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At Hope, Not At-Risk: Helping Children with Trauma Experiences in School (Part 1)

In the first tier of our response to Intervention model, we acknowledge the importance of understanding the background of each child to the best of our ability. As educators, we recognise that the life of a child outside or before entering school has an indisputable impact on a child’s readiness to learn and participate in school activities. While classrooms are often prepared to address factors such as cultural, linguistic, or familial diversity, new understandings about the importance of addressing childhood trauma at school are beginning to have a positive impact on our ability to meet kids “where they’re at.” In my work with teachers of behaviourally challenging kids this year, one aspect I have been focusing on is the connection between trauma and learning. Recent studies have deepened and developed our understanding of the role that childhood experiences of trauma can have in schools and learning, giving us more tools than ever to help children.

Childhood trauma can include physical, sexual, or emotional abuse, but it can also include events such as the loss of a home to fire, divorce, serious illness, witnessing an accident, neglect and many other events. Trauma is very subjective, and whether a child experiences a negative event as “trauma” is based in part on how many protective factors a child has in their life. For instance, the death of a pet may not be traumatic for a child with strong family relationships, a secure home situation, and positive school experiences, while a child without these protective factors may find the same event traumatic. Recent studies show that 63% of children under the age of eighteen experience at least one incidence of trauma, meaning these experiences are incredibly common in our classrooms. As the number of different types of negative experience increase for an individual, so does their level of risk for tragic life outcomes such as suicide, drug use, intimate partner violence, illness, and many others.*

Beyond simply affecting the emotional well-being of a child, trauma experiences have a deep impact on the way that children learn – which, in turn, means we need to adjust our practices to meet the needs of children who are healing from trauma. One of the interesting facts about trauma is that it changes the brain. Not just the “software” of the brain, such as neural pathways, but the “hardware” as well. The shape and size of a child’s brain may be changed by traumatic experiences in childhood, which can have an impact on the way in which a child processes information and emotions at school. Because the frontal lobe of the brain develops last (and isn’t fully developed until well into adulthood), trauma typically has the greatest impact on this area of the brain. Memory, impulse control, and language are some areas of the brain which may be affected by trauma; and similarly these are skill domains that are heavily relied on in traditional classrooms. Supporting the philosophy that “kids do well if they can,” neuroscience has revealed that children with significant out-of-school challenges need our understanding to help remove barriers to their learning.

Trauma-Sensitive or Trauma-Informed classrooms are school settings where trauma is understood, recognised, and responded to in ways that empower survivors. These supports are often Universally Designed, in order to avoid isolating individuals who have experienced trauma, and also to ensure that all children benefit from these safe and caring spaces! The strategies used in trauma-informed practice emphasize executive skill development, brain-based learning, emotional intelligence, and non-adversarial discipline to help children grow in their academic learning and their behaviour self-regulation. The goal of trauma-sensitive classrooms is not to replace therapy, but rather to put in place simple supports that help children cope with the demands of the school day in order to do their best learning.

In my next post, I will share some trauma-informed practices for inclusive classrooms. Do you have experience with trauma-informed practice? Please share if you do!

-Katia Reid

*Visit here to read the ACE Study or assess your own ACE score.

  • dlander says:

    Thank you for this extremely informative post, Katia- one all educators should read. It’s a great reminder of the critical importance of understanding where our students are coming from. I look forward to reading your follow-up post on trauma-informed practices!

    December 18, 2013 at 8:13 pm

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