Archive for trauma informed schools

When Trauma Happens in a Classroom or School

Unfortunately, we live in a world where trauma happens. It might be a school shooting, a natural disaster, or a significant loss of a student, teacher, or admin, but it happens more often that we’d like. I recently sat in with a classroom of 4thgraders who lost a fellow schoolmate to a fatal disease—a significant school trauma. Their journey in understanding what happened is complicated, but I was grateful to be there to help them through it using The Imagine Project.

Drew Rushton is described as a fun-loving, kind, silly, Dennis the Menace type kid who was a ray of sunshine in the eyes of those who had the honor of knowing and loving him. He knew no enemies and was gracious to everyone—which means he had a lot of friends who will miss him. With the loss of Drew comes great sadness to many, particularly his friends and classmates. I was asked by a 4thgrade teacher to come in and help start The Imagine Project process just about 2 weeks after Drew’s passing. Drew was not in this particular classroom, but he was the same age and many of the kids were friends or had known him from previous classes.

The second step of The Imagine Project asks the kids to write a down something that has been difficult for them in their lives. Yes, even young kids have experienced tough times, the most common are moving, loss of pets or grandparents, injuries, or parents divorcing. Sadly, in the class there were more than a handful of kids who wrote down, “Drew”, just “Drew”. For a few of the students, it was all they could write. They couldn’t add any more details, just “Drew”.

Step 3 asks each student to write an Imagine story—telling in more detail the story of their difficult experience—each sentence begins with the word Imagine…  Ann Henderson, their teacher (who was wonderful BTW), and I walked around the classroom helping them with ideas, spelling, how to write, etc. There were a few kids who were able to write their feelings about Drew, even though it was hard, they found the words. But there were a few more that had a hard time saying what was in their hearts and minds. They wanted to write, but it was too hard for them, they didn’t want to cry, and they knew they would. It’s painful to talk about a loss that still hurts. We encouraged them, but they just couldn’t. So we honored their feelings and after some time writing, we brought everyone together in a circle. Bravely, one little boy read his story about Drew out loud to the other kids.

Imagine having a friend who was incredible.

Imagine that friend becoming very sick.

Imagine thinking that friend would be okay even though he had been through a lot.

Imagine that friend dying.

Imagine seeing his body and signing the casket.

Imagine going to his celebration of life and hearing stuff about him you never knew.

Imagine knowing he’s in a better place.

Gavin, 4thgrade

As Gavin read his story I watched the other kids, particularly the ones who struggled writing their stories. They were fighting back the tears, hearing and feeling similar emotions. After they read their stories (those that wanted to) we talked a bit about how hard it was to not have Drew there anymore. I was even able to do a group round of tapping (Emotional Freedom Technique—see below) with the kids which really helped them let go of some of their sadness and move into the comfort of knowing Drew is in a better place.

There is such comfort knowing others feel the same as you do when you’re hurting. It doesn’t necessarily take the pain away, but it helps. I’m told over and over again by teachers and counselors that The Imagine Project brings out buried feelings and opens up avenues of compassion and empathy for kids (and adults). A child writing about a difficult time is powerful, hopeful, and healing—and they love it! They want to share how they feel and many of them just don’t know how—it’s not a skill we always teach to kids, but it’s so important.

Giving a classroom, school, or community the opportunity to work through a traumatic time is critical for healing and bringing kids and adults together in a comradery they may never have experienced before. They grow together in healing, love, trust, and empathy because they understand each other and themselves a little bit better.

If your school, classroom, group, or community has experienced any sort of traumatic experience, it’s helpful to have those involved write their Imagine stories together. By writing and sharing, there is a deeper understanding of our own hearts and minds, and those around us. What a great way to bring people together and embrace the amazing human resilience. We are all resilient, it’s just easier when you have others who understand and maybe even feel similar.

Ms. Henderson had this to say after doing The Imagine Project with her class:

My overall takeaway is that the project gave the students permission and encouragement to write and talk about their feelings in an open and safe forum. A very few students have had some counseling before and sharing in this way has been normalized, but many students have had less exposure to the idea that they can/should get their feelings out and learn how to process them. With a common trauma, I think this is especially important because the kids know that other peers are finding this difficult time too, and that it’s ok to feel upset and ungrounded at the moment.”

She added the next day that the kids were overall calmer too. Does The Imagine Project help with childhood trauma—absolutely. Is it easy to implement—yes! Will it bring up emotion for everyone, probably, but you can always try using Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) with yourself and the kids to help. If you want to learn more about EFT (also called tapping) you can google it and watch a few YouTube videos or I explain how to use it in my book: The Imagine Project: Empowering Kids to Rise Above Drama, Trauma, and Stress. The Imagine Project Journals can be downloaded for free here.

Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT or Tapping)

Wording I used for group tapping in this classroom—the kids repeated after me and tapped where I tapped:

“Even though I’m sad Drew is gone, I love and accept myself” (above the eyebrow)

“Even though it’s hard not to have Drew around anymore, I love and accept myself” (under the eye)

“Even though I’m sad Drew is gone, I love an accept myself” (under the nose)

“It’s hard to lose someone you love” (chin)

“I miss Drew a lot” (collar bone)

“I wish I could see him again” (under the arm)

“My heart is sad” (top of the head)

“I hope I feel better soon” (eyebrow)

“It helps to know my friends feel the same way I do” (under the eye)

“I know my feelings will get better” (nose)

“It helps to know he’s in a better place” (chin)

“He’s probably watching over us right now” (collar bone)

“I bet he’s smiling and playing and laughing” (under the arm)

“It makes me smile to think of him smiling” (top of the head)

“He’s happy and that makes me feel better” (eyebrow)

**The trick to tapping is using the points that are typical in tapping and saying what the other person/student might be feeling. You may not know exactly what they are feeling, but you will have a sense and you can try a few different emotions/thoughts to get to their general thoughts. After acknowledging their painful emotions it’s important to bring them around to positive thoughts, gently.

Thank you and happy Imagining!

Love,

Dianne

Child Stress Symptoms

Stress is a normal, unavoidable part of life. It’s actually good for a child to experience small amounts of manageable stress, such as frustration with learning a new skill, dealing with being late to a birthday party due to traffic, or worrying about saying the wrong line in a school play. Learning to deal with the minors stressors of life as a child, when a parent is around to teach them healthy coping skills, will support them as they grow and face more difficult life challenges.

Unfortunately however, when a child experiences frequent, chronic, or overwhelming stress, survival mode becomes the norm and the brain and body learn to stay in a stressed state. These chronic stress patterns can hamper healthy brain development, leading to a brain imbalance where the emotional part of the brain becomes overdeveloped and the thinking part of the brain remains underdeveloped. This brain imbalance can create significant mental and emotional issues such as agitation, anxiety, impulsiveness, hyperactivity, an inability to focus, lacking empathy, low emotional control, poor decision-making, and weak problem-solving abilities. Chronic stress can also cause a host of minor, and sometimes significant, physical health problems, such as an impaired immune system, slowed growth, aches and pains, and poor digestion.

How can you tell if a child is over-stressed? Look for these physical and emotional child stress symptoms:

Physical Child Stress Symptoms:

  • Stomachaches
  • Frequent headaches
  • Acne
  • Dizziness
  • Bowel problems
  • Bedwetting
  • Change in appetite or food cravings
  • Frequent or lengthy illnesses

Emotional Child Stress Symptoms:

  • Clingy
  • Change in quality of school work
  • New compulsive habits such as hair twirling, nose picking, hand washing, or thumb sucking
  • Too much or too little sleep
  • Mood swings
  • They begin lying or become quiet or secretive
  • Change in eating habits
  • Angry or aggressive behavior

If there is any notable regression or worrisome change in a child’s behavior and/or decline in physical health, it is important to step back and consider whether too much stress is the root cause.

How Can You Help a Stressed Child?

  • First and foremost, spend extra time listening. Your careful, quiet listening helps a child feel heard and validated.
  • Hold space for big emotions. This means being a compassionate, nonjudgmental witness while a child expresses him- or herself. Encourage the child to verbalize feelings, even draw them if they like to draw.
  • Set limits, such as, “When you’re angry, don’t touch anyone or anything.”
  • Suggest they move to get some negative energy out. “Would it help to run up and down the hall for a few minutes?”
  • Instead of interjecting an interpretation or drawing your own conclusions, support the child’s developing ability to analyze and solve problems by reflecting what you’ve heard and asking exploratory questions.
  • Remember, questions that only require a “yes” or “no” answer can stop conversations in their tracks. And “Why” questions can feel pointed or punitive instead of caring.
  • Ask open-ended questions that inspire sharing and reflection, such as, “How are you feeling?” or “What was your day like today?” Or simply invite them to “Tell me more.”
  • Reflect back what you heard, such as, “It sounds like you had a very frustrating time and got hurt by your friends today.”
  • Notice how your child is feeling and reflect on the emotions expressed, “It sounds/looks like you’re really angry (sad, hurt, worried, etc.).”
  • Ask for thoughts about why that happened and ideas for possible solutions. Let them know you can offer help if they want it.

Your listening and caring reflection can encourage children to move through stress reactions and painful emotions, maybe not immediately, but much more quickly than if they don’t feel heard and cared for. By listening to them, asking them what they need, what they want to happen, what they see as solutions, and whether they want your help, you are also providing a supportive connection, teaching children how to manage stress, and promoting healthy brain development.

Sometimes all a child needs is a hug, your compassionate eyes, and/or a verbal acknowledgement that he/ she is experiencing a stressful moment or challenging times. If you or your child/student are really struggling and can’t seem to get on top of the stress, you may need to find a counselor who can help. Having a child write their Imagine story will support them immensely, and it can be a tool to use for a lifetime (you can write one too). Giving a child tools to support their mental health is equally as important as watching over their physical health. A healthy mind, heart, and body will bring joy and positivity to them, you, and the world.

To learn more about stress and trauma in kids and teens you can read The Imagine Project: Empowering Kids to Rise Above Drama, Trauma, and Stress (Yampa Valley Publishing, 2017)

Love,

Dianne

Dianne Maroney is a Clinical Nurse Specialist in Psychiatric/Mental Health Nursing. She is the founder of The Imagine Project, Inc., a nonprofit organization that helps kids, teens, and adults overcome challenging life circumstances through expressive writing. Dianne is a thought leader in the area of stress and trauma in children. Her simple, yet profound 7-step writing tool, now used by schools across the US, gives kids and teens the opportunity to rewrite a challenging personal story and Imagine new possibilities in its place.

 

 

Trauma Informed Schools

I recently attended the Trauma Informed Schools Conference in St. Charles, MO, hosted by the Beyond Consequences Institute (a great trauma focused organization founded by Heather Forbes, MSW). My overall impression was WOW! There were 1500 teachers, counselors, administrators, etc. who attended this conference that was filled with endless information about how to support and educate a child who has experienced trauma. I wish every educator could have been there, but for those who couldn’t here are some highlights:

  1. Recognize regulation vs. dysregulation!

The incidence of previous or current trauma in students is high—anywhere from 50-100% of all kids have experienced at least 1 traumatic event before their 17th birthday. Having a Trauma Informed School means understanding and helping kids who suffer from emotional imbalances that stem from trauma. These emotional imbalances can cause many different symptoms/behaviors including ADHD, poor focusing, concentration and memory, anxiety, depression, and a host of other issues. Heather suggests that instead of labeling a student as having a behavioral or learning issue, see that the impact they’ve had from their trauma has caused their nervous system to become dysregluated (i.e. abnormal).

A student who is regulated is calm, focused, and open to learning. They have a nervous system (which includes their brain) that can function well and comprehend. On the other hand, if a child has experienced trauma, their nervous system is “lit up” which causes their brains to be somewhat jumbled and chaotic, they can’t focus or comprehend, and their behavior is probably not conducive to a calm, happy classroom—they are dysregulated. All children (and adults) will become dysregulated at times in life, stress can easily cause dysregulation in all of us. However, an emotionally healthy student who has not experienced trauma, can reregulate themselves easily and quickly after experiencing stress. A child who has experienced trauma often has difficulty reregulating themselves—calming down, sitting still, and focusing.

Teachers, counselors, and administrators have the difficult task of understanding how to deal with kids who are dysregulated. You will need many tools and tricks to help a traumatized child reregulate; here are a few options.

What helps to regulate a child/student:

  1. Exercise/movement,
  2. Mindfulness and meditation techniques,
  3. Singing Bowls,
  4. Fidget gadgets,
  5. EFT or tapping with a child,
  6. Yoga,
  7. Journaling with My Imagine Journal,
  8. Talking with a support person,
  9. Nature or being with animals.

When a teacher sees that a child is dysregulated, know that the child is experiencing something that has caused him/her to be triggered into dysregulation. Use your toolbox to help the child reregulate so he/she can settle down their nervous system, mentally come back into the classroom and learn with more ease.

  1. Building a Sense of Community is Key!

My favorite line of the entire conference was from Mr. James Moffett, a principal from a high-risk school in KS. Every morning at the end of his PA announcements he tells the kids, “Remember, we love you and there is nothing you can do about it!” Imagine the feeling this gives the students at his school. Almost every presenter talked about the importance of building a sense of community in your schools and classrooms to create a trauma informed classroom/school. When a child feels a sense of belonging, trust, love, and hope, they will feel empowered, capable, and regulated! Mr. Moffett believes this atmosphere begins with the teachers and administration. Let your kids know they are loved, that you believe in them, and have hope for tomorrow. See what’s possible instead of what they can’t do. Give them a warm place to land when they come to school from a not so safe home life. Show them compassion every chance you get. Easier said than done I realize, but starting with gratitude for them showing up, say words like, “I notice…”, “I saw you…”, and “With persistence you can…” Give them empowering encouragement such as, “I have faith…”, “I trust…”, and “I know…”. Pick a student and for 10 days use these statements on them over and over, and then move to the next student. You will see the difference!

The Imagine Project journaling program is perfect for creating a sense of community. Students write their stories using the word, “Imagine…” and then share them by reading them out loud to the other students. Everyone in the classrooms hears what’s in the hearts of others and the stories behind their behaviors. Kids become more accepting of one another, supporting each other, and creating a sense of trust and family—this has been reported by many teachers and students.

  1. Create an environment that feels safe.

A child who walks into a classroom that is organized, positive, calm, and happy tells the student that the person in charge is ready and capable of taking care of them (they may not feel this at home). Here are some tips speakers gave for helping to create a trauma sensitive classroom:

  1. Keep your room organized (this may be hard for some, recruit teachers or friends to help you). Organization is calming to the nervous system, helping with regulation,
  2. Greet each student as the come into the classroom using their first names,
  3. Seat students in groups of 2-4,
  4. Use all the senses to calm the space in the room such as a diffuser for calming oils (Lavender is a good one), plants, soft music/sounds (singing bowls are a great tool), and keep the air fresh when you can by opening a window when possible.
  5. Using a mindfulness technique and/or breathing technique at the beginning of each class—this will help the kids and you. It literally only takes a minute or two. Have the kids close their eyes and follow their breath as you guide them for 3 or 4 breaths.

Because trauma is so prevalent in our children today, it’s critical that teachers, counselors, and administrators educate themselves and bring as many tools as possible to help their school as they become trauma informed. A child needs social emotional support to learn and grow, without it they are more likely to fail. Look for regulation and dysregulation—have options that will help reregulate a student. You may have to try more than one trick to support students—something that helps one student may not help another. If you would like more information about stress and trauma in kids, read The Imagine Project: Empowering Kids to Rise Above, Drama, Trauma, and Stress (Yampa Valley Publishing). Download The Imagine Project Journals to begin helping your students regulate and create a sense of community in your classrooms.

Thank you!

Dianne Maroney, RN, MSN

The Imagine Project, Inc., a nonprofit organization that helps kids, teens, and adults overcome challenging life circumstances through expressive writing. Dianne is a thought leader in the area of stress and trauma in children. Her simple, yet profound 7-step writing tool, now used by schools across the US, gives kids and teens the opportunity to rewrite a challenging personal story and Imagine new possibilities in its place.