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Teaching with Trauma to Traumatized Kids

Updated: Jun 30, 2021

“Traumatized people chronically feel unsafe inside their bodies: The past is alive in the form of gnawing interior discomfort. Their bodies are constantly bombarded by visceral warning signs, and, in an attempt to control these processes, they often become experts at ignoring their gut feelings and in numbing awareness of what is played out inside. They learn to hide from their selves.” (p.97)”― Bessel A. van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma

Teachers already know what happens outside of school impacts a student’s ability to learn in school. According to the CDC, Adverse childhood experiences affect over 70% of American students. That number is more significant in areas with fewer resources. The pandemic has raised the ACE score of every student by at least 1. It has added another adverse experience to our trauma suitcases as well. We’ve got to care for ourselves to care for our students and teach ways to cope with this ever-changing world.

Teachers are ALSO experiencing a collective trauma due to the changes COVID-19 has made to our profession. For most of us, we woke up one day and were suddenly virtual teachers with no background knowledge of how to make this happen. Many of us didn’t even (and maybe still don’t) have the equipment and training to do it well. We were worried about our health and the health of the people we love. The whole nation thought we were going to run out of toilet paper. It was madness, and words can’t capture the emotions we experienced both collectively and individually. I’m willing to put money on the idea that most have us have experienced at least one of the following symptoms of trauma since the beginning of COVID-19:

  • Mood swings

  • Digestive Issues

  • Chronic Pain

  • Pain or stiffness in joints

  • Back pain

  • Increased Irritability

  • Dehydration

  • Increase in blood pressure

  • More frequent Headaches

  • Lack of motivation

To learn more about trauma in students (and most likely yourself), check out the helpful resources from The Attachment and Trauma Network. They have an excellent annual conference in February.

Research from the CDC tells us that untreated chronic trauma takes an average of 20 years off our lives. As terrifying as that thought maybe, it can give us hope to know that it’s possible to get those years back by addressing our trauma and self-care. As teachers, we must model self-care for ourselves and the COMMUNITY we are serving. I say community instead of just students because that should be our perspective if we are interested in creating change. Mindfulness in schools is a relatively new concept. Our student’s parents were not necessarily taught these practices, so we recognize that if a student really can see the benefit, practice mindfulness to change their perspective, attitude, or outlook- they will share this experience with the people they care about. From there, it is hard to measure the positive effects on the community.

When I teach my 8th-grade Resource class, I always start with a daily check-in on google forms. This helps students identify their emotions. I adapted the concept from psychologist Robert Plutchik’s wheel of emotions. After students identify their specific emotions, they answer questions about if their basic needs are met, such as:

How many hours of sleep did you get last night?

When is the last time you’ve had a meal?

Have you been properly hydrating yourself?

Rate how you’re feeling about school today.

The very last question asks if you have any notes or thoughts for today. It is not a required question, but almost any student who has a bad day chooses to share more. These goofy 14-year-olds might act as if they are uninterested in taking control of their own wellbeing. Still, they crave autonomy and gain tools to take responsibility for their mental wellbeing. After a bit of practice, they independently start to identify things like, “I went to bed at 3 last night because I was playing video games for 9 hours straight- maybe that’s why I’m so upset.” Or “I don’t remember the last time I’ve had anything other than Hot Cheetos and Sprite; maybe that’s why I have a headache.” It’s really powerful to watch them find control over their own emotions and well-being.

As teachers, we need to do the same.

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