, poor impulse control, etc.)  or internalizing (withdrawal, shutting down, etc.) (Burke at al., 2011). These behaviors are often a form of communication revealing a child’s need to feel connected, valued, and safe—fundamental needs that can only be met within the context of positive, supportive relationships. However, many students who have experienced adversity and trauma have a difficult time building and maintaining healthy relationships. This makes our work especially important because we have an opportunity to foster and maintain relationships that nurture resiliency for these vulnerable young people.

If you are unsure where to begin in this process, I recommend a strategy known as “2×10,” which refers to having a 2-minute conversation with a student for 10 consecutive school days. These conversations are intended to be non-academic, focusing instead on the student’s interests, thoughts, and feelings. This simple strategy has been shown to improve behavior and academic performance. To begin this intervention, choose one or two students (ideally an “externalizer” and an “internalizer”) and set aside a few minutes each day to build and strengthen these relationships.

Expand your concept of safety.

Brain research has revealed that the chronic and acute stress that accompany ACEs and/or trauma, can overstimulate a child’s limbic system (the fear center of the brain) and physiologically prime them to remain in a state of fight, flight, or freeze (Teicher, 2003). As a result, these young people can experience fear and anxiety even when a threat is not immediately present. They may also display an exaggerated response to minor stressors. For example, consider a student who has a complete meltdown after making a mistake on a math problem. To us, it is no big deal, only a math problem, but for a student who grows up in a household in which they are punished harshly and erratically, a mistake is a real threat to their wellbeing. Therefore, I encourage teachers to expand their concept of safety to include physical, emotional, and intellectual safety within their classrooms.

To make your classroom intellectually safe, normalize mistakes as part of the learning process, encourage a growth mindset, prime students before calling on them, chunk assignments, scaffold, and differentiate lessons. For a classroom to be emotionally safe, consider things like mindfulness minutes, a classroom cool down spot for emotional regulation, class meetings, and restorative conversations. Also, avoid things like sarcasm (especially with younger students) and exclusionary discipline for minor disruptions. Finally, even the concept of physical safety can be expanded to include things like soft lighting, aromatherapy, calming music, or other sensory components of your classroom that have a calming effect on the nervous system.

Take the emotional temperature.

Although the thermostat in your room may stay set at the same temperature throughout the day, the emotional temperature of your room fluctuates moment-by-moment. Emotions are undeniably connected to cognition and behavior. Therefore, knowing the emotional levels of your students is as equally important as knowing their levels of prior knowledge. Students who have experienced ACEs and trauma often have a particularly difficult time naming and managing negative emotions. Yet research shows that when these students develop their capacity for emotional awareness, along with strategies for emotional regulation, their behavior and academic performance improve (Mendelson et al., 2015). Therefore, it is worth your time as a teacher to assess the emotional climate of your classroom and equip your students with strategies to self-regulate.

Taking the emotional temperature of your classroom can be simple. At the start of the day, the beginning of class period, or any time that you feel it would be beneficial, check-in with students about their emotional state or the quality of their day. You can ask each student to describe how their day is going in one word. Or ask for thumbs up if you’re feeling good, thumbs sideways if you-re feeling so-so, or thumbs down if you are angry, sad, or frustrated. One teacher I worked with laminated different colored squares of paper that corresponded to emotional states (e.g., green for happy/content, yellow for anxious/nervous, blue for sad/tired, red for angry). When it was time to take the temperature, students would place the card that best matched their emotional state on the corner of their desk.

Regardless of how you assess the temperature of classroom, the most important thing is what you do with that information. First and foremost, teach, model, and positively reinforce the use of emotional regulation strategies such as mindful breathing, stretching, positive self-talk, journaling, and seeking help. Make it a regular practice to take the emotional temperature of your room and check-in with students as needed.

Share power.

One of the things that makes us feel safe is having some sense of control over our lives. Students who have experienced ACEs or trauma often come from chaotic or disrupted home environments, so the ways that they have learned to acquire a sense of safety often come in direct conflict with our classroom rules and norms. Some of these students may be hypervigilant about managing their own behaviors and emotions, sometimes to such a debilitating extent that they freeze or shut down. For others, their locus of control is more external, causing them to frequently attempt to assert their will over others. Either way, a power struggle may arise when we attempt to have a student engage in an activity or assignment that they feel threatened by or resistant to.

Consider ways to share power with the student. Classroom jobs, visual schedules, behavior contracts, and collaborative decision-making are just a few ways to share power with a student, thereby lessening their fear by enhancing their sense of efficacy and agency.

Put your oxygen mask on first.

This should really be the first principle when working with students impacted by ACEs and trauma. We can’t give what we don’t have. If we devote too much of our mental, emotional, and physical energy to meeting the needs of our students, we make ourselves vulnerable to exhaustion and compassion fatigue. Before we get to the point of burn out, it is our responsibility to take care of ourselves. And, I mean really take care of ourselves. As much as I would like to think that taking care of myself is just a matter of drinking enough coffee and eating enough chocolate peanut butter cups (a personal addiction) to get through the day, I know that what I may really need is a good night’s sleep or a brisk walk outside.  So please, do something good, really good, for yourself.


References

Burke, N. J., Hellman, J. L., Scott, B. G., Weems, C. F., & Carrion, V. G. (2011). The impact of adverse childhood experiences on an urban pediatric population. Child Abuse & Neglect, 35(6), 408-413.

Mendelson, T., Tandon, S. D., O’Brennan, L., Leaf, P. J., & Ialongo, N. S. (2015). Brief report: Moving prevention into schools: The impact of a trauma-informed school-based intervention. The Journal of Adolescence, 43, 142–147.

Teicher, M. H. (2003). The neurobiological consequences of early stress and childhood maltreatement. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 27, 33-44.

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Ricky Robertson has had the privilege to work with students from pre-K to 12th grade who have persevered in the face of adverse experiences and trauma. Drawing from experience as a teacher and Behavior Intervention Specialist, Ricky coaches educators in developing a relationship-based approach to teaching and learning that inspires transformation through compassion, humor, deep listening, and “real talk.”

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