How to create a trauma-informed classroom

Nearly 35 million U.S. children have experienced one or more types of childhood trauma, reports National Survey of Children’s Health (NHCS). Studies show trauma is toxic to children’s developing brains and inhibits their ability to learn in the classroom.

However, studies also indicate that just one healthy relationship with an adult can help enable a child’s brain to heal.This is where the trauma-informed approach comes in.
This approach looks at how the children’s behavior, brain functioning and traumatic experiences are connected. The science behind the approach is based on Neurosequential Model of Therapeutics (NMT) and Neurosequential Model in Education (NME) developed by world-renowned child psychiatrist Bruce Perry, M.D., Ph.D., founder and senior fellow of the ChildTrauma Academy. Dr. Perry worked in collaboration with Steve Graner, M.S., NME project director, to develop NME.
Last year, The Guidance Center launched It’s About T.I.M.E. (Trauma-Informed Movement in Education), a training program based on NME, in partnership with Long Beach Unified School District (LBUSD) to bring the trauma-informed approach to our community. We first collaborated with the staff at Beach High School during the 2016-2017 academic year and saw great outcomes from the partnership. We’re now looking forward to expanding the program to Poly Academy of Achievers and Leaders (PAAL) and collaborating with staff there for this academic year as we move toward our goal of reaching every school within LBUSD.

So how does this approach look practically?

While certified training in NMT and NME is crucial to successfully implementing the trauma-informed approach, there are a few ways that you can start incorporating this healing approach in your classroom now.

1. The foundation of being trauma-informed is understanding.
Applying the trauma-informed approach means seeing the children through the trauma-informed lens. Changing your perception starts with understanding what trauma is; what it does to the child’s brain and nervous system, and how that physiology can result in the troubling behaviors we see in students, like difficulty learning, [being] easily distracted, low motivation, defiance, irritability, anger outbursts, substance abuse, etc.
Understand that these behaviors are always attempts at soothing emotional distress (dysregulation). And, understand and truly believe that much of what these children do is out of their conscious control.

2. It’s not necessarily what you do, but rather who you are to the child.

Memorize these words: “Relationships are the agents of change and the most powerful therapy is human love.”– Dr. Bruce Perry

It all starts with love, but what does that look like in action? You must be patient, kind, understanding, empathic and nurturing… unconditionally. Healthy relationships start with a bond of trust, and trust can be established when children see that you will continue to love and accept them– even when they’re at their worst.

Take time to truly understand them. They will test you to determine if you really are a safe adult. Be patient, and they will let you in at their own pace. Connect with them. Listen to what they are trying to tell you. They will try to share their pain, but often in a veiled manner. Just listen, reflect and validate.

Picture this: A child comes to school in an angry mood because his father berated him about being lazy and stupid that morning. Instead of responding with, “Well, I’m sure your dad loves you.” Try instead: “That hurt you so much to hear him say that to you.” Don’t try to minimize their feelings or help them see things in another way in hopes they won’t think things weren’t or aren’t really that bad. Most likely, their life experiences are that bad.

Instead, give them hope of what good relationships can be like, what they can be, what a safe community can be. They likely have never known any different than what they’ve experienced and assume that’s just how the world is. They have an inner child that is deeply wounded. Search for that inner child and connect with them there.

Next week, the Signal Tribune will publish part 2 of this commentary, in which the author describes three more ways to foster a trauma-informed classroom. Swaringen is the developer of It’s About T.I.ME. and a clinical therapist at The Guidance Center, a nonprofit child and family mental-health agency headquartered in Long Beach.

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