Resilience in a Traumatized Classroom

Child standing strong in front of classroom

Trauma. We’ve all heard of it, some say we’ve all experienced it. But what exactly is trauma? Trauma is an exceptional experience in which powerful and dangerous events overwhelm a person’s capacity to cope (Souers, 2016, p. 15). Trauma is disruptive at best and damaging at worst. Unfortunately, trauma is also widespread.

Trauma rates are growing, especially for children. Nearly 35 million US children have experienced at least one type of childhood Trauma (page 19). This is extremely saddening. Children are a very vulnerable group of people, yet people assume that children are able to handle a great deal. Souers writes “It is an ultimate irony that at the time when the human is most vulnerable to the effects of trauma – during infancy and childhood – adults generally presume the most resilience” (page 13).

Children are deeply affected by trauma. And largely, they are not in control of it. They are at the mercy of their surroundings. When children go through traumatic events, their development and learning ability are disrupted, and the effects are seen within the classroom. But just what exactly counts as traumatic?

Tolerable vs Toxic Stress

We all have tolerable stress in our lives. Stress from school, deadlines, work, relationships, etc. This is the usual stress we think of. In children, tolerable stress may be smaller things. Such as winning the spelling bee or not striking out at T-ball. Regardless of the things that stress you our, this stress is actually okay. It can even be healthy. Tolerable stress properly calibrates a child’s stress-response system. It can even build resilience!

Stress in Kids: Signs & Solutions to Help Calm the Chaos – CoachArt

Toxic stress, however, is a different story. This is very unhealthy to children and adults alike. “Toxic stress is caused by extreme, prolonged adversity in the absence of a supportive network of adults to help the child adapt” (page 22). Toxic stress actually damages the structure of a developing brain, “leading to disrupted circuits and a weakened foundation for future learning and health” (page 22).

Trauma is Toxic

When we are in extreme stress our bodies become on high alert. This is known as our flight, fight, or freeze response. Our bodies can handle being in this state, but for only small periods of time. When children experience trauma, their brains switch from focusing on developing to focusing on surviving. Their brains become stuck in this stress response of flight, fight, or freeze (page 21).

When brains are in this stress response, chemicals are released into the body that help us survive these stressful states. If the doses of these chemicals is large enough, they are actually toxic to the body and impair development (page 22). The childhood brain is very sensitive, and if stress hormones levels are continuously high, then many aspects of brain development are altered, including learning, memory, relational skills, and higher functioning.

What is "Anniversary Trauma" and How Can I Help My Child Cope?

What is Resilience?

Resilience is our capacity to acknowledge and attend to personal difficulties while still working toward expectations (page 154). Resilience is not something that some people are born with and others are not. Instead, it is something that can be learned and practiced.

Resilience is necessary for many setbacks in life. Generally, these might include a job loss, an illness, a natural disaster, or death of a loved one. Resilience is when you use your inner strength to move on from these challenges. It allows you to see the light at the end of the tunnel. It allows you to see past them and find enjoyment in life. It doesn’t make your problems go away, but resilience allows you to better handle stress in your life.

What does it look like to not have resilience? People who lack resilience and face challenges often find themselves dwelling on problems, or feel a victim to their circumstances. They may be overwhelmed and seek out unhealthy ways of coping such alcohol or drug abuse.

Strategies to Foster Resilience

Building professional resilience: A quick guide - SAFETY4SEA

#1 Learn to Identify Upstairs/Downstairs Brain

Many people don’t know, but your brain can basically be divided into two states. These are called the Upstairs and Downstairs brains.

Upstairs brain

  • Cerebral cortex
  • Controls higher functioning and reasoning
  • Ability to respond to stress logically
  • Developing in young people until at least their 20’s

Downstairs brain

  • Brain stem, limbic region and the amygdala
  • Reptilian/Primitive brain
  • Controls arousal, emotion, flight, fight, freeze
  • Strong emotions and impulses 
  • Fully built and functioning in young children

#2 Praise

Students who have been traumatized often have a limited ability to “self-acknowledge.” This is when they recognize and validate themselves, their feelings, or their efforts. They often look to the reactions of others to receive a sense of self, instead of looking inwardly at their own inherent worth (page 184). We can help students build this sense of worth through praise.

Praise is a critical part in helping students build a strong self-esteem and help foster resilience. This will help their ability to persevere through obstacles. However, some types of praise are better than others. Instead of praising qualities of students that they cannot control, it is better to praise qualities that are within their control. “Praising effort, encouraging resilience, and supporting the belief that intelligence is not fixed (page 185).

#3 Self-Care

Self-care is extremely important to learning the skill of resilience. When we take care of ourselves, we are better able to cope with stress and setbacks. By teaching your students concepts of self-care, you can radically help them react better to stressful events in their lives and learn resilience!

Some ways you can encourage your students to practice self-care:

  • Go for walk
  • Read a book
  • Eat a healthy snack
  • Have a dance party
  • Go for a bike ride
  • Play a board game
  • Take a bubble bath
  • Bake cookies

Self care is so important, not just for students but also teachers! If you are able to take time for yourself, you will be better able to teach your students and engage with them. Trust me, they will notice a difference!

Here is a list of self-care techniques for teachers that I highly recommend trying! Thanks for reading!

20 Ways To Practice Self-Care - Joanna Rahier | Self care, Self care  activities, Self care routine

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