Yikes! It’s been busy lately, but I finally got around to writing the second part of my post on Trauma-Informed classrooms, as promised. I had planned for this to be a two-post series, but before I move on to classroom strategies for supporting children with trauma experiences, I realised that there are a few important concepts which inform which strategies we choose to use in our classrooms.
The fundamental understanding to have about children and trauma is that when a child has experienced trauma it can have a long-term impact on that child’s brain. Memory, impulse control, emotional processing, language and many other cognitive functions can be impaired, and these kids need our help to learn new skills. We need to know what trauma “looks like” when it’s in our classrooms, so that we can take steps to help our students who are struggling.
Hypervigilence: “Hypervigilence is an enhanced state of sensory sensitivity accompanied by an exaggerated intensity of behaviors whose purpose is to detect threats. Hypervigilance is also accompanied by a state of increased anxiety which can cause exhaustion. Other symptoms include: abnormally increased arousal, a high responsiveness to stimuli, and a constant scanning of the environment for threats.” In the classroom this can look like excessive eye contact, a tense body posture, putting distance between themselves and other students, aggressive or provocative statements and actions. It is very important to be aware that hypervigilent students will often start a conflict themselves, rather than wait to see what reaction they will get from others around them. Waiting is often too stressful and frightening when they believe that a conflict is inevitable, so they take control of the situation. It is important to maintain consistency in our interactions with these children in order to reduce their stress that results from “guessing” about outcomes.
Freeze and Dissociation: “When a threat is utterly overwhelming and too much for the fight / flight system to cope with, the brain goes into a ‘Freeze’ state; a numbing or collapse response. This sort of trauma is experienced as a general shutdown, lack of vitality, emotional separation and detachment.” In the classroom, this can look like a “who cares?” attitude or total withdrawal, such as refraining from speech, staring blankly, pulling a hood up, or putting their head down on a desk. The “threat” that causes a freeze and dissociation response is frequently not perceived by those around the child, but remains real and frightening regardless. At times, students may actually re-live sensory elements of their trauma during dissociation. It is important that we stay personally calm, and limit elements which may contribute to sensory overload, such as loud noises or frenetic activity.
Amygdala Hijack: “The amygdala …regulates the fight or flight response that is key to the survival mechanism for many animals, including humans and other primates. At the moment a threat is perceived, the amygdala can override the neocortex, the center of higher thinking, and initiate a violent response. In the wild or in the presence of actual physical threats, this can be a life-saving function. In ordinary day-to-day living, however, this amygdala hijack can inspire impulsive responses the person will later regret.” Studies show that it can take up to thirty minutes before the brain is able to process information normally again, after the amygdala has taken over from the neocortex – if the student is not re-triggered to remain stressed. In the classroom, this can look like tantrums or destructive behaviour as a result of strong emotional responses, such as punching walls, throwing objects, lying down and crying etc. Students may feel regretful or embarrassed later, when they are regulated once more. It is important that we explicitly coach students in ways to calm down, as opposed to simply “letting” them calm down, which can worsen the situation – coaching deep breathing, using stress tools, or having the child label their emotions may help. Shame increases affect dysregulation, so it is additionally essential to protect the dignity of these children and to refrain from comments which may be perceived as demeaning, such as “you’re too old for this” or “you know better.” A quick summary of how Amygdala Hijack occurs can be found on youtube here.
Cortisol: “Cortisol is a stress hormone… Chronic stress and elevated cortisol levels also increase risk for depression, mental illness, and lower life expectancy. This week, two separate studies were published in Science linking elevated cortisol levels as a potential trigger for mental illness and decreased resilience—especially in adolescence.” When the body is in a stressed state, as part of the General Adaptation Syndrome, the body produces cortisol. If a baby is left to cry, cortisol levels elevate in that baby until he or she is comforted by the mother. Worrying about safety or if there will be enough money for food raises cortisol, as does witnessing traumatic events. Over time, the body of a child who has regularly elevated cortisol levels may begin to overproduce cortisol and remain in a stressed state for prolonged periods of time. In the classroom, this can look like hypervigilence, exhaustion, pain, depression, and even chronic illness. It is important that we provide guided opportunities to release stress and lower cortisol levels during the course of the school day. Children with elevated cortisol may experience time that other students use to “unwind,” such as recess, free play, and active gym games, as stressful because of the unpredictability and high level of sensory input. Deliberate and calm exercise breaks (yoga, balancing, etc.), guided meditations, listening to music, and other trauma-sensitive breaks should be built into the school routine at regular intervals.
Please feel free to leave a question in the comments if you have anything particular you would like me to mention in my next post about strategies! I am excited to write my final post in this series and share some ideas for building Trauma-Informed classrooms.
Quotes taken from…