Fostering Student Resilience: How to Deal with Trauma in the Classroom

As teachers, we take on many, MANY roles for our students. These roles include:

  • Role Model
  • Learning facilitator
  • Mentor
  • Coach
  • Counselor
  • And Many More!

Because we take on some many different roles as teachers, our job goes beyond the content we teach. Not only do we need to teach students the different parts of the cell or Newton’s first law, but life skills that will stay with our students for a life time. One of these skills is resilience.

What is Resilience?

Resilience is a student’s ability to bounce back from difficult situations and to cope with trauma in their lives. Unfortunately today, students face many forms of trauma before they even graduate high school and will face more trauma when they become adults. These may include abuse, domestic violence, divorce, shootings, starvation and much more.

Without resilience, students cannot overcome these traumas and will weighted down by these events. However, when students have resilience, students can overcome and become stronger through their pain and make it to the other side and succeed. Below is a very emotional Ted talk that explains the power of resilience.

Why does Resilience matter in the classroom?

No student comes into your classroom as an empty slate. Many students come into classrooms across the world dealing with trauma everyday. This trauma can impact both the student’s mental health and invoke stress induced mental damage to properly emotionally function, but also their ability to learn. In addition, trauma can lead to a students ability to process what is happening around them and can lead to outbursts or dissociation in the classroom. So how do we deal with trauma and invoke resilience in the classroom?

One of the most important things to remember when dealing with trauma in the classroom is to provide students with love and support. Trauma can cause major behavioral issues in the classroom such as outbursts, threats, refusal to work or speak and many more. However, because we often don’t know what a student is facing outside of the classroom, we need to ask “why is this student acting this way?” not “what is wrong with this kid?” Here is a link to some questions to ask students when they are showing behavioral issues.

Dealing with trauma through compassion has many positive effects such as

  • Creates a relationship between you and the student which can lead to the student feeling safe and able to talk to you about their issues
  • Shows students compassion that they make be missing in their life
  • Results in a positive ending for students, students can return to class instead of being suspended
  • Reacting with a calm head and compassion deescalated the situation and will help move you can the student back to your upstairs brain. (See below)

Upstairs vs Downstairs Brain

When dealing with trauma and highly emotional issues in the classroom, it’s important to understand how the student is thinking during these outbursts. When we deal with trauma, these extremely trying events can place students in the “Downstairs brain”. This is includes unintentional functions such as the fight or flight reaction in students. When students are in this downstairs brain, they are not in the right mind to make rational decisions. This means they can’t learn and their behavior may be irrational.

The Upstairs brain however is where students can think rationally and control their emotions. Only students in their upstairs brain can use critical thinking, and only when you are in your upstairs brain can you properly deal with a student facing trauma. Downstairs brain is often infectious and if a student is in their downstairs brain, may try and pull you down as well. If this happens it’s important to STOP AND BREATH. You can do no good to the student if you are not keeping your composure and staying upstairs in your brain.

Here is a video on the impact dealing with trauma and compassion based disciplinary techniques can have on a student. This video is also an amazing example of how bringing a student back to their upstairs brain can create a relationship that can lead to a real connection instead of more pain for the student.

Keeping Yourself a Priority

When student bring their trauma into the classroom, it can feel as if we as teachers put all that on our shoulders, even when we may we be dealing with trauma of our own. In order for us to give and give to our students, we need to take care of ourselves, both mentally and physically. We can only give so much and if we don’t take care of ourselves may experience burnout. Here are some of the ways we as teachers can take care of ourselves to combat this mental toll:

  • Exercise
  • Eat healthy
  • Connect with Friends
  • Color
  • Find a Hobby
  • Write in a Journal
  • Mediate
  • Hold a Dog!

Remember! Take care of yourself so that you can take care of others! In order to deal with trauma in the classroom, you need to be in the right mindset to provide the support your students need to succeed and develop resilience.

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