If a child cannot learn the way I teach, then I must teach the way he learns.
--Anna Gillingham, educator and psychologist

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Acknowledging trauma in the classroom and the home may lead to stronger academic programs and healthier students

Research has shown that one out of every four preschoolers has gone through a traumatic experience. Many times the scars from these mentally shocking events are manifested in “bad” behavior in the classroom. As a result, disruptive little ones often forfeit the chance to learn, all because their past trauma has not been addressed.

In the Kansas City area, many students live in poverty and over five percent of children are homeless, a strong correlate with traumatic incidence within the family (e.g. observation of physical or substance abuse at home, incarceration or death of family member, etc.). With the knowledge that many of their preschoolers were likely to have experienced trauma, many school districts in Missouri around Kansas City decided to mitigate the instances of pre-kindergarten expulsions and future risky behavior in adolescence by piloting Crittenton Children’s Center’s Head Start Trauma Smart program.

Head Start classroom programs naturally integrate trauma-informed practices into the student’s environment by training both educators and family members to address behavior through the framework of the Attachment, Self-Regulation, and Competency Model. Recognizing that trauma often places a young child’s mind on constant “high alert,” the program encourages teachers and guardians to establish securing routines, concrete calming methods, and a safe space to discuss emotions with their little ones. In addition to this training, Trauma Smart offers Intensive Individual Intervention for those students in need of counseling, Classroom Consultation to improve instructional and disciplinary methods in response to actual situations, and Peer Based Mentoring to foster harmony and support.

After adopting these trauma-informed principles in multiple levels of the school system, administrators saw a decrease in behavioral problems, disciplinary and therapy referrals, and educational costs, as well as an increase in attendance and graduation rates.

Addressing trauma has long been a practice in the field of counseling, and here a Laughlin Children’s Center, each clinician of the Psychology Department works to educate her clients and their teachers on how past experiences can affect learning. Clinicians warn educators of potential triggers, help clients create calming rituals they can use throughout the school day, and even bring in therapy dogs to ease students’ anxiety or depression.

However, even those without traumatized clients or past trauma themselves can adopt more mindful practices in their daily routine. Over at the Village Preschool, instructors encourage the students to notice their emotions and the physical actions that might accompany them, taking steps to appropriately express feelings and foster behavior conducive to classroom learning. As Head Instructor Susan Wright says, “As teachers, we demonstrate and facilitate problem solving with the end goal [of] self-regulation and independence,” a fitting aspiration for all regardless of background. 

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