Trauma in the Class, What Do We Do?

What is Trauma?

Trauma is pervasive in the high school setting. It’s pervasive everywhere, but it can be very prevalent in a high school classroom. However, it can be hard to catch and even harder to handle when a student’s trauma manifests during class. Trauma is when a dangerous or threatening event is too overwhelming for a person to cope (Souers & Hall).

People react to their trauma triggers in three different ways usually: fight, flight and freeze. Fight is when a person becomes very aggression, often resulting in violences or yelling. When people’s flight reaction takes over they do anything they can to get out of or avoid the situation that is triggering them. Freeze is just what it sounds like, the person tenses up unable to do anything or react in other ways.

Trauma is often based in childhood experiences. Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) are these moments that children find themselves unable to cope which leave them traumatized in their future. People who have more ACEs are more likely to end up with trauma later in life, though this is not always 100% true.

How do we see trauma manifest itself in the classroom?

There are many ways you can see trauma manifest itself in class, however, they typically fall into those three main categories we discussed earlier: fight, flight and freeze. Some more common manifestations of trauma are what Souers and Hall refer to as “tornadoes.” This is when a student gets very angry, starts yelling, maybe throws something, maybe storms out of the room. Other ways you can see it in a classroom is if a student becomes abnormally quiet for themselves, or their grades drop, or they stop engaging with classmates.

Here’s a great video all about trauma in school!

How Can We Help?

The first step in helping students with trauma is realizing that their “story” is not important. As educators, we often won’t ever know the trauma that our students have undergone, and that’s ok. Oftentimes, when we know a students “story” we’re never able to see them as more than just their story. It’s better to “monitor the effect of the event on the each individual, not to preoccupy [oneself] with the details of the event itself” (Souers & Hall).

The second step is understanding that each student is different. Their triggers and the way they react to them will be unique to that individual so there is no one size fits all in helping deal with trauma (like all of education).

There are lots of other great ways of helping students handle their trauma when in the classroom. One of my favorite is focusing on a students biology. In Fostering Resilient Learners, Souers and Hall discuss a students upstairs and downstairs brain. The upstairs brain focuses on reason and critical thinking, while the downstairs brain is all about emotion and fight, flight and freeze response. The downstairs brain is where trauma reigns. However, when feeling triggered, “it is helpful for students to be able to identify feelings, name the function of the brain, and attune to their biology” (Souers & Hall).

What if a “tornado” is touching down in your classroom? The first thing suggested by Souers and Hall is to avoid getting wrapped up in that tornado. Make sure to keep yourself in check at all times, never allow your own emotional response to take over. If a student is having a violent reaction in class, make sure that all other students are safe, this might mean evacuating everyone from the room. Try to get the student to calm down by taking deep breaths with them. It’s important not to patronize the student or tell them what to do directly. Instead, try to work with them, get to the core of the issue. Maybe try asking them what it is they are upset about and how you can help.

Trauma is very common across the country, the likelihood of having students with trauma in your class is high. Therefore, we need to be fully prepared to handle this trauma when it comes to our classroom.

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