Imagine you are being chased by a tiger. Your heart races as you feel a surge of adrenaline preparing your body for fight, flight, or freeze. Now imagine that right after escaping, you have to learn to multiply fractions. You would likely find this task near impossible, even if you usually find math easy. I once had a student tell me that while I was explaining math, she could not see the numbers on her math book. Instead, she was seeing her parents fighting. Trauma can interfere with students’ ability to learn by shifting energy toward brain regions specialized in averting danger.
What Does Trauma Look Like?
The Trauma and Learning Policy Initiative notes that signs of trauma can include unexplained behavior change, including changes in concentration, memory, academic abilities, comprehension, engagement in learning, trust in self and others, self-regulation, negative outbursts, and frequent stomachaches or headaches. These changes could also be caused by other issues, so compassionate curiosity can help educators uncover the causes.
What Educators Can Do
Educators can support students who have experienced trauma by showing care for them, providing support after a traumatic event, giving students opportunities to talk or write about their experiences, and trying to understand the reasons behind behaviors in order to respond with empathy. However, teachers should avoid trying to solve the problem and be aware of content that may be re-traumatizing or triggering like talking about family trees, vacations, weekends, or animals. Teachers can also refer students to school counseling services, if available.
Educational neuroscience has found that positive relationships are especially important for students who have experienced trauma. Morning meetings can help with this by allowing you to have story time addressing common situations, add humor, address students directly, and give imaginary hugs. For young students, bend down to talk instead of talking from above. It also helps to keep a record to ensure you talk with each student regularly about topics outside of academics.
Trauma-informed Pedagogical Practices
Certain academic practices are particularly helpful for students who have experienced trauma, including encouraging creativity, balancing cognitive load and risk, and maximizing student engagement.
Incorporating creativity can be helpful, including using humor, movement, music, art, playtime, nature, and storytelling, or having them journal, sketch during listening times, or create science or technology projects.
Students who have experienced trauma should receive instruction that lowers cognitive load but provides cognitive risk. Helpful techniques include:
- Directions in more than one medium, such as spoken and visual.
- Frequent review, practice tests, and open-book tests
- Avoidance of multiple choices on tests
- Time for engagement, focus, and calming the brain
- Sensory toys
- Empty spaces on papers, in instruction, and in the classroom
- Metacognition practice
- Hexagonal thinking
Techniques for increasing engagement among students who have experienced trauma include:
- Explain the relevance of course content
- Provide student choice on assignments
- Avoid digital busy work and screen time
- Allow mistakes and talk about their importance in learning