Last week we focused on the importance of a trauma-informed education that takes into account the different stress triggers, toxic stress sources, adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and traumatic events. This week we will focus on how the brain and the nervous system respond to different triggers and on what a trauma-informed educational setting and educator look like. Throughout this blog post, you will find a number of resources that will allow you to continue educating yourself on this important topic.
The science of healthy brain development
The brain is an interrelated organ: chemicals in the brain and our emotions are mutually constitutive. Our state of mind, our receptiveness to learning, our ability to regulate our behaviours, and more are controlled by them. Everytime the brain perceives a situation as threatening or unpredictable, it releases stress hormones. Not all stress is toxic; some stress is positive (like the stress you experience while planning a vacation), some stress is tolerable (like the impact a serious illness might have) and some stress is toxic (like the repeated exposure to adversity with the lack of support from an adult that helps the child to co-regulate and process emotions).
(Image source is here.)
The brains of children that experience toxic stress such as early childhood trauma or ACEs, develop differently with regard to neurophysiology; things that appear normal or even positive for most children, can appear threatening for them. These children can miss or misinterpret important social cues coming from their peers or teachers. They might feel overwhelmed because their brain is constantly on the lookout for cues that a situation may be threatening. This can lead to two different reactions: they can become hyper aroused and aggressive (as they go into the fight or flight state, or they can appear compliant, numb and maybe even dreamy (as they go into the freeze state). This video shows you how a child experiencing toxic stress unconsciously interprets the social cues around them as scary or threatening.
According to Peter Levine, trauma specialist, children who are experiencing toxic stress and trauma, could show hyperarousal, muscle tension and fatigue, sleep problems, tummy aches and headaches or back pain. They might exhibit ADHD-like symptoms, hyperarousal, ‘restless leg’, agitation, lack of motivation, failure to complete work, fidgeting, darting eyes, ‘head in the clouds’, blank stare, and more. They could be visiting the school nurse more often or be absent more often.
And according to Bessel van der Kolk, another trauma specialist: ‘Despite the well-documented effects of anger, fear, and anxiety on the ability to reason, many programs continue to ignore the need to engage the safety system of the brain before trying to promote new ways of thinking. The last things that should be cut from school schedules are chorus, physical education, recess, and anything else involving movement, play, and joyful engagement. When children are oppositional, defensive, numbed out, or enraged, it’s also important to recognize that such “bad behavior” may repeat action patterns that were established to survive serious threats, even if they are intensely upsetting or off-putting.’
What areas does the trauma-informed education system focus on?
In order to understand how the trauma-informed model works, you have to start from the base (what happens inside the brain) and move up to the cultural and humanistic ripple effects of this approach. At its core, such an approach is filled with empathy and making education more accessible to those students that have difficulties adapting to the current educational system. How can you go about this?
Work towards understanding the different aspects of trauma!
Trauma can have many effects:
- neurobiological (finding it difficult to respond to stressful, unpredictable situations and new people);
- physical (being sick more often, being overweight or obese, dealing with mental health problems);
- social (not being able to build and maintain friendships, for example because of being marginalised due to your ethnic background or social class or to not having access to healthcare or good nutrition);
- psychological (developing or dealing with stress disorders, depression and more).
Work towards changing the way questions are posed!
Instead of asking: “What’s wrong?”, you can ask: “What happened?”
Many trauma-informed practitioners and experts ask “What has happened to you?” instead of “What is wrong with you?” The first invites someone to tell a story, a life narrative with personal meaning-making nuances, where the latter is much more judging, more accusatory in its character. This last approach will, once again, only add to the already existing trauma. In a classroom setting, asking “What did you do?” has a judgmental overtone; it causes feelings of insecurity, stress and guilt in the students. Asking “Would you like to share with the group, what you two are talking about?”, like in the story I shared last week, implies blaming and shaming. Understanding this mechanism makes it more easily understandable that my student lashed out at me; all humans will try to avoid situations that are threatening and might cause them shame or trouble.
Work towards checking any assumptions, preconceived notions, or stereotypes you yourself might have!
Decolonizing the mind changes lives (), and can help to disrupt ‘the culture of fear and failure’, as Liz Dozier calls it in this video.
Work towards using strategies to cultivate more empathy!
Humans are born with the capacity for empathy (to consider what it might be like to walk in someone else’s shoes) and this capacity can be increased by engaging in actions of empathy. A classroom that is built on empathy helps students understand each other and build friendships based on trust. Practicing empathy can also help you, the educator, to have more empathy towards yourself, learn about your stress triggers and come up with strategies to help you self-soothe when you are the one who needs to take a deep breath.
Work towards viewing humanity as the center of any action or strategy you employ in the classroom!
Being trauma-informed means that we can see fear and stress as a shared human experience. From that perspective, trauma (which is essentially fear that one cannot turn off) can be better understood. Many trauma-informed practices focus on how to soothe the nervous system and through this lens, discipline in the classroom can be achieved by helping the students co-regulate with the group, instead of singling them out for … being human, human in their vulnerability or in their experience of pain and disconnection from the self.
Work on building resilience with your students!
Stress is sometimes inevitable and trauma is a possibility in any one of your students’ lives. Resilient people have skills that allow them to deal with common or more rare stressors or to overcome trauma. Sometimes they can even thrive despite the toxic stress or trauma in their lives. You are already fostering some of these resilience-building skills such as problem-solving, planning, seeking help and support from others, and maintaining focus. You could help your students still more by helping them develop a sense of control in their lives, even if it is secondary control (you cannot control what happens in your life, but you can control how you react to it). You could also share with them stories of people who faced trauma or adversity and how they overcame it to foster positivity, teach them age-appropriate mindfulness techniques to teach them self-soothing skills, and encourage journaling or art as a means of lowering stress and taking control of their personal narrative and their story.
Next week, we will look at trauma-informed education from the perspective of the school setting and the wider community. We have included lots of resources throughout Part 1 and Part 2 which we will collect in next week’s blog (Part 3). Feel free to share your thoughts and ideas on trauma-informed education on our social media accounts and to share our blog posts with your colleagues or anyone else interested!