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4 Tips for Overcoming the School Trauma Cycle

The rising rates of behavioral challenges and absenteeism in the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic might sometimes feel like an unstoppable tidal wave. None of us, individually, can untangle and solve the plentiful variables at play. Still, when the waves don’t stop coming, the only choice we have is to look around and see what we actually have control over— what’s within each of our scope to address. Educators may not have control over school policies or families’ child-rearing practices, but there are evidence-based classroom practices that can help you ride the wave back to shore rather than be taken under by it.

Some schools and teachers have zeroed in on building students’ resilience or social-emotional learning (SEL) without sufficient reflection on instructional practices that impact students’ emotional wellbeing. On the flip side, others have avoided anything that smells of SEL and instead focus only on academic objectives. The golden ticket generally lies somewhere in the middle. We cannot ignore that many students have intensified learning needs coming out of the pandemic. We also cannot ignore that students may have experienced chronic stress and trauma not only from the pandemic but also from repeated experiences of failure upon returning to school.

Those of us in the special education field or anyone who has worked with students who have disabilities (which is all of us) are well aware of the interplay between academic challenges and emotional-behavioral challenges. Students with disabilities and others who struggle in school are more likely to suffer low self-esteem and symptoms of depression and anxiety. They’re also twice as likely to be suspended or expelled (Horowitz et al., 2017).

When students repeatedly struggle academically, they can fall into a trauma loop. Their school experiences are often negative, so their defenses go up in an effort to protect their self-esteem. Once they tip into a fight, flight, freeze, or fawn[1] state, the brain regions responsible for learning and language essentially go offline – all the energy that the brain needs for complex thought is redirected to regions of the brain and body that are focused on escaping the threatening situation. This is often referred to as the amygdala hijack. The amygdala of the brain plays a key role in processing emotions and keeping us safe, physically and psychologically. When the amygdala senses danger, it hijacks the brain’s learning capacity.

Helping students overcome this school trauma cycle requires thoughtful and long-term consideration of the relationship between students’ academic and emotional needs.

Here are four essential practices that can help on both fronts:

1. Cultivate a caring and connected culture

Students who have a sense of belonging at school are more likely to be academically successful and less likely to get in trouble at school (Allen et al., 2018). Creating a positive relationship with students doesn’t mean we have to carve out an hour of every day for talking about every detail of students’ lives but we do have to get to know our students’ goals and interests. We also have to be reflective of how we interact with students, including any preconceived notions or implicit biases we might have. According to researchers, some groups of students report experiencing less close relationships with their teachers, including students with disabilities, Black and Lantinx students, and students from low socio-economic backgrounds (McGrath & Van Bergen, 2015). Positive, supportive relationships are built through everyday interactions. They’re built in how we respond when students attempt to answer a question they’re not sure about, when they share something vulnerable, and when they challenge us or push our buttons.

2. Establish and teach routines and structure

Knowing what to expect in each class or situation can remove some stress and anxiety for students. It also reduces the cognitive load since once the routine is in place, ideally, students don’t have to think about it anymore. This means they can focus on more important things like learning. Routines might include things like:

  • Where should students turn in their homework?
  • When is the next recess or break?
  • What’s the process for transitioning from one activity to the next (e.g., how do you call students back to attention from group work)?

Creating a structured learning environment also means intentionally and explicitly teaching and reminding students of rules and routines. Keep in mind, there will always be some students who need more practice and gentle reminders whether because of a disability like Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) or simply from heightened stress levels.

3. Leverage strengths and successes

We know it’s good to have high expectations and allow students to productively struggle with tough concepts. However, we also know that the struggle isn’t always productive. When students are shutting down, acting out, or avoiding schoolwork, it’s a clear indication that they are not in the midst of a productive struggle. Every student wants to be successful. Consider what strengths each student brings to your class and how you can build mini-wins or successes for each student into the lesson. To accomplish this requires differentiation to meet the needs of each student. We can have the same overall objective but build in stair-step objectives or wins that help students build up to the main objective of the lesson. This is especially pertinent for students with disabilities but also all the students who missed out on schooling opportunities over the past several years and may need some background knowledge pre-taught (and celebrated as mini-wins) to them to fill in the gaps.

4. Create fun and meaningful learning experiences

Who doesn’t need a little more fun and purpose in their lives? Of course not every lesson will be fun, but too often we shy away from fun in fear that we’ll lose control of the class. But the goal should never be control. The goal is helping students build that internal desire to learn for learning’s sake. If we’re always controlling the learning, how do we expect them to build that intrinsic motivation? As long as we’ve established the class routines and structures – including a plan for how to reign them in when things get too chaotic – it’s okay to release some of that control. Just as important as fun, is helping students to see how the lesson is connected to something they care about. Different students will certainly find different subjects more meaningful, but getting to know students’ interests and goals can do the heavy lifting for us to get students’ engaged with the lesson.

In Overcoming the School Trauma Cycle: Academic and Emotional Support for Struggling Learners, I write about how teaching is often “akin to walking a tightrope where you have to be comfortable swaying with the rope, rather than fighting to hold it still.” This has perhaps never been more true than it is today as teachers are addressing the emotional and academic fallout from the pandemic. It’s more clear than ever that students’ emotional wellbeing and learning capacity go hand in hand. So let’s use this moment to create more supportive and inclusive learning environments that continually address both the academic and emotional needs students have every day.

References

Allen, K., Kern, M., Vella-Brodrick, D., Hattie, J., & Waters, L. (2018). What schools need to know about fostering school belonging: A meta-analysis. Educational Psychology Review, 30, 1–34. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10648- 016-9389-8

Horowitz, S.H.,Rawe, J.,& Whittaker, M. C. (2017). The state of learning disabilities: Understanding the 1 in 5. National Center for Learning Disabilities.

McGrath, K., & Van Bergen, P. (2015). Who, when, why and to what end? Students at risk of negative student–teacher relationships and their outcomes. Educational Research Review, 14, 1–17. https://doi.org/10.10 16/j.edurev.2014.12.001

Fawn is a relatively new addition that refers to when a person caters to whatever someone else wants to appease them.

 

Written by

Trynia Kaufman is an author, speaker, and educational consultant who specializes in brain-based learning strategies, trauma-informed teaching, and disability inclusion. She has held various roles in the education sector including as a special education teacher, technical assistance provider, and director of a college and career access program for youth in foster care. Trynia is the author of Overcoming the School Trauma Cycle: Academic and Emotional Supports for Struggling Learners. She has a Master of Science in neuroscience and education from Teachers College, Columbia University. You can connect with Trynia at tryniakaufman.com.

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