By MB (Marybeth) Mitcham
“She’s standing too close to you. She’s standing too close to you. She needs to go now. She needs to go now.”
Fists clenched and eyes firmly fixed on the floor at his feet, my student bellowed the same phrase again. My other students stood in the hallway, frozen, unsure of how to handle the situation. Their eyes were wide open, alternating between staring at their classmate who was obviously distressed and then at me.
“It’s okay,” I calmly said. “Why don’t you all go back to the classroom, and I will follow you in a minute.”
I smiled at my students as they quickly retreated to the classroom and then turned back to my distraught student, keeping a smile on my face. Still speaking calmly, I told him that it was okay, that I was not upset with him, and that I was glad he wanted to make sure I was okay. He quickly raised his head to look at me.
“Really? You’re not mad at me?”
Still smiling, I shook my head no and repeated that I was glad he wanted to make sure that I was okay.
At this, he burst into tears and began to speak about the hard things at home—pain, hurt, and anguish pouring out of him—as he finally felt safe enough to share what he had previously been too ashamed to let anyone know.
In the many years I’ve been teaching, I’ve learned that extreme behaviour exhibited by students, whether overly helpful, disruptive, or downright combative, often is borne out of some trauma they have experienced (Schunk, 2016). Although some traumas might be easily discernable, such as students who have battled with cancer or who have lost their home in a fire, many traumas are much harder to identify. And, even if identified, they are still extremely challenging to address without inadvertently causing more pain or shame for the student.
Here are five strategies I’ve found to be helpful, both as a formerly traumatized student and as an educator, in creating a safe and supportive learning environment for all students, but especially for those who are struggling with trauma.
- Be consistent in your expectations. This is beneficial to all students, but even more important for students who have experienced trauma. Many traumatized students may currently live in very unstable home situations, remaining on high alert at all times. Consistent expectations will provide sorely needed stability and allow your students to lower their guards and hopefully gain some emotional respite.
- Value everyone equally. It is very difficult to not show favoritism toward your students. Those who are easier to work with, are more compliant, or simply tug at your heartstrings often get extra smiles, encouraging words, and praise. Although teachers often do this unconsciously, we need to be aware that it happens and actively remain consistent and comprehensive with our praise and attention.
- Speak the truth in love. One thing that I love most about young children is their lack of artifice. If you want to know if your outfit is ugly, just ask what they think. They’ll tell you! Traumatized students may struggle with separating reality and fantasy. They also may believe that they need to avoid speaking about certain things or hide the truth. If your classroom expectations are that everyone will speak the truth in love, then no topic is taboo. This provides a safe place for all students, including those who have been traumatized.
- Exhibit and promote integrity. Educators, by nature of our roles and responsibilities, are also leaders. We are watched by our students, colleagues, and community members for how we conduct ourselves. For traumatized students, who may witness situations where people in authority exhibit hypocrisy, it is imperative for them to witness integrity in a leader. When you model integrity in the classroom, you set a high standard for the rest of the class to follow, creating a safe place and helping all students, including traumatized ones, to develop their own good leadership skills.
- Create classroom traditions. My second-grade teacher was known for her love of butterflies. Every student entering her classroom knew that they would have monthly activities relating to butterflies and, in the spring, would raise and release butterflies. That tradition gave me something to look forward to and value, a truly priceless gift that helped me feel like I belonged. By creating classroom traditions—something completely unique to your class—you will help traumatized students feel like they belong.
By implementing these strategies in your classroom, you will provide sorely needed stability and safety that will help all your students thrive, including those suffering from trauma.
Dr. Mitcham holds graduate and doctoral degrees in public health nutrition and public health-focused curriculum and instruction. She spends most of her time working as an Extension resource educator and adjunct professor. However, she would much rather scamper up and over mountains, munch on eggplant bacon, or do zoomies with her shollie, Sig.
Schunk, D. (2016). Learning theories: An educational perspective. Pearson.