September is here and that means BACK TO SCHOOL for so many students and teachers!
The hardest part of being a classroom teacher is meeting the diverse needs of students and managing the behaviors in the classroom. When I worked as a School Psychologist, I witnessed first hand how teachers improvised strategies to meet the needs of students. However, they remained baffled with cracking the code of some behaviors they were asked to manage in the classroom. These situations were largely related to the child’s trauma and attachment experiences.
Trauma and attachment disruptions can play a HUGE role in the classroom behavior of a child. Some children with trauma histories can be quick to act out when triggered and have significant difficulties with self-regulation. Other traumatized children fade into the background and only show their struggle in significant learning difficulties. Attachment disruptions can really impact the relationship between student in teacher causing high avoidance, excessive anxiety, and even explosive interactions. Trauma also directly impacts the ability of a child to process information and learn in the classroom.
Classroom teachers have a huge responsibility but may not have had the training to understand how trauma and attachment disruptions are reflected in their classrooms. Therefore, I believe there is a two step approach to supporting teachers to understand trauma, attachment, and resilience.
STEP ONE: Gain knowledge regarding trauma-related behavior in the classroom.
Teachers need to understand the impact of trauma in the classroom. They have to be able to decode behaviors that are related to emotional dysregulation so that effective supports can be implemented. These supports can include strategies that increase a child’s sense of safety in the school environment. If a child doesn’t feel safe, learning is at a minimum. Identifying strategies that decrease exposure to the events or situations that trigger disruptive reactions are also important. For example, if a child doesn’t feel safe in large groups of peers, giving that child a task that removes them from the situation may be effective in reducing trauma related outbursts.
Teachers can help identify triggers, high risk situations, and strategies to support self-regulation but they MUST KNOW of how the nervous system naturally operates when under threat (real or imagined). The brain doesn’t differentiate between real and imagined triggers and will react on either. Therefore, understanding the specific real-life interactions or situations and the fears that lurk in a traumatized child’s mind is the critical first step in understanding the behavior. If a teacher knows how to help a child to engage in strategies to remain in their window of tolerance or a zone of optimal arousal, there are fewer classroom disruptions and problem behaviors. However, we have to step away from only looking at the behavior and figure out the mind and experience of the child underneath that behavior.
STEP TWO: Learn Mindful Leadership skills to manage the stress of teaching.
Teachers are faced with HUGE competing demands and expected to keep students engaged, as well as ensuring parents and administrators are happy too. Place a child with trauma or attachment related behaviors into that equation and there is extreme stress for the teacher. It can be hard for seasoned clinicians to manage the behavior for one hour let alone for seven hours of classroom instruction!
One newly emerging field that supports leaders in high stress positions is mindful leadership. In the school setting, these strategies support the teacher to improve stress management, increase self-awareness, and have greater clarity. When a teacher adopts mindful leadership skills, remaining in their own window of tolerance becomes a huge benefit to classroom management. They are able to ANCHOR in their own self-regulated state when a child is upset and this communicates safety to the child. Children who feel safe, seen, and heard in a classroom have improved self-regulation, academic outcomes, and enhanced relationships. Anchoring in the window of tolerance is my TOP STRATEGY for teachers and parents of traumatized students.
For more detailed information related to supporting educational professionals to understand trauma, attachment, and resilience, I’ve included the video below.
Are you part of my FREE Facebook community for psychotherapists interested in resilience based approaches? Come join us at Resilience Based Psychotherapists where you will get actionable tips and strategies for supporting children & families who have experienced trauma and attachment disruptions!