By Noel Mazzulo, DCRC Research Intern
At DCRC we are honed in on the trauma research, and how it impacts the children, families, and professionals with whom we work. We have learned that trauma is more common than you’d think. In every classroom there is likely to be at least one child who has experienced trauma. We won’t always know what trauma the child has experienced or which children have experience trauma. For this reason, we would like to share some tips with you on how to be trauma sensitive in your interactions with all children. The tips will also help you create a safe classroom environment. Although these tips are targeted for children in the preschool age range, they are relevant and adaptable to children of all ages including elementary, middle, and high school students.
1) Use a daily routine
Maintaining a routine or schedule is necessary for children who have experienced trauma. Having a familiar schedule reduces anxiety and stress by minimizing disruption or sudden changes in a child’s day or week. Accordingly, when a change is coming, the children should be given warnings in order to prepare themselves. DCRC’s new strategy guide, Promoting Resilience in Preschoolers, provides more details on how to use a daily routines in the classroom.
2) Offer choices
Allow a child to have choice in how a task is done or in choosing something that is of interest to him or her. This allows the child to feel more in control – which is imperative for children who have experienced trauma. Also, offering choices in order to get a child to cooperate with a request is another helpful practice. For example if a child is going out to recess but won’t put on his or her coat, even though the weather requires it, you can ask the child “Would you like to wear your coat now or would you like to wait until we are near the door to put it on?” In this case, the child feels he or she has a choice, even though the outcome (putting on the coat) remains the same.
3) Use alternatives to punishment
Children who have experienced trauma often feel unsafe. Punishment can deepen these feelings and cause a child to further act out. Rather than punishing a child, try getting him or her to step away from the situation. Talk with the child, and tell him or her you recognize his or her emotions. Use a Time-in– Ask the child to sit quietly in a safe place, and tell you when he or she is ready to go back to an activity. Help the child make amends, if needed, but do not force an apology. Instead, try, “How can we make things better?”
Another excellent alternative to punishment is the FLIP IT Strategy. Here’s an example: Tommy wants to paint but Sharon is using the paints. Tommy pulls the paints away from Sharon and they spill everywhere. Sharon is very upset. Instead of punishing Tommy, the teacher needs to speak calmly and gently with Tommy and Sharon. The teacher tries FLIP with Tommy:
F (Feelings): “Tommy, I know you really want to use the paints. Sharon, I can see you are very upset that the paints spilled.”
L (Limits): “When we want something that someone else has, we have to ask with our words.”
I (Inquiries): “Can you think of a better way to get a turn to use the paints?”
P (Prompts): “How about trying to ask Sharon if you can use the blue while she uses the red?”
After using the FLIP IT Strategy, she asks Tommy, “How we can make things better?”
4) Be available and supportive
Children that come from traumatic backgrounds have often experienced neglect or have no one to connect with. When a child seeks attention or asks to talk, give him or her your time. These children need extra time, encouragement, love, support, and nurturing. Until they learn to ask for attention in positive ways, they may use more negative approaches. Be patient. The more time you spend having positive interactions with a child, the more likely they will be to seek your positive attention in the future.
5) Use fun
Make sure the classroom is fun and does not seem too rigid. Color, energy, posters, and hands-on activities will add to making the environment more enjoyable. Fun is central to childhood and is often lacking in the home environments of children who have experienced trauma. We provide lots of ideas for creating a fun learning environment in Promoting Resilience in Preschoolers and Socially Strong, Emotionally Secure.
6) Provide a “calm down” space
An optimum classroom will have a safe spot where children can go to calm down. At DCRC we sometimes call this a “be-by-myself space.” A safe space is especially important for children who have experienced trauma because they have a harder time regulating emotions and are likely to lash out at others. Thus a safe space allows them to learn to calm themselves before reacting towards others. This space may contain tactile objects, simple calming toys, and comforting things to help the child relax. Good examples of items to have in this space are scraps of soft fabrics, moldable/ squishy toys, bean bag chairs, headphones with calming music, posters or handouts with calming techniques such as deep breathing and problem-solving strategies. This area should serve as an escape for a child to go to calm down. It is not a place of punishment. Once a space is available in a classroom, make sure the children are aware of how to use it.
7) Take care of yourself – Build your Bounce!
Finally, don’t forget to take care of yourself. Being an educator can be difficult, no matter the age group you teach. Working with children who have experienced trauma can be draining, and may even lead to burnout. If you become too overwhelmed or stressed, you cannot optimally help the children. It is important to seek help when you need it, or just to remember to relax yourself. In order to take care of yourself, take a look at our Building Your Bounce resource, try journaling, exercise, practice self-care, and take time to relax.
Child Safety Commissioner. (2007). Calmer Classrooms: A guide to working with traumatized children. Melbourne, Australia: Penfold Buscombe. Retrieved from http://www.ccyp.vic.gov.au/childsafetycommissioner/downloads/calmer_classrooms.pdf
Federal Emergency Management Agency. (2004). Helping children cope with disaster. Retrieved from https://www.fema.gov/pdf/library/children.pdf
Illinois Department of Children and Family Services. (2007). Child trauma 101: A workshop for child welfare and child protection caseworkers.
Perry, B.D. (2001). Bonding and attachment in maltreated children. Child trauma academy. Retrieved from https://childtrauma.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/Bonding-and-Attachment.pdf
The National Child Traumatic Stress Network. (2008). Psychological and Behavioral Impact of Trauma: Preschool Children. Retrieved from http://rems.ed.gov/docs/NCTSN_ChildTraumaToolkitForEducators.pdf
The National Child Traumatic Stress Network. (2008). Self care for educators. United States. Retrieved from http://rems.ed.gov/docs/NCTSN_ChildTraumaToolkitForEducators.pdf
The National Child Traumatic Stress Network. (2008). Suggestions for educators. United States. Retrieved from http://rems.ed.gov/docs/NCTSN_ChildTraumaToolkitForEducators.pdf
Ziegler, D. (2007). Optimum learning environments for traumatized children: How abused children learn best in school. Jasper Mountain. Retrieved from http://www.jaspermountain.org/optimum_learning_environment.pdf