In the Classroom
How I’ve Learned to Take Care of Myself While Teaching Students Impacted by Trauma
May 24, 2018
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Candace Hines

Just as most clothes are not one size fits all, teaching students that have been impacted by trauma is not a one size fits all situation. Each case must be treated very differently. One student may benefit from gentle reminders, private conversations, or social stories which give students an example of how to positively handle situations in the future. Another student may respond to firm consequences, consistent routines, or reflection journals.

I have become better equipped to teach students in trauma situations from being a trauma survivor myself. My childhood experiences have helped me develop a stronger awareness of how students mask traumatic experiences and struggle daily to fit in. Throughout my teaching career, I have also taught several students living in traumatic situations. As a result, I have a plethora of experience teaching trauma victims and interacting with their families and possible caseworkers.

I grew up in a traumatic household, and therefore knew how to mask my hurt and behave like the perfect “good girl” as to not bring attention to myself. My traumatic experiences as a child went undetected while at school. It wasn’t until a high school teacher noticed how hard I flinched when being touched and privately expressed concerns. After extensive investigations and professional support, I was on the road to recovery.  

It is imperative for teachers to know that over achieving students can be just as broken and needing of help as a child that physically acts out.

I learned this from one of my students, Andrew, in my kindergarten classroom. He was coming from an unstable home life that would cause him to scream, act out, and even hurt himself. As I worked with Andrew, I noticed that he responded this way because of the hardships that he had endured outside of school, and not because he was just misbehaving. After I met Andrew and many students like him I began to see myself within these children.

My classroom wall was full of pictures that he’d drawn for me and each day, and he often greeted me with a smile. However, sometimes Andrew continued to struggle in my classroom. With little to no support, I quickly grew weary and helpless. As an educator, I felt very much responsible for his behavior. I felt like it was my duty to “save” Andrew from his situation. I now realize that when teaching students that have been impacted by trauma, you have to balance ownership and reality.

When I first started teaching, all I knew to do when a child was misbehaving was to separate them from the rest of the classroom. I focused on instruction and discipline, but I didn’t have the proper training to see past a student’s bad behavior and help them cope with their feelings. Now that I have spent a lot of time and effort processing my own experiences as a student with trauma, I know better how to help a child remain in the classroom and work with them in their pain.  

However, many teachers in Memphis aren’t coming from a background of trauma themselves and haven’t been trained to see past a student’s behavior. As an educational system within Shelby County, we need to change the way we support teachers and give educators intensive trauma training. Often times teachers are compassionate about helping students but not knowledgeable of how to do so. If we are not supported and equipped to help trauma victims, the quality of a  student’s education will suffer.   

It is important for teachers to remember that, regardless of how a student may act out, they should not take things personally. No matter how perturbed you may become in the moment, never discipline when you are upset. I have received the best student outcomes when I began to chart trigger behaviors, using them to anticipate outbursts and lessen negative behaviors. For quite some time, I felt solely responsible for the way that Andrew reacted to daily instructional tasks. I thought that if I could find a different way to ask him to get back on task, then maybe he would not become so aggressive and bang his head on the floor. However, regardless of how tactfully I approached keeping him engaged or redirected his behavior, Andrew would implode. Eventually, I learned not to internalize his attacks, even when they became physical. No matter what Andrew did, each day we started over. Each day was a new opportunity to do something better, learn from a mistake, or work on developing a stronger bond with Andrew. I have learned that students respond differently when they feel they have a real relationship with the teacher.

Students require realistic academic instruction that is delivered with understanding and love. After teaching many students that survived or were currently surviving trauma, I have learned each child is different. Students may quietly suffer from trauma as well. Unlike Andrew, many students sit in our classrooms each and every day and are overlooked due to their mild-mannered demeanor or their “cooperativeness”. As educators, we must also keep a watchful eye for students that deal with the symptoms of trauma discreetly. I watch for students that are chronically fatigued, as this may be a sign of trauma within the home. Students suffering from traumatic events may seem overly sensitive to noise or touch, jumping for minor reasons. Pay close attention to students that have intense hygiene issues, as their incontinence may possibly act as a defense mechanism, stemming from traumatic experiences. If you notice a child is chronically withdrawn from their peers or acting out of character, do not ignore this. Early detection can help students begin recovery, in hopes of tackling the effects of trauma head on.

Teaching students that have been impacted by trauma can be mentally taxing. As a result, it is important for teachers to take care of themselves and not develop compassion fatigue. Before takeoff, flight attendants instruct passengers to put on their air mask before assisting others. Likewise, educators must take the appropriate precautions for their mental well-being, before trying to help their students. To ignore this step is to invite disaster into the classroom. Take the time to unplug and recharge, both physically and mentally. Always remember that teachers who take care of themselves can take better care of their students.

Candace has served at Peabody Elementary School for the last five years. She has worked as a kindergarten teacher and is currently a Teacher Leader for the following organizations: Teach Plus Teacher Lead Practice Network (TLPN), Non-Tested Grades Teacher Leader (NGTL ) and previously served as a Common Core Math coach for the state of Tennessee. Candace trains teachers across the district, emphasizing strategies that encourage teachers to conceptualize learning and deepen teacher content knowledge. Candace graduated as a member of Phi Kappa Phi Honors Society from The University of Memphis, with a Bachelor’s of Science in Education. She also serves as a Hope Street Group Tennessee Teacher Fellow, engaging her colleagues in providing classroom feedback to the Tennessee Department of Education on public education policy issues.

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