Developing Trauma-Informed Classrooms:

Helping Students Make Sense of What Hasn’t Made Sense

By NAfME Member Lori Schwartz Reichl and Dr. Ramona Roberts

“Anything that’s human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable. When we can talk about our feelings, they become less overwhelming, less upsetting, and less scary. The people we trust with that important talk can help us know that we are not alone.”―Fred Rogers

“Trauma” has been a buzzword in education, especially in the last few years with trauma-informed professional development leading the way in school systems. Administrators find value and purpose in such training sessions that intend to develop trauma-informed classrooms. However, do these sessions meet the needs of all students, families, and educators? Do educators and support staff truly understand and feel comfortable identifying traumatic behaviors in students and creating and maintaining a consistent classroom environment that represents a caring culture?

Many educators have participated in online and in-person trauma training. Yet, educators continue to struggle to address the issue of trauma in their classrooms, their school as a whole, and through co-curricular and extra-curricular activities. Educators often leave these training sessions without identifying actionable changes needed to support their students in ways that impact learning, behavior, and school safety.

Understanding Trauma and Attachment in Children

How can we ensure our school staff are passionate, committed, and knowledgeable about advancing trauma treatment and support for all children? How can we offer them a foundational understanding of trauma with quick and straightforward explanations, tips, and tools that promote compassion, courage, and hope? To answer these questions, educators need to be equipped with a foundational understanding of relationships with children and attachments that can be formed with parents and educators.

teacher or counselor listening to student

Photo: SDI Productions / E+ Collection via Getty Images

Establishing Relationships with Children

Ensuring Trust

Children need to establish a sense of basic trust, a belief that their world is reliable and predictable (to a point). The type of early caregiving children receive can influence whether a child approaches life with an attitude of trust or fear. Fortunately, we know from research that the majority of children, across cultures, are what we call securely attached. In sum, a securely attached child believes that their caregiver will be there for them when needed. Secure attachment can manifest in stronger levels of confidence, sense of self, academic performance, social competence, and emotional regulation―just to name some. Educator and caregiver can become synonymous as the child develops through school.

Understanding Beliefs and Behaviors

When children are insecurely attached, however, this can affect the beliefs they have about themselves and the behaviors they show towards others, often leading to mistrust in relationships and lower achievement. Thankfully, there is research that shows this doesn’t have to be a given outcome. Attachment is about the dynamics of the relationship and is not a genetic trait. Children can have different attachments from one caregiver to another. They may exhibit a secure attachment to a parent yet not be securely attached to a teacher, and vice versa.

Attachment and the Teacher-Student Relationship

When it comes to teacher-student relationships, attachments are not always formed in school as children are bringing with them to the classroom their experiences in life thus far. The behavior of insecurely attached children may elicit responses from educators that make it challenging for the child to attach to them. This could be a child who is displaying disobedience, helplessness, and clingy behavior. Oftentimes, this type of behavior is labeled as attention seeking, but for educators and caregivers, this should be approached through the lens of connection seeking.

Educators can develop secure teacher-student relationships even with children who would be categorized as insecure. Educators need to display behavior that helps to counter the child’s internal belief system that the teacher will be unresponsive, rejecting, or hostile. Rather than being annoyed at these children or rolling our eyes at their behavior, we should attempt to connect with them in a way that encourages them to conduct themselves with self-respecting behavior, feel hopeful, or be appreciated. When abuse or other trauma is involved in their life, children have an even greater need for a warm, caring, and attentive teacher despite whatever behavior they may be displaying.

Trauma Statistics

Today, trauma is far-reaching and impacts more children than ever before. When swapping out the term “trauma” for situations that have been acknowledged as an “adverse childhood experience,” nearly half of U.S. children have experienced some kind of abuse, neglect or household dysfunction. Expanding to bullying, community violence, racism, living in foster care, and neighborhood safety, over 83% of children have experienced these traumas at some point in their lives.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration states that potentially traumatic events in children can include:

  • Psychological, physical, or sexual abuse
  • Community or school violence
  • Witnessing or experiencing domestic violence
  • National disasters or terrorism
  • Commercial sexual exploitation
  • Sudden or violent loss of a loved one
  • Refugee or war experiences
  • Military family-related stressors (e.g., deployment, parental loss or injury)
  • Physical or sexual assault
  • Neglect
  • Serious accidents or life-threatening illness

Data from the Resilient Educator shows that:

  • More than two-thirds of children report at least one traumatic event before their 16th birthday
  • Each year, the number of youth requiring hospital treatment for physical assault-related injuries would fill every seat in nine stadiums
  • 1 in 4 high school students have been in at least one physical fight
  • 1 in 5 high school students report being bullied; 1 in 6 cyberbullied
  • 19% of injured and 12% of physically ill youth have Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
  • 54% of U.S. families have been affected by some type of disaster

Creating a Trauma-Informed School System

Knowing that children can spend more awake hours in school than at home, we must do better to equip our educators and school staff to navigate this scenario and meet the needs of children who have been impacted by trauma. A trauma-informed school recognizes that trauma has effects beyond the students and into the educational system as a whole. These effects can seep into the community, too.

Identifying Trauma

Identifying trauma-related stress and survival reactions can help decrease the chances of it being seen as defiance or misbehavior resulting in disciplinary action. There are symptoms that can overlap a few diagnoses with a trauma-related disorder like ADHD, oppositional defiant disorder, personality disorders, and mood disorders. Students who may be shut down in class could be seen as being uninvested, not caring to pay attention, and not respecting the teacher. Being restless, easily frustrated, impulsive, and losing temper can be considered as disobedience, defiance, and disrespect. These behaviors could simply display that a child is in an emotional dysregulated state responding to stimuli that has their nervous system and brain responding as if there is a threat.

Understanding Behavior

This “oppositional” behavior is driven by a goal of self-protection by the child. It may be hard for the outsider to conceptualize when they can’t see the threat or the perception of threat with their own eyes. It is important to keep in mind that in these situations, the child is not thinking through their actions and the consequences of them. Their frontal lobe, where we house impulse control, inhibition, judgment, and planning are essentially off-line. Think about your phone being disconnected from the internet as an analogy. It is working from the limbic system which is designed to have children react in ways to increase survival as if they are being threatened or in danger. It may not always be these big reactions or over-reactions, and may be discovered in the child’s inability to connect with peers due to a lack of social skills. These children may be misreading or misperceiving social cues from others. Or, they could be giving off the wrong signals when they are trying to start a conversation or build a friendship, yet they are making inappropriate comments. The child may have difficulty asking others to play or socialize or inviting themselves to play or socialize with others. This in turn leaves them further isolated and buying into the negative beliefs of oneself.

Lack of Language

Children, particularly our youngest learners, do not have the language to articulate what is happening inside them or what has happened to them. Some people will respond with, “Why didn’t you tell anyone?” when they learn of childhood abuse later in life. For the child, they may respond verbally or behaviorally with, “I did, in the ways I could at the time.” Children often don’t know how to make sense of their own emotions, thoughts, and shifts in responses, let alone be able to articulate these to a school professional. Lack of effort in their academic performance may just be a message that the child didn’t feel their efforts in the past got them anywhere. Eye contact may feel threatening to a child with a history of trauma, especially if at the hands of a caretaker who used the line, “Look at me when I’m talking to you.” The child’s lack of eye contact could signal that they are overwhelmed.

Feelings of Emptiness

Children with a history of trauma are more vulnerable to feelings of loneliness and alienation, may display heightened reactions to what may be minor upsets for others, may distract peers and adults when they are trying to do other things, may attempt to be overly helpful, and may be hyper-talkative. Some of this may be in the lane of dysregulation or it could be an avoidance strategy for whatever might be happening inside them at the moment. Educators should continually look through a lens of curiosity around what the behavior may be telling them. Before being quick to identify a child as acting out, consider they may be feeling unsafe. A classroom setting can be challenging when children are expected to sit still, be quiet, and stay focused on tasks for long periods of time when so much is happening in their brains and bodies.

Making Key Changes in Education

Children will respond more appropriately to educators and caregivers when their efforts involve the experience of connection rather than attempts at control. Adults who are making repeated attempts to connect with students, but are met with children pushing them away, should not throw in the towel. At times, the adult may think, “What’s the point?” This behavior may demonstrate to the child exactly what they were anticipating―rejection. There are some children who will push others away to get in front of the rejection in order to not be disappointed. More patience may be needed by adults in these circumstances. Often, when the child experiences consistent care and concern by an adult, they will eventually turn the corner to form a connection.

It is not necessary to keep pushing to get information out of children in order to figure out what is going on with them. Some children need to deny the experiences that are happening in their life. If this is the case, adults should let them. For those children who want to share more details, adults should be careful to work within their level of competence. Without proper training, an adult may do more harm than good if a child talks too much about what they’re going through. This would be when a referral or consultation with the school counselor would likely be needed.

young Asian student in support group

Photo: SDI Productions / E+ Collection via Getty Images

Key changes that educators can immediately make to connect with children rather than to control them include:

  • Understanding the data. Acknowledge that more than two-thirds of children within K–12 education have experienced a traumatic event. Be aware of what common events these may be and identify who in your school system may help you should you need more support.
  • Reflecting on the learning space. Take time to evaluate your current classroom culture. Consider asking students what they need or want to feel more safe, comfortable, or included in the learning space. Request that a school counselor or psychologist observes your teaching or assesses a learning space to recommend positive changes.
  • Exploring avenues for development. Make space for students to socialize and problem-solve. Allow them to explore curiosity and empathy within each lesson, practice, rehearsal, and activity.
  • Promoting safety and performance. Focus on an environment that facilitates safety, allows for calming corners or nurturing activities, and encourages play or performance.
  • Incorporating mindfulness. Sprinkle mindfulness activities throughout lessons to help encourage students to stay present in the here and now. This will help with their emotion regulation.
  • Internalizing presence. Center oneself as the educator in how you show up, remain consistent, and maintain reliability. Predictability will foster a sense of safety for students.

In order to develop trauma-informed classrooms, educators must help students (and themselves!) to make sense of what hasn’t made sense. For students with a history of trauma, or even currently in the midst of it, classroom behavior is affected, and learning can become a heavy challenge. Trauma changes neuropathways in the brain, alters children’s perception and behavior, and clouds their sense of safety, power, and control. Fortunately, consistent positive relationships where our children feel seen and heard can change the brain, too. Educators must gain awareness about trauma so their students can better understand themselves, their actions, their intricate contribution to the school community, and their purpose in the classroom.

About the authors:

Dr. Reichl and Dr. Roberts are cousins in the Palmerio family. They combined their knowledge of classroom and counseling experiences to present this article.

Lori Schwartz Reichl Portrait

Photo: Richard Twigg Photography

NAfME member Dr. Lori Schwartz Reichl is the visionary thought leader of Making Key Changes. Her career began in music education where she learned the importance of a key change—a shift in the tonal center of a piece of music, often used to inject energy or produce significance. She eventually realized the necessity and impact of making key changes in all areas of her life.

Since transitioning out of one classroom as a public school educator, Dr. Reichl has uniquely created a global classroom for her work. She guides organizations, teams, and individuals to create and maintain a shared vision by making key changes in their communities, companies, classrooms, and careers to unlock their greatest potential in collaboration with those they love, serve, and lead.

Learn more about Dr. Lori Schwartz Reichl at MakingKeyChanges.com. Subscribe to her Making Key Changes newsletter. Listen to her weekly podcast.

Dr. Ramona Roberts headshot

Photo by Aisha Butler Photography

Dr. Ramona Roberts is the Senior Executive Director of the Regional Outpatient Services for Caron Treatment Center. Dr. Roberts is currently a level II certified clinical trauma professional with training in multiple trauma modalities, and is a certified experiential therapist with training in trauma-informed experiential therapies (including sociometry, psychodrama, and adventure-based counseling). She has won several awards in her career, including Humanitarian of the Year, Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching, and the Inaugural Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine Employee Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Award.

Dr. Roberts is the author of Making Sense of What Hasn’t Made Sense, which is geared toward trauma survivors, family members, friends, and clinicians, and has garnered both the Counselor’s Choice award in 2022 and the Independent Press’ Distinguished Favorite award in 2023. Dr. Roberts has presented research at regional, national, and international conferences and has several publications in professional peer-reviewed journals. She is recognized as a certified trainer of adolescent co-occurring disorders by the Pennsylvania Department of Health.

Learn more about Dr. Ramona Roberts. You can purchase her book here.

Interested in reprinting this article? Please review the reprint guidelines.

The National Association for Music Education (NAfME) provides a number of forums for the sharing of information and opinion, including blogs and postings on our website, articles and columns in our magazines and journals, and postings to our Amplify member portal. Unless specifically noted, the views expressed in these media do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Association, its officers, or its employees.

April 2024 Teaching Music

Published Date

June 11, 2024

Category

  • Classroom Management

Copyright

June 11, 2024. © National Association for Music Education (NAfME.org)

April 2024 Teaching Music
Messiah University. Learn more. Earn your master's in music conducting or music education. Online. Flexible. Affordable.
Gator Cases new Largo series. Image of high school girl sitting next to music cases in front of green lockers.