Chapter 4: Trauma and Classroom Impact



“Trauma is personal. It does not disappear if it is not validated. When it is ignored or invalidated the silent screams continue internally heard only by the one held captive. When someone enters the pain and hears the screams healing can begin.”

―Danielle Bernock, Emerging with Wings: A True Story of Lies, Pain, and the Love That Heals


Desired Outcomes

This chapter and the accompanying recommended resources and activities are designed to assist educators to:

  • Identify signs of dysregulated behavior in your students
  • Apply basic principles of the neurobiology of stress and trauma to student behavior and its impact in the classroom setting
  • Identify the need for a trauma-informed teaching and learning framework

Key Concepts

This chapter focuses on how the brain is impacted by trauma and how that impact manifests in classroom behaviors. It includes an invitation to evaluate classroom management issues and difficult behaviors through a trauma-impact lens, and consider alternatives to traditional discipline models. It includes the following key concepts foundational to trauma-informed competencies:

  • The application of neurobiology to the classroom setting, in relationship to academic and social tasks, classroom policies and procedures, and discipline practices.
  • Executive functioning impairment and its significance in relationship to classroom expectations.

Chapter Overview

In Chapter 3, you learned what happens when students become overwhelmed by stress and trauma and are without the necessary supports to cope. We also learned how attunement and mentoring can take place in multiple environments, and from community members, in addition to parents. In this chapter we focus on analyzing current classroom challenges through the lens of the impact of trauma. We then explore the neurobiology of trauma, including the impact on executive functioning and cognitive impairment. Last, we challenge you to consider your experiences with your students through the lens of trauma-impact and invite you to move to trauma-informed school practices.

In early September, I (Brenda) received a call from a longtime administrator and friend. She was only a few weeks into the new school year and was already facing significant challenges. At her middle school, she had experienced seven room clears in seven days. Room clears are significant events. These are conducted during an emergency, where a student is exhibiting such extreme behaviors that they endanger themselves and others in the classroom. In the OEA (2019) report, more than half of the participants reported at least one room clear in their classroom during the academic year. While room clears are not new, and my administrator friend has had these before in her building, she had never seen anything like the frequency or the extreme behaviors that prompted this action. In her building, she identified a group of students with out-of-control behavior. They exhibited quick tempers and explosive aggression over seemingly insignificant events. Teachers were anxious and frustrated with their inability to calm the students and were asking for immediate support from their administrator. My friend was asking me if I thought this had anything to do with past traumatic histories.

The number of children with elevated ACE scores is staggering. “Childhood trauma is an epidemic” (Blaustein, 2013, p. 4). “Childhood trauma is an epidemic.” There are approximately 46 million teenagers in the United States who have been impacted by trauma (Pickens, Siegfried, Surko, & Dierkhising, 2016) and chronic stress, including home and food insecurity (Darling-Hammond & Cook-Harvey, 2018).

Therefore, children are entering the school building amidst tremendous emotional upheaval. They bring this emotional upheaval into their classrooms, resulting in poor behavior, due to dysregulation (Morton & Berardi, 2018). Teachers have been highly trained in content and pedagogy, but lack training in traumatology or trauma-informed best practices (Cummings, Addante, Swindell & Meadan, 2017). Consequently, teachers are unlikely to understand the neurobiological mechanisms driving student behavior or respond to the student in ways that acknowledge the role of trauma in their behaviors (Craig, 2016; Cummings et al., 2017; Dutro, 2017; Hertel & Johnson, 2013; Perry, 2009;). Therefore, they interpret the dysregulated student as one who is choosing to behave outside classroom norms. In response, they follow behavior management systems that seek to punish specific behaviors.

So, what is the connection between trauma, academic and social functioning, and behavioral problems? We began to unpack this question through an understanding of implicit and explicit neural networks. Now, let’s add insights from learning theory.

Learning Theory

Psychologists and learning theorists have long debated the way in which children learn, and their theories consequently influence how we teach. A few of these significant theorists are John Dewey, Jean Piaget, B. F. Skinner, Lev Vygotsky, Jerome Bruner, and psychologist Howard Gardner. In teacher preparation programs, we study their work in an effort to ground our teaching methodology in sound pedagogical principles in order to promote student academic success. From Dewey, we were encouraged to view learning as both social and interactive. We can see this in classrooms where group work, group projects, or other collaborative activities take place. This theory recognizes the need for learners to interact with each other, to learn from each other, in order to get the best from them.

Piaget introduced the concepts of knowledge as subjectively known through direct encounter and schemas that increase in complexity, both of which allow students to progress through various stages of cognitive functioning (Piaget, 1952). His work provides a structure for educators to plan lessons accordingly. From this theory we often ask if tasks are developmentally appropriate for the child, or if the challenge is too far outside the student’s current stage, and hence presented before the child is ready to learn those skills.

Vygotsky identified the “zone of proximal development,” which identifies that cognitive growth takes place within an optimal level of dissonance. With scaffolded support, the student can then move from one level to the next. Bruner agreed with Vygotsky and his theory of moving from one stage to the next, but added the importance of linking information learned from one concept to the next. Bruner acknowledged that “things in the external environment can slow down the growth process, whereas others can speed it up” (Fraser, 2016, p. 119). From Gardner we learned about multiple intelligences and infusing classroom activities in a way that students can engage with their strengths.

Classroom management and developing disciplined study habits in students have often relied on B. F. Skinner’s behaviorism theory, whereby operant conditioning (reinforcement systems) is used to shape behavior. Skinner focused on positive and negative consequences for actions, believing the child would repeat behaviors connected to receiving a reward and discontinue actions that received negative consequences. He did not embrace learning through discovery or from problem solving (Fraser, 2016). Nor was he persuaded by attachment theory studies (namely the work of John Bowlby and the controversial researcher Harry Harlow) proving that children’s primary motivation is for relationship and connection, not to avoid punishment or seek reward.

Token Economies and Trauma-Informed Care

Behavioral management programs based on Skinner’s positive and negative systems of reinforcement made perfect sense during a specific era when the power of adult caretakers was not questioned, and extrinsic motivation to be viewed as good and acceptable ruled the day. Despite the seemingly positive results of authoritarian methods of rule, many professionals from a variety of disciplines deconstructed these methods and advocated for a deeper understanding of what motivates human behavior (Bowlby, 1969; Clarke & Dawson, 1998; Cozolino, 2013; Erikson, 1987; Landreth & Bratton, 2015; Piaget, 1952; Palmer, 1993; Pink, 2011; Siegel, 2012).

Before TI principles were applied to schools, trauma-informed care transformed non-academic settings such as youth residential communities, hospitals, and parenting programs. Token economies are incongruent with trauma-informed principles and do not promote health in youth or adults; one of the first steps in transforming to a trauma-informed culture is discontinuing their use (Bloom, 2013; Huff, 2013; Siegel & Bryson, 2012). A hallmark of trauma-informed educator competencies is not merely disadvocating positive and negative reinforcement systems, but a display of trauma-informed knowledge, skills, and dispositions indicating why such systems may not be helpful. The Massachusetts Advocates for Children (2005, 2013) program, one of the first U.S.-based trauma-informed school programs, and the work of Bailey (2015), Bloom (2013), Craig (2016), Souers and Hall (2016), and Rossen and Conan (2013), all display this trauma-informed competency, offering critical insight into how, when, and why token economies may be counterproductive to trauma-informed methods and desired outcomes.

It is crucial that trauma-informed educators understand the history of this argument and how token economies can thwart the very outcomes they seek to create. We will unpack this further in the pages ahead, and again in Section II.

These theories created a lens through which we view our students, our role as educators, and the way we believe our students should learn and behave in the learning environment. While many learning theorists placed much emphasis on cognitive development and the child’s interaction with the environment, given the social needs of their times (which differ significantly from our context), these theorists offer little insight into how to manage today’s classroom environment. Teachers and administrators who subscribe to a Skinner-influenced approach, which relies on token economies that reward good behavior and punish bad behavior, are frustrated by the fact that students continue to behave in inappropriate ways in classrooms despite elaborate systems of positive and negative reinforcement options. Similarly, teachers who view their students as Bruner did are acknowledging that students are unable to link their learning; they are noticing an interruption in the move from stage to stage. And even when activities and lessons are developmentally appropriate (Piaget), student behavior and gaps in learning are making it impossible for students to learn.

We are not discounting the wisdom of these theorists; rather, we are inviting educators to dig deeper into each theorist’s underlying worldview and re-examine traditional methods of applying their wisdom, to separate out theoretical tenets from the way we traditionally implement these concepts. And we are introducing a new trauma-informed pedagogical approach to mesh with existing learning theory constructs. We know that teachers actively engage in this process, developing their own pedagogical style based on integrating theory with current classroom successes and needs. We also learned in Chapter 1 that teachers are facing tremendous challenges. Dysregulated students and pressure to be more effective, as displayed in student learning outcomes, are forcing educators to re-examine how they teach and manage their classrooms. Teaching methods continue to be informed by some of the same pedagogical frameworks and strategies successfully used by educators decades earlier, or we are using spruced-up methods incorporating recent advancements in crafting more engaging, student-participatory, postmodern learning methods. Meanwhile, in response to severe and dangerous student behavioral issues, some schools are doubling down on law-and-order token economies based on behavioral modification student management systems. So, why are we still experiencing crises in the classroom that continue to worsen?

Trauma and Executive Functioning

Chapter 3 provided an explanation of the neurobiology of trauma, including the impact of unmitigated stress and trauma on neural integration. Physician Bruce Perry (2006) provides a global summary of brain functioning, and its role in controlling our thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations, and hence choice of action:

Anatomical model of the brain
[Image: Jesse Orrico | Unsplash]

“The human brain is complex, comprising hundreds of billions of cells (neurons and glia) organized into thousands of neural networks. The brain mediates hundreds of important functions from heart rate regulation to appetite to motor movement to thinking and creating. To keep us alive, our brain is designed to sense, process, store, perceive, and act on information from the external and internal worlds. To do this, a brain has hundreds of neural systems, all working in a continuous dynamic process of modulating, regulating, compensation – increasing or decreasing activity to control the body’s physiology.” ( p. 22)

ACE data and trauma-informed knowledge of brain functioning are requiring educators to re-evaluate our classroom pedagogy and school culture in order to respond to the needs of children and youth in our care. Research tells us that:

“Trauma can impact learning in ways that can be seen and hidden in the classroom. Given that the educational system is based on the ability to regulate behavior and the ability to take in and recall previous information and learning, students with trauma histories are at a marked disadvantage for academic achievement, through no fault of their own.” (Morton, 2018, p. 75)

In order for students to be successful in school, they need to develop and access the higher-order executive functioning centers of the prefrontal cortex. “The captain of the cognitive ship” (Blaustein & Kinniburgh, 2018, p. 259), executive functioning refers to a series of cognitive skills we employ to meet day-to-day expectations and challenges. Kaufman (2010) presents two strands of executive skills: a metacognitive strand and a social/emotional regulation strand. The metacognitive strand includes “goal setting, planning/strategizing, sequencing, organization of materials, time management, task initiation, executive/goal-directed attention, task persistence, working memory, and set shifting” (p. 4). The social/emotional regulation strand includes “response inhibition (also known as impulse control), emotional control, and adaptability” (p. 4). Executive functioning also includes academic and social skill competencies such as reading and comprehension, writing and language arts, memorization, and problem solving (Blaustein & Kinniburgh, 2018; Craig, 2016; Siegel, 2012). Kaufman (2010) defined executive functions as “those elements of cognition that allow both the stop and the think parts of that wonderful habit teachers try to develop in the children with whom they work: to pause (even briefly!) and review options before leaping into action” (p. 2). A student overwhelmed by unmitigated stress and trauma will experience changes in brain structure impairing executive functioning. Examples of impaired executive functioning include an inability to predict consequences of their actions or choices, slow reaction time to situations or stimuli, cognitive inflexibility, impaired capacity to encode memories, and inability to track and follow complex and multifaceted instructions (Cozolino, 2013; Craig, 2017; Everly & Lating, 2012; Siegel, 2012).

So, how does this manifest in the classroom? Let’s consider three aspects of executive functioning: working memory, attention, and impulse control. Working memory stores information temporarily for quick retrieval. In a classroom setting, this can mean storing the directions given in class to complete an assignment or perform a specific task.

Attention is the ability to focus on a specific stimulus and ignore distractions. Think Piaget and the mental schemas we use to sort, categorize, and hierarchically rank. Linked with attention are impulse and emotional control. Inhibition or restraint is the ability to act or refrain from acting based on what is most wise in that moment despite impulse; it is the ability to act intentionally rather than impulsively. Imagine the student not only unable to commit your instructions to memory, but now easily distracted by their peers or a passing bird flying outside the window.

Emotional control is a multi-dimensional process related to intensity and perspective. The less consistent attunement and mentoring a student has received, the greater likelihood that they will not have the neural circuitry to control the level of intensity they emotionally and physically feel from both threats and joys in their environment; their level of arousal will not match the circumstances, which includes both under- and over-responding. Likewise, they will be prone to emotional experiences connected to internal neural networks shaping perspective of an event.

Intensity refers to the strength of an emotion, including the corresponding level of physical arousal associated with that emotion. We expect intensity to be related to the nature of the experience: for example, we will experience a deeper level of grief over the loss of a family pet than the loss of a favorite pen or drinking cup. Regulation of the intensity of emotion—the ability to not experience the loss of a cup as intensely as we’d experience the loss of a pet—is dependent upon stable and consistent attachment, attunement, and mentoring over time, especially during the first 18 years of life.

When you ask the student to refocus rather than watching peers or the bird, they may feel embarrassment at being singled out and become overwhelmed, blushing, with increased heart rate and self-consciousness. Internally, they may be hurling a bunch of negative self-talk towards you or themselves. The other aspect of emotional self-regulation is perspective, as we discussed in Chapter 3, and the connection emotions have with our internal neural networks. The child may know that they have a difficult time following classroom directions; they may be feeling shame at being redirected. Now their emotional response is exacerbated by the perspective, the internal neural networks that tell them they are stupid or that adults are overly critical.

This tumbling of being unable to track classroom activities by encoding instructions into working memory, becoming distracted, and then being chastised may lead to a full-blown emotional surge of shame, manifested in whatever type of meltdown is congruent for that child, whether it is extreme withdrawal, crying, or rage. The heightened state of alarm further impairs higher-order reasoning and language expression, leaving the student without the ability to articulate what they are feeling or ask for help (Landreth & Bratton, 2015; Massachusetts Advocates for Children, 2005; Morton & Berardi, 2017).

These are the executive functioning consequences of neurocircuitry overwhelmed by repeated or constant norepinephrine and cortisol dysregulation, by a limbic system not able to catch a break, keeping mind and body in constant states of high alert. These are the consequences of impaired and disrupted communication between the limbic system and prefrontal cortex (Everly & Lating, 2012; Vermetten & Bremner, 2002; van der Kolk, 2014). These executive functions are foundational for learning, and when disrupted, are indicative of dysregulated neural networks most often caused by unmitigated stress and trauma. It explains why students continue to struggle despite the best efforts of educators to create more engaging lesson plans and more targeted behavioral intervention plans, which devolve into exclusion-based consequences for a student, further exacerbating the underlying causes of the dysregulation.

Impacted Executive Functioning or Intentional Bad Behavior?

The classroom teacher can easily misinterpret poor behavior as simply defiance or apathy. However, consider these behaviors and attitudes through the lens of fight-flight-freeze behavior. Acting out, fighting or other physical aggression, defiance, hyperactivity, and acting emotionally combative, while rude or dangerous, are often fight reflexes in response to neural networks signaling danger. The child who appears withdrawn, does not complete homework or in-class assignments, skips school, does not have many friends, or is engaging in risk-taking behaviors like taking drugs is likely exhibiting trauma-induced flight behaviors (Berardi & Morton, 2017b; Souers & Hall, 2016). Freeze behaviors can be a bit complex to detect and represent a more severe coping response. These can include severe withdrawal; dissociating, which can look more like daydreaming; difficulty focusing; and challenges with short-term memory (Berardi & Morton, 2017b; Everly & Lating, 2012). These behaviors are often met with punitive responses, which can range from poor grades on assignments to exclusion from the learning environment. Teachers logically experience frustration due to the student’s lack of engagement in the learning process. Teachers are on their own to interpret the actions of a student and provide support to that distressed student amidst a classroom of children. Without understanding the experiences of students impacted by trauma, and the role of trauma in their cognitive and executive functioning, teachers are unable to mitigate stimuli that could trigger a stress response or learn how to help the child return to a state of calm after a triggering event (Holmes, Levy, Smith, Pinne, & Neese, 2014).

Let’s consider the experiences of children from foster care, a population of students who have likely experienced unmitigated stress and trauma and are most vulnerable to impaired executive functioning. Children in foster care have been found to score significantly below their school peers on standardized exams, with researchers reporting a deficit of between 15 and 20 percentile points (Emerson & Lovitt, 2003). Researchers also found that 30% to 96% were performing below grade level in math and/or reading. For foster youth with an average age of 17.5, 33% were reading below the sixth-grade level, 31% had reading skills between the sixth- and eighth-grade levels, and 18% were reading at the ninth- to eleventh-grade levels (Shin, 2003). This population has taught many care providers a new way of interpreting misbehavior, as well as new strategies in response. Next to shaming and excluding a child, the worst thing we can do is not respond. A trauma-informed approach is not about excusing behavior due to the child’s circumstances or past history. But it is asking educators to seize moments of disruption as an opportunity to mentor a child into what it means to be human, and do so through attunement (Siegel & Bryson, 2012).

Suspensions and Expulsions

Teachers depend on the ability of students to verbalize their needs and what they do not understand, and to answer questions when called upon. Unfortunately, once the student’s stress response has been activated, their intentions become muddled and their actions can be misinterpreted. Even if we can understand their behavior through a trauma-informed lens, we might still be prone to responding through a behavioral modification-consequence model with no proof of such an intervention helping the child learn and mature. As students deal with internal shame, inadequacy, and anger, they become dysregulated, and they experience emotional overload. In the absence of attunement and mentoring responses, the student is likely to experience continued escalation, resulting in classroom exclusion, such as removal to the office or another classroom. Recess or other breaks, perceived as rewards, may be taken away. These students are then more likely to face even more serious consequences, such as suspension or expulsion (Perry, 2006).

Attachment vs. Operant Conditioning Behavioral Modification Programs

Debate over how best to inspire “good” behavior or citizenship has always occurred. Proponents of a rehabilitation or growth model advocate addressing intrinsic, unmet needs of a person. Proponents of a reward/punishment system advocate for strict, clear consequences that express community disapproval and inspire more desired behavioral traits (Gilligan, 2012; Pink, 2011; Smith, Fisher, & Frey, 2015). This debate continues to take place in correctional facilities, residential care settings, and schools.

In most school environments, discipline systems are designed to correct unwanted behavior and to teach what is expected or what behavior is appropriate for the situation, a law-and-order approach based on a reward/punishment system. These discipline systems rely on punitive responses based on the assumption that the student will learn from their choices through the application of positive and negative reinforcement (Craig, 2016; Flanagan, 2017; Ristuccia, 2013). Newer iterations of the model seek to promote prosocial behavior with greater emphasis on distributing positive rewards for desired behaviors, and ignoring (most) negative behaviors (Smith, Fisher, & Frey, 2015). All of these are based on Skinner’s model of operant conditioning, pairing punishment with a behavior you wish to extinguish (even if that punishment is lack of recognition), and reward with a behavior you hope is repeated (Smith & Woodward, 1996).

Attachment theory proponents stand in opposition to Skinner’s hypothesis that people are primarily motivated by the experience of seeking pleasure (a reward) and avoiding pain (a punishment or negative consequence). For example, Erikson (1987) believed humans were motivated by a search for identity within the context of relationship, unlike Freud, who believed we were ruled by our id’s drive to seek pleasure and avoid pain. Bowlby echoed Erikson’s sentiment by hypothesizing that our prime need and drive was to attach (1969). Both of them stood in opposition to operant conditioning methods.

We mention this here because mental health professionals with proven trauma-informed expertise know that this debate was settled decades ago. We do not dispute that operant conditioning works at times. I use potholders precisely because I will never forget burning my hands. If I want to get picked to play on the baseball team, I have to strive to increase my skills. I refrain from calling my mother names, if the consequence (upsetting her or getting my allowance docked) matters to me or rage doesn’t consume my better judgment. But we know that ultimately, health and well-being, cooperation and motivation, are deeply connected to being seen, heard, and trusted as valued members of a community, reflecting the basics of attachment as attunement and mentoring (King, 2018; Siegel & Bryson, 2012; Terada, 2019).

Trauma-informed providers are also keenly aware that token economies promote competition and shame (Bloom, 2013; Terada, 2019). In an environment where we have limited strong and reliable attachment figures, we are more prone to intense emotional responses at the slightest hint that we are not good enough. Not getting as many stickers as our peers provokes the neural networks of being a failure, or not as good as others. Rather than promoting a resolve to strive harder, it feeds the negative neural networks outlined in Erikson’s model (Figure 2.1), namely inertia or compulsion that ultimately taps into shame, leading to despair. In today’s culture, reward-based systems do not positively shape behavior, other than in those students who already have the well-established circuitry to compete for prizes by engaging in prosocial behavior. For the vast majority of students, they just nurture neural networks of shame and doubt.

As you will see in future sections, a hallmark of any trauma-informed system is reworking policies and procedures that are vestiges of operant conditioning methods. And lest you think that TISP does not advocate systems of accountability, remember that attachment includes both attunement and mentoring. Discipline is a process of seizing an event to coach a student, a process we will unpack in future chapters.

However, as presented earlier, students in survival mode often act impulsively and without the ability to deeply consider the ramifications of their actions and choices. Removing a student from the classroom does not address the underlying issue that caused the negative behavior in the first place. “We cannot simply assume that all students possess the skills needed to meet school-based expectations or that they are simply choosing to disobey school rules” (Ristuccia, 2013, p. 260). Therefore, punishing through exclusion is more often ineffective than effective as the punishment does not move the child out of survival mode, nor does it promote school as a safe place, academic achievement, or a sense of relational connectedness (Ristuccia, 2013).

Suspensions and expulsions derail the educational process. Suspensions and expulsions derail the educational process. Let’s consider the school exclusion rates of foster children as an example. Scherr (2007) found that 24% of children and youth in foster care had either been suspended or expelled from school, compared to the national average of 7% for all children. Researchers have found that suspensions predict negative student outcomes, including lower grade point average, higher absenteeism rates, diminished reading ability, high dropout rates, criminal behavior, and drug use (Hemphill et al., 2014; Souers & Hall, 2016). Without programs or processes to address these negative behaviors, and without support through corrective approaches that acknowledge the influence of trauma impact, students become adults in the criminal justice system or welfare recipients (Monahan, VanDerhei, Bechtold & Cauffman, 2014).

Class Impact

The challenges described above cannot help but impact the entire class. When one student experiences dysregulation, fight-flight-freeze responses can derail even the best planned lesson. Teachers describe significant classroom management challenges in these situations, as we heard in Chapter 1. Students’ response to those struggling with dysregulation can range from deep empathy to sheer frustration. I was in a meeting with two middle school students in attendance. When I asked how their year was going, they described many positives, but then honed in on classes where they had reached their threshold for tolerance. They described poor student behaviors as “robbing” them of opportunities to do projects or group work because their teacher had said the class was not able to handle it. They shared frustration about not getting their questions answered because the teacher was spending significant time with those exhibiting poor behaviors.

When we meet with school administrators and teachers, we are often asked about our views on discipline systems and policies. Often, people assume that being trauma-informed means we encourage schools not to hold specific students accountable for their actions. Nothing could be further from the truth! Trauma-informed means that we attend to two things simultaneously: (a) connecting and developing a relationship with the student, and (b) walking alongside the student as they are held accountable for their actions. Being trauma-informed invites teachers and administrators to develop a healthy, positive attachment relationship with their students. It requires a disposition that views misbehaviors as both a message to decode and an opportunity to mentor that student in the direction of neural integration and continued growth. It is only then that students can begin to feel safe, heard, and seen in ways that promote resilience, and over time, decrease misbehavior.

Case Example

A few years ago, I (Brenda) was teaching a high school English elective course. One of my students was Alex. Alex had a reputation for being difficult, disrespectful, and apathetic toward school. His name was often mentioned in the staff lunch room. Alex and I connected. I learned that at 17, Alex had already experienced significant adverse situations that clearly had impacted his academic and social functioning. But, he felt safe in my classroom. He turned in his homework and participated in class. So, you can imagine my alarm when he burst into my first period class one morning absolutely panicked, shaking, and shouting that he needed me. Turns out, Alex chose to smoke marijuana that morning in his car, in a local grocery store parking lot, and was reported by a bystander. Alex was chased by the police to the school, where he parked and ran into my classroom. I listened to Alex. I let him know how serious this was and what school policy and procedure would be. As he began to sob, I gently put my arm around him and told him I would go with him to the office, and would stay with him as long as I was allowed. As we walked to the office together, I encouraged him to be completely honest with the authorities and to tell them everything, just as he told me. Alex ended up being expelled from school. However, he completed all assignments for my class while he was out, and successfully passed the class. I have a picture in my office of the two of us at graduation. It reminds me of the power of connection and impact of deep hurt.

Summary Observations

As educators, we have students who are processing and responding to information in different ways from their peers. In the situation with Alex, it would be easy to look at the situation through a policy lens. Did Alex make poor choices? Yes. Did those choices fall within school discipline policies? Yes, and, there was an opportunity to attune and mentor by walking alongside the student while holding him accountable for his actions. TISP offers a framework for recognizing the signs of a student in the midst of hyperarousal due to an actual or perceived threat, and designing a response to first de-escalate the arousal, then, in partnership with the student, proceed in a new way that nurtures connection and competence.

Teacher Impact

Survey results tell us that staff are feeling increasingly stressed, burnt out, and unprepared to support all learners. One educator summed up the list of stressors challenging their overall health and career satisfaction as a result of striving to “meet district criteria, student needs, parent worries, and family obligations, and keeping it all in balance. I could spend 23 hours a day at school and still not be done.” The severity of students’ need and the pressure this places on staff are reflected in each request we receive to provide TISP training, as well as in recent surveys of educators in our home state (Morton & Berardi, 2018; Oregon Education Association, 2019). Teachers are indeed being impacted by secondary trauma and compassion fatigue. This is leading to increased teacher absences and thoughts about leaving the profession.

I (Brenda) met with a math teacher this week. Standardized exam scores were released and math was hard hit. As the math teacher began to share her perceptions, she blamed herself for the underperformance students in her classroom. She talked about the strategies and methods she had tried, growth mindset language, encouragement throughout the class, and engaging activities. Yet, only a handful of students passed the exam. She couldn’t help but wonder if she was doing something wrong. She shared, “As a math team, we are hurting. We want our students to succeed but we have not been successful.” As a department they were putting in even more hours planning together and debriefing weekly. They analyzed their grades from every angle, looking for the answer. It was heartbreaking to hear her say, “Maybe I need to quit.”

In December 2018, it was reported that one million teachers left the profession (Sherman, 2018). Compassion fatigue is something that all who work in helping fields need to be aware of. There are many ways to combat compassion fatigue by implementing self-care practices. We will explore compassion fatigue, signs, symptoms, and self-care in Chapter 16.

Let’s consider what teachers have shared in light of what we learned about executive functioning. Without these essential skills, there is absolutely no way students can take in the instruction, track the procedures, remember the formulas in math, or stick with a book that challenges their abilities. What if the strategies each teacher implemented were a series of scaffolded interventions as precursors to then being able to access executive functioning skills? How might that improve academic achievement?

Case Example: Conceptual Application—Story from the Classroom

Let’s consider, once again, the experience of foster children. In addition to having brains wired for survival and scanning the environment for danger, foster children are also working through the challenges of the foster care system, including a new home environment (Morton, 2017), while attempting to meet academic expectations. What can this look like in the classroom? Here is just one example.

I was visiting an elementary school to observe a teacher candidate. After my debriefing with my candidate and her cooperating teacher, the cooperating teacher asked if I had a few minutes to offer her some advice. Over the weekend the teacher had decided to completely makeover her classroom. This included, among many things, moving desks into a new formation and creating temporary nameplates for her students. Her plan was to see how the students did in this new arrangement before she taped down the nameplates and made the seating a bit more permanent. She greeted her students Monday morning and welcomed them into their new classroom and to their new desks. One student, however, was deeply upset. He found “his” desk, but it had another student’s name on it. (While the student was able to easily identify it as “his” desk, to the teacher and me, it looked identical to all the other desks in the room.) He quickly became dysregulated, and had what she described as a “complete meltdown.” His behavior escalated to the point that she needed to call the office for assistance. While he eventually did calm down, his behavior took a turn for the worse after the classroom makeover.

I asked her to tell me about the student, including anything she knew about his living situation, life at home, etc. As she shared, I learned that he was a foster child, and then it all began to make sense. This young boy had been recently removed from his home and placed into foster care with a family in the district. To this boy, his classroom, his desk, his school supplies in that desk, all provided him with safety and stability. He could count on the consistency of his classroom while his home situation was anything but consistent. I suggested she move him back into “his” desk and immediately tape his name back on that desk and see how he responded. She did exactly that, and welcomed him in the next morning, showing him his desk and his nameplate.

Unfortunately, similar situations are all too common, albeit not over a desk or a nameplate. This example speaks to the miscommunication that occurs when educators do not have a conceptual framework to anticipate the deeper impact of a school practice, and the student is unable to self-regulate or articulate their needs in a way that is classroom appropriate. This causes the teacher to respond to behaviors with classroom exclusionary discipline practices, which can build to suspensions and expulsions, further exacerbating the situation. The teacher was unaware of the attachment-based meaning of classroom physical structure, rituals, and routines. Through his behaviors, it was clear that this child was upset. If asked, this young boy, more than likely, would not have been able to explain why he reacted the way he did. However, trauma-informed knowledge and dispositions allow us to have greater insight into the impact of our behavior, and to empathically attune as a precursor to monitoring various necessary and unnecessary classroom challenges. With this insight comes deeper understanding regarding the power of unmitigated stress and trauma and the significance of secure attachments.

Our point is this: Children, especially those who have been impacted by trauma, have unregulated and unintegrated positive and negative neural networks that impair executive functioning. Therefore, recovery from unmitigated stress and trauma requires us to implement strategies to help students repair these neural networks in order to learn, with learning also being a key tool for further healing and development.

But where do we begin? The task can feel overwhelming. We start with perhaps one of the most important dispositions and accompanying skills that are used daily regardless of a student’s familiarity with a trauma-informed classroom: Connection, the provision of safety and stability, often called attachment, which we know includes both attunement and mentoring. And we begin with attunement. Students must feel safe before we can mentor, before we can teach them to self-regulate, before we can teach content. We do this in part by creating schools and classrooms characterized by stability, consistency, rituals, and routines intentionally chosen for congruence with trauma-informed principles. Will all classroom management challenges be solved by assigning a desk and a nameplate? Oh, how we wish! But, trust that one of the most powerful responses to the current chaos many of you face on a daily basis will involve a team of people—not just you—identifying ways to help each child be seen, heard, and included. This basic strategy can be implemented at any time of year, allowing you to initiate a classroom “reset.” We will unpack concrete strategies for this and additional tasks in the remaining sections of this text.



Conceptual Application—Questions to Ponder

1. What are the greatest challenges in my classroom?

2. What behaviors displayed by my students might be fight, flight, or freeze responses?

3. Do I have rituals, routines, and consistency in my practice?

4. What is one thing I want to change in my classroom or in my practice tomorrow?

A Look Forward

This text identifies trauma-informed educator competencies as a specialty that all educators are now being expected to master. In Section I, we unpacked the rationale for such a paradigm shift in the way we conceptualize creating educational communities. We identified the severity of the need we see in our students, and unpacked trauma-informed concepts to help us understand these challenges

We wrap up this section by presenting trauma-informed best practices for responding to unmitigated stress and trauma. By identifying factors that promote or undermine health and best-practice response strategies, the educator will understand the elements of Trauma-Informed School Practices, comprising trauma-informed competencies congruent with our roles, contexts, and settings as educators.

Resources for Further Reading


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Trauma-Informed School Practices by Anna A. Berardi and Brenda M. Morton is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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