Beyond the Classroom: Teachers’ Role in Childhood Trauma Prevention and Intervention

The average student in Ontario spends approximately 194 days of the year in the classroom, with each school day being approximately six hours long. The child spends 14 years in typical K-12 schools. Therefore, some simple math shows that 2,716 days, or 16,296 hours are spent in the school environment. The time spent in school can be a positive experience for students who have experienced abuse and/or trauma when teachers have the knowledge and resources to effectively approach each unique child. Ensuring that educators are trauma-informed, able to recognize early signs of abuse, and support students through healthy and open relationships is essential in reducing abuse and trauma endured by students.

A 2010 study found that only 21 cases out of 1000 children in abusive situations are investigated further, and even less of these children are receiving the support they need and deserve. Many of the children and adolescents in such abusive situations will not come in contact with a social worker, family and child services, and/or other professionals in the field. However, almost every one of these children will come in contact with a teacher. That is why the educators’ role goes beyond the classroom, and the ability to identify and report trauma signifiers can dramatically increase the number of cases that are investigated, and ultimately, the children that receive help.

More often than not, a child will not verbalize and share their experiences of abuse with those around them. The trauma usually exhibits itself through other ways — which, at first glance, may simply appear as a misbehaving child. According to the Child Mind Institute, children experiencing trauma often display the following obstacles to learning:

  • Trouble forming relationships with teachers

  • They may not know what a healthy child-adult relationship looks like

  • Lack a secure attachment style

  • Poor self-regulation

  • Overpowering emotions that are often difficult to manage

  • Presents itself in temper tantrums, yelling, sometimes physical attributes

  • Negative thinking

  • Blame placed on themselves for adverse situations

  • Ambiguous thoughts often skewed negative, aka hostile attribution bias

  • Hypervigilance

  • Jumpy, ultra-sensitive to loud or alarming stimuli

  • Present ADHD-like symptoms

  • Easily irritable and can display uncontrolled affect

  • Executive function challenges

  • Memory, ability to focus, and other higher-level brain functioning

  • Trouble with mentally talking themselves through an independent task

Examples of Trauma-Informed Teaching

Scenario 1: Child X borrows a crayon from the table Child Y is sitting at. Child Y angrily screams at Child X, upset that they took the crayon they were about to use.

A trauma-uninformed approach: “Child Y, we do not yell at our friends. This has been happening too often, I am removing a sticker from your points chart. Child X will return the crayon when they are done using it.”

A trauma-informed approach: “Child Y, I see that you are very upset with Child X for taking your crayon. There must have been a misunderstanding between both of you. Maybe you can try using the purple crayon for now, and when Child X is done using the blue crayon, they will return it to the table.”

The second approach acknowledges the student’s emotions without invalidating them. This can increase the willingness of the child to vocalize their emotion rather than display it in maladaptive ways in the future. Rather than withdrawing, scolding the child, and showing the child negative attention, the child receives a form of positive attention that can later reorient their negative thinking. As Dr. Rappaport, a child and adolescent psychiatrist puts it, “Negative attention is fast, predictable and efficient,” she notes. “We need to make positive attention as fast, predictable, and efficient.”

Scenario 2: The class is working on a group project, and the volume level in the room are exceeding appropriate levels. The teacher becomes frustrated and decides to gain the students' attention by…

A trauma- uninformed approach: Dropping a heavy textbook on their desk to make a jarring noise.

A trauma-informed approach: Using a rain-stick.

Children who have been traumatized can endure high levels of anxiety when the future is unpredictable. Using a tactic that is unpredictable and quite startling can exacerbate these feelings of anxiety. Additionally, often children who experience instances of domestic abuse associate loud noises with their own trauma, which can trigger their fight or flight response and cause them extreme distress. Using a gradual sound such as the rain stick, removes the startling effect and is just as effective in gaining student attention.

The Little Things

In Canada, all teachers have a duty to report any signs of abuse or trauma to social services if they suspect one of their students is being abused. In Starts With Youth’s interview with Ms. Jen Alexander, a former special education teacher, and current school counselor, she reiterates the importance of fostering an open channel of reciprocal communication between teacher and student. She says it is so important to "Show that relationships come first by being present with kids consistently and over time. We can’t underestimate the moments throughout our days together when we can connect and communicate in ways that say, ‘I see you. You matter to me.’” Making trauma-informed decisions as educators, through pedagogy itself, as well as through the methods of lesson execution, and the simple everyday interactions teachers exchange with students, can dramatically increase the effectiveness of the education system as a whole in preventing childhood abuse and trauma, and mitigating its’ effects.

Written by: Daphna Roytblat