The Silent Language in the Classroom: Reflections on Teaching and Student Trauma

When I first started teaching in DC, I found myself facing a new set of challenges. I deeply believed that when students are given the chance, they can succeed, but I felt incredibly frustrated as I tried to push my new students to excel. Most were not meeting these expectations. I repeatedly failed, and as I learned more about my students, I realized it was trauma that stood in the way. I knew then I had a lot to learn.

In this post, I’m sharing 4 lessons I’ve learned from teaching children who have experienced trauma from poverty and/or violence. The chances of you having at least one student with trauma in your class are pretty high, given that 46.3% of students in the US have been exposed to at least one adverse childhood experience (ACE), according to the latest report of the Child & Adolescent Health Measurement Initiative (CAHMI).  The graph below summarizes some of the key findings.

Description of ACEs
The National Survey of Children’s Health (NSCH) includes these nine ACEs items:

  • Hard to get by on income (somewhat or very often)
  • Parent/guardian divorced or separated
  • Parent/guardian died
  • Parent/guardian served time in jail
  • Saw or heard violence in the home
  • Victim/witness of neighborhood violence
  • Lived with anyone mentally ill, suicidal, or depressed
  • Lived with anyone with alcohol or drug problem

• Often treated or judged unfairly due to race/ethnicity

Unearthing Trauma

In my first year teaching in DC, I had a new student enroll two months into the semester. We’ll call her Ana. I was prepared to quickly learn what I could about her and make sure she felt welcome.

What I knew: Ana was 15, from El Salvador, and spoke no English.

What I observed: Ana didn’t speak much and halfway through her first class, she put her head down and started sobbing.

I immediately went over and tried to talk to her, but she wouldn’t calm down. In fact she became more upset. This happened regularly over the first couple of weeks. Ana would cry, or put her head down, or would shut down completely. It pained me to see her hurt, but I had no clue how to reach her.

Finally there was a breakthrough. I started noticing Ana didn’t like participating in whole class discussions or working in groups – though she seemed to like working with a couple of girls. I also noticed she would become nervous or start crying when other boys came close or attempted to talk to her. I shared these observations with the school’s student support team, and eventually, we found out that she had been gang-raped on her way to the US.

Lesson 1: The importance of careful detective work

It took a keen eye and patience to do the necessary detective work. It required not only dissecting Ana’s behavior(s), but also looking for clues in the before and after for causes and possible purposes for the action(s). The reward was that once we uncovered the root of the behavior, we were able to provide in-class accommodations and identify which services she needed to start making progress.

Behavior, good or bad, is a form of communication.

Looking back, asking myself questions such as “Where did that come from?” and “What is Ana trying to communicate?” helped me stay away from judgement and dig deeper. Also, it was helpful remembering that behavior, good or bad, is a form of communication. In order to teach replacement behaviors, that is, a better way of communicating, it is key to understand what’s at the root of the misbehavior.

Lesson 2: Trauma is not always loud

I was reminded of Ana as the Live it Learn It book club read “The Behavior Code”, by Jessica Minahan and Nancy Rappaport, MD. Trauma is a common unspoken language in the classroom. It’s often responsible for the behavior of some of our most challenging students, as well as those who often fall under the radar and end up falling through the cracks. It keeps these students from thriving and often gets them in trouble.

Sometimes trauma expresses itself in apathy, extreme quietness, or undetected depression.

In my experience, challenging behavior that stems from trauma isn’t always as loud as it was in Ana’s case. Sometimes it expresses itself in apathy, extreme quietness, or undetected depression. So what can you do to reach these quiet students?

Being proactive is key. I believe in doing your best to get to know your students from the start. Building strong relationships will not only help your students feel safe and understood, it will also create a learning community built on mutual care and respect. As students learn to trust and open themselves up to you, you will find ways in which you can support them.

It’s also been important for me to understand that there is a limit to what I can do as a teacher. Sometimes all I’ve been able to do is listen with an open heart and an open mind, and guide a student towards getting help.

Lesson 3: Your heart will break, so have a self-care plan!

When I learned Ana had been gang-raped, my heart broke. I struggled as a woman and as a teacher to find ways in which I could support her.

If you do your detective work, teaching students who have experienced trauma will break your heart too. Sometimes their issues will hit close to home and activate some hidden trauma in your past, which is why it’s so important to take care of yourself as you support your students.

I’ve found it’s extremely important for me to acknowledge feelings that come up. I have surrounded myself with people I can talk to (while respecting student confidentiality). Teacher happy hours are my favorite way to unwind with peers and feel understood.

Lesson 4: Trauma doesn’t define your student

It’s normal to want to lower your expectations when you see your students struggling. Perhaps you worry, how can they focus in school if they don’t know where they’ll be sleeping tonight? How can they give their best when they haven’t eaten since yesterday? How can they care about math when their friend was killed by a stray bullet the night before?

What I know is that being understanding while keeping structure and clear expectations is important for students who’ve experienced trauma. It keeps order amidst the chaos. It provides stability and something to count on.  

Looking back on my decade in DC, I still hold the same belief that students achieve when they get equal opportunity, but I have developed a better understanding about what it takes to get students there. As I walk into different classrooms every week, I do so armed with strategies more attuned to the specific needs of my students.

Transcending Trauma

Not long ago I ran into Ana. She is 24 now. She is a mother of two, she got her GED, and she’s working full time in childcare. Her success, in spite of her trauma, speaks of her hard work and the resilience she has built. I’d like to think this was possible due to the unwavering support provided by teachers and staff alike.

* Click here for a follow up post with practical advice on how to design experiential lessons that are safe and respond to the needs of 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.

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