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What Trauma Looks Like in the Classroom

  • Estimated reading time: 3-5 Minutes

According to the CDC, public health emergencies increase risk for child abuse and neglect because of increased stressors and loss of financial and social supports. Their report shows that since the COVID-19 pandemic started the total number of emergency department visits related to child abuse and neglect decreased, but the percentage of such visits resulting in hospitalization increased. There is a high concern that children are not getting the proper care and attention and that the severity of injuries is the same or worse. Many times teachers are the advocates for abused and neglected children. With schools being remote it’s made it significantly more difficult for teachers to recognize trauma and help children in need. With students slowly transitioning back into the classroom it’s important to keep up to date and remind yourself on the signs of trauma students show in the classroom.

Signs of Abuse:

  • bruises, lumps, welts
  • repeated broken bones
  • burns of all sorts
  • wariness around adults
  • frequent absences
  • accident-proneness
  • increased aggression
  • hanging around school before and after class

Students exposed to trauma struggle with:

  • Accurately perceiving safety (overly perceiving danger)
  • Self-Regulating (Attention, behavior, and emotion)
  • Holding a self-image that includes believing that they matter
  • Succeeding academically and or socially at school

Trauma may:

  • Disrupt the ability to process verbal information and use language to communicate. (May make it difficult to follow instructions.)
  • Be less skilled in using language to create relationships and more skilled using language to build walls between themselves and those perceived to be dangerous or threatening.
  • Have little problem-solving skills.
  • Struggle with organizing (thoughts, feelings, if-then events, multi-step tasks) which in turn results in difficulty reading, writing and with critical thinking. Interfere with a student's understanding of behavior and consequences.
  • Not have internalized cause and effect relationships. This means that they cannot easily predict events, sense their power over events or make meaning of "consequences."
  • Struggle to see the world from someone else’s point of view.
  • Struggle to focus and attend to what is happening in the classroom because their brains are preoccupied with ensuring safety /warding off danger.
  • Struggle to self-regulate their own attention.
  • Struggle to self-regulate and recognize emotions. This results in poor impulse control, trouble reading social cues, and lack of a predictable sense of self. (Self-regulation is a predictor of academic success)
  • Have low executive functions.
  • Be slow to trust adults or peers
  • Struggle to engage with academic material effectively

Try These:

  • Taking time to teach routines
  • Posting schedules
  • Lead classroom respectfully (Kind and Firm)
  • Establish clear agreements about classroom behavior with your students
  • Teach the students how to follow them by regularly checking in with them about how they are doing and asking them to silently make improvements.
  • Warning the student of potential "surprises" including fire drills, guests, substitutes, schedule changes, new seating arrangements
  • Small connection rituals (handshake/high five)
  • Keep your mood relatively stable. If you are having a bad day explain why to the students (or they may think you are mad at them)
  • Teach short self-regulation tools regularly. These can include deep breaths, 10 second quiet moments for reflection, listening until the chime is silent, BrainGym activities, activities that require awareness of the body in space (Moving and then asking students to close their eyes and guess something about their body like which foot is further ahead, which elbow is higher, is an example)
  • Teach emotional awareness. Examples include feeling faces charts, vocabulary work to distinguish feelings, journaling, regular emotion check-ins using a consistent format.
  • Saying hello, using his/her name whenever you see him/her in the hall
  • Continue to acknowledge student even when no longer in your class
  • Let the student teach you and or class something that they are skilled at
  • Learn about the student's life. Many older students are working or caring for siblings and schoolwork cannot be a priority if the family is to survive.

Avoid These:

  • Shaming, blaming, humiliating
  • Embarrassing student
  • Posting grades
  • Displaying poor work as "bad example"
  • Requiring students to present from the front/read aloud to all
  • Not keeping promises or appointments
  • Raising your voice
  • Allowing bullying, name calling, outbursts
  • Punishments, threats, and put-downs
  • Trivializing feelings/behavior
  • Inconsistency, irregular behavior
  • Punishments or threats
  • Surprises (even "good" ones)
  • Not following through

Teachers are mandated reporters in all 50 states. A teacher who suspects child abuse must report the following information to social services:

  1. The child's name and identifying marks of the child 
  2. All information known about the biological parents or the caregivers who interact with the child 
  3. The address where the child lives, along with any information such as the parent's address, if living away from the home where the child lives 
  4. Dates when incidents were noted of the child and types of incidents that occurred 
  5. History of previous noted incidents 
  6. History of any contact with the alleged abuser, or other pertinent information 

Social services will then take on the case and do an investigation in accordance with the law.

Resources for Child Abuse

National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect, in the Administration for Children,Youth and Families/U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services, P.O. Box 1182, Washington, D.C. 20013-1182; (800) FYI-3366. Clearinghouse for child-abuse information.

National Committee for the Prevention of Child Abuse, 332 S. Michigan Ave., Suite 1600, Chicago, IL 60604; (312) 663-3520. Provides books, pamphlets, and other information on child abuse.

The American Humane Association, 63 Inverness St. E., Englewood, CO 80112-5117; (303) 792-9900. Resources-including many free publications on all types of child abuse and neglect.

"Facts for Teachers," a publication of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 3615 Wisconsin Ave. NW, Washington, D.C. 20016; (202) 966-7300.