Trauma-Informed Classrooms: Why They Are Important and How You Can Become a Trauma-Informed Educator, Part 1

Very vividly do I remember the first time I walked in a classroom in a Dutch school and taught my first lesson. I was a substitute teacher since the regular English teacher was on sick leave, and did not know when and whether she would return that year to our school. I had taught as an intern many times before, I had tutored many students, I wasn’t a rookie. But that first time as I walked in that classroom, with a booklet that I had never taught before, with 20 teenagers looking at me and waiting for me to step in and teach them, I was sweating and my heart was racing. So I got up there and started my lesson, trying to calm my nerves, pretending I had everything under control, and wondering whether they could hear my heart beating louder than my voice telling them what they should expect to learn this trimester.

I thought that I was doing relatively well; they were nodding in understanding, and they were skimming through their books. I saw one of my students talking to his peer, looking at me and laughing. “Oh dear… What is it?”, I thought. So I asked in my teacher’s voice: “What are you two talking about? Do you care to share with the group?” And then … hell broke loose! My student expressed his disappointment about the way English was taught this year. In a strong tone of voice, he said the level was sub par and that the lesson was “nothing like last year!” There was more, but I cannot remember all of it now. What I do remember is how much I cried after this lesson, how many colleagues I asked about this child and how many looked at me in disbelief: “But he was such a wonderful kid last year! He is a sweetheart.”

What I didn’t know then was that this student had lost one of his parents last year.  His school, his friends and his favourite teachers (one of whom was his English teacher) were the ones giving him a sense of comfort, belonging, and security in the midst of his grief. After being informed about the loss of the parent, I realised that this boy had at least one ACE. With the loss still being so recent, he may have been experiencing high (or even toxic) levels of stress. Me standing there, instead of the teacher he was so fond of, was another loss on top of it. And then me lecturing him about talking to his peer, without having a secure, attached relationship first, was probably adding to his stress even more.
Events like these are food for thought: in what way can we create a more secure environment for our young people within the educational setting?

The current education system
The current education system is set up on the assumption that students have or can develop skills to acquire and apply knowledge. The education system assumes that they are cognitively intact, safe and calm. And as educators, we tend to focus on the cognitive part of our students’ brain, teaching academic skills, trying to raise our students’ test scores, and making sure that they achieve their goals.

At the same time, there are professionals within the education system who are looking for other ways to inspire students; they try to reduce the number of tests students have to take, and wonder how, as teachers, they can be more connected to their pupils and inspire them in their learning process, whatever background they bring to the table. The reason many of us teachers may have a hard time achieving such attachment relationships is probably that the majority of us were not trained to understand the impact of stress, severe loss and trauma on the way our students learn or behave. The Ohio Department of Education created the following infographic to educate their teachers on what the typical brain development of a child not experiencing trauma looks like and how it changes when the child is experiencing trauma.

But what is trauma exactly? And in what ways can it affect a person? Let’s take a look at several definitions which may be helpful.
Trauma, and the toxic stress often leading up to it, can be described in different ways: ‘Trauma is a wound that injures us emotionally, psychologically, physiologically, and spiritually’, says a document of the Crisis and Trauma Resource Institute.
Another wording by Gabor Maté says: ‘Trauma is a psychic wound that hardens you psychologically that then interferes with your ability to grow and develop. It pains you and now you’re acting out of pain. It induces fear and now you’re acting out of fear. Trauma is not what happens to you, it’s what happens inside you as a result of what happened to you. Trauma is that scarring that makes you less flexible, more rigid, less feeling and more defensive.’
Trauma specialist Bessel van der Kolk chimes in with the previous ones: ‘[T]rauma is specifically an event that overwhelms the central nervous system, altering the way we process and recall memories. Trauma is not the story of something that happened back then. It’s the current imprint of that pain, horror, and fear living inside people.’
And trauma specialist Peter Levine mentions that ‘trauma is not in the event itself; rather, trauma resides in the nervous system.’

Toxic stress and trauma are generally believed to be less common than they actually are and although we all want children to thrive, we often lack a collection of tools that can help them if they go through adverse experiences, or have a lot of stress. In the original ACE study by Felitti and Anda 87% of the participants had 1 adverse childhood experience. Scoring 4 ACEs and more, was associated with a higher risk for behavioral and physical health conditions later in life. An interesting finding is that of the 17,000 participants surveyed, most were white, caucasian middle class, educated and employed. They were not a marginalized, repressed group. They could be the student that comes from a middle class household whose parents have good jobs and a seemingly good life.  According to Margaret Paccione-Dyszlewski, however,  ‘There is hardly a child who crosses the threshold of a school who does not carry with them a reservoir of trauma. Whether this pain is the size of a pencil case, knapsack, or duffel bag, the odds are that some degree of trauma is present and that it hurts.’ In this article, she provides data for the millions of children in the United States who have to deal on a daily basis with abuse, neglect, poverty, domestic violence, street violence, alcohol addicted parents and incarceration of family members.

As adults, we are often also not informed about the effects of toxic stress and trauma on our own way of functioning and responding to others and to things that happen in our social environment. We may be triggered by behaviors our students are showing us and this can lead to us being traumatised over and over again. In addition, our consequently unbalanced or insufficiently compassionate response to students may re-traumatise them – a truly sad vicious circle in its double sense. On both sides, all of this can lead to chronic stress and anxiety, lower compassion satisfaction (the satisfaction and self-efficacy one feels when helping others), burnout, depression and more chronic diseases. What is probably the biggest obstacle for us as teachers in finding a motivational approach in which we are connected to our students with mutual authenticity, compassion, and satisfaction, is that despite all the knowledge in our specific subject, we have not been educated and trained to work from a trauma-informed perspective. What exactly does this consist of? What do we need to know to be sensitive to possible trauma with students? These are questions that will be dealt with in Part 2 of this blog post.

Posted in Theory.