The Silent Language in the Classroom: Strategies for Teaching Students with Trauma

Previously I wrote this post about 4 lessons I learned from teaching students who’ve experienced trauma from poverty and violence. This is a follow up meant to provide strategies on how to create experiential learning opportunities for these students.

The Learning Continues

Four months into my job at Live It Learn It, I walked into a fourth grade classroom full of lively students excited about the new LILI educators and our upcoming field experience.

I read the room quickly and saw there was a group of “new comers”. I decided to hand the mic to my colleague, so she could lead the lesson. Then I sat down amongst these students and started co-teaching in Spanish, and then French, as I discovered a student, we’ll name her Bia, was from Africa and only spoke French.

I decided to put my very rusty French to use and attempted to talk to Bia. Success! It was not her first language, but there was a smile full of genuine happiness when she realized we could communicate. She struggled to follow the lesson, and manipulate the materials (we were doing tests on minerals to discover their properties), but remained interested and somewhat engaged. I was happy and hopeful about the field trip.  

Red Flags
These are behaviors that may signal the presence of trauma according to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network:

  • Hyper-vigilance
  • Irritability
  • Excessive anxiety or worry
  • Difficulty communicating feelings and needs
  • Persistent, unreasonable fear of an object or situation
  • Poor impulse control                                
  • Aggressive behavior
  • Oppossitional behavior
  • Acting persistently withdrawn
  • Clingy/ overly dependent
  • Low self-esteem

The next day, as we were preparing to go on our field experience, Bia seemed confused about what was happening. She didn’t realize we were leaving the school. She wasn’t familiar with the idea of a museum. I saw the red flags and yet, I held my breath and then her hand, and proceeded down the hallway to the bus hoping for the best.

Once we got to the museum, I tried to keep my eye on Bia while helping the teacher and my colleague keep our students in check (fourth graders!) as we navigated a very busy National Museum of Natural History. As time went on, Bia started to get more and more uncomfortable. Her eyes watered. She refused to hold my hand. And then she started to hit other students.

As I recognized the anxiety in her, I tried to soothe her, but didn’t have much success. Luckily we had come to the end of the trip, so we walked downstairs and out to the bus. She didn’t say goodbye, and the next day, when we came back for our post-lesson, she sat away and wouldn’t engage with me or the lesson.

In a situation like this, where teachers don’t have enough information on how to best support a student, maintaining a structured, predictable, and calming environment is always best.

It’s impossible for me to forget experiences like that. I talked to her teachers but they themselves were struggling to figure out what to do. There wasn’t much information available. I recognized the detective work they had ahead of them and simply recommended to her teacher that perhaps it would be better if Bia didn’t attend field trips just yet. As a child with trauma, novel events and unexpected changes in routine triggered her, causing her extreme anxiety. In a situation like this, where teachers don’t have enough information on how to best support a student, maintaining a structured, predictable, and calming environment is always best.

Some Handy Strategies

Students with trauma and anxiety can and will be triggered with changes in routine and new experiences. But that doesn’t mean that they should not partake in learning opportunities outside the classroom. So here’s what you can do to make the experience better:

  1. Minimize surprise: Show students pictures and share with them as much information as you can of where they will be going and what they can expect of the place.
  2. Crystal clear instructions: Share with students what they will be doing there and provide an agenda if necessary.
  3. Analyze the space and weigh it against what you know: Is it usually crowded and one of your students is easily triggered by big crowds? Weigh it against what you know and make modifications.
  4. Ask your students: Some things you can’t know, so ask them. Can they handle being in a boat? Maybe not the best situation if they have had negative experience on one.
  5. Enlist the help of adults: Maybe school chaperones are scarce, but how about student grandparents? Word of advice: prep them ahead of time if you want them to be a support and not become an extra student.

Sometimes you can’t know if a can has been shaken until you open it and it explodes.

6. Bring a “care bag”: Sometimes you can’t know if a can has been shaken until you open it and it explodes. So here’s what you can bring in a care bag:

  • Putty (check if it’s allowed)
  • A plush toy
  • A fleece blanket
  • An ipad/phone with educational games
  • Notepad and colors for sketching
  • Snacks for hungry students

If I were given the opportunity to go back to that pre-lesson, I would show Bia more pictures, I would have used the strategies I have learned since. Students benefit when their teachers are proactive in the face of student trauma.

Given that the latest report of the Child & Adolescent Health Measurement Initiative (CAHMI) estimates 46.3% of nationwide students in the US have been exposed to at least one adverse childhood experience, the chances of you having at least one student with trauma and/or anxiety in your class is pretty high. Have you had students like Bia? I would love to hear if these strategies resonate with you or if you have others that you already have in place!

* Click here for post on teaching students who have experienced trauma. If you’d like to learn more about how trauma affects learning in the classroom, I recommend you check out this  this 1-pager or read The Behavior Code, A Practical Guide to Understanding and Teaching the Most Challenging Students, by Jessica Minahan and Nancy Rappaport, MD

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *