Trauma Informed Schools

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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.