Supportive Classroom Strategies for Students Exposed to Trauma
Jennifer Friedman, PreK-2 Literacy Coach at the Dever-McCormack K-8 School
Colleen Labbe & Anita Sintes,Kindergarten teachers/Dual language program at the Dever-McCormack K-8 School
The Reality of Behavioral Difficulties
In our school we have seen an increase in the number of children displaying behavioral difficulties as well as an increase in the intensity of concerning behaviors. We have often ended a day or week feeling perplexed, exhausted, helpless, and occasionally even hopeless around what to do to support children who throw tantrums (often destroying classroom materials), hide under tables and scream, kick, hit, bite and spit at their classmates or adults. Often it appears that these behaviors erupt in response to simply being reminded to follow directions, being redirected to another task, or having to engage in everyday age appropriate social interactions like having to take turns. We”ve seen students arrive at school with clenched fists and angry faces before even walking in the classroom and we know that we are on thin ice before an eruption occurs.
All of these things have happened in the context of accountability for student achievement. This led us to the question, how can we accelerate student learning if we sometimes struggle to keep everyone safe? In our ongoing conversations with one another we reached the conclusion “ there has to be a better way! We know that many of our students have experienced trauma in various ways, but the question still remains: what is the impact of trauma on learning and behavior and how do we mitigate the negative effects?
Looking for Answers
We began reading what is referred to as the purple book: Helping Traumatized Children Learn compiled by the Mass Advocates for Children in collaboration with Harvard Law School. In many ways reading this text and researching the growing movement around understanding trauma”s impact on learning and the development of trauma sensitive schools has been life changing for us as educators. We have learned about how easily some of our students reach a state of cognitive overload and why it is so difficult for some of our students to self regulate and deescalate “ and ultimately, we learned how to support them. One of the most troubling questions we have asked ourselves is how have we contributed to these behaviors in our classrooms? In confronting that question we are coming to a much greater understanding about how to effectively teach our students most impacted by trauma. As we continue our work we hope to be able to learn more and share what steps individual teachers and colleague teams can take to become more trauma sensitive.
BLOG POST #2
By Jennifer Friedman, Colleen Labbe & Anita Sintes
“The Think Space shows how to turn moments of conflict with young children into moments of low-stress learning for both the adult and the child.” —Calvin & Carolyn Richert*
The biggest “aha!” we”ve had over the past year has been around how we can help our students self regulate. We have always used used sort of teacher-initiated technique around taking a break, or having a time-out to separate children when they are acting out or out of control, but we realized that we needed to find a way transform that practice into something that teaches children how to calm down and succeed. The “Think Space” has become an important teaching tool in our classrooms.
The Think Space
What it IS:
a designated area in the classroom where the student is allowed to calm down
a safe way to help children correct their own behavior
a tool for building appropriate behavior
teacher and para implemented and supported
What it IS NOT:
a place where students should be afraid or ashamed to go
a place to exclude students or a place for punishment
Resources to have available in your Think Space:
reflection sheets for writing or drawing
scrap paper for student to tear; crumple and/or scribble on
What the student may do in the Think Space:
use any of the above materials to self-soothe
put his/her head down; cry; yell; stomp; complain
What an adult can do to support a child in the Think Space:
stand nearby the student
get on the same level as the child and communicate with a firm but gentle voice (strict and warm)
help the student define the problem & generate solutions
We introduced the Think Space at the beginning of the year as an important part of the classroom. The activities available there were modeled and the expectations were explained before the space and model was implemented. We explicitly taught what the Think Space is for and shared the choices the student has once there. We also role played situations and how the think space can be used during these situations “ the goal was to teach children what to expect before it happens so that there is a better chance of success when faced with strong emotions.
After a near year of operation, the Think Space has worked out to be an invaluable tool. It has become a place where children who struggle the most can pull themselves back together and try again. It has given the teachers an option to support children before they lose control and we become frustrated or angry. Using the Think Space has provided an interesting shift in our classrooms “ having and acting on strong or unpleasant emotions is now a teaching opportunity rather than an intrusion into our teaching. Use of the Think Space is normalized “ it is not a place where someone goes if they are “in trouble” “ they actually go there to get out of trouble! Of course we still have children who visit the Think Space more frequently, and those for whom it is not always successful. We”re hoping to learn more about how to support those students when we visit a Trauma Sensitive school in Brockton in two weeks. Stay tuned!
The Think Space: A Low-Stress Behavior Management Technique, Especially for Early Childhood (1997)
BLOG POST #3
By Jennifer Friedman, Colleen Labbe & Anita Sintes
We were thrilled to visit the Mary Baker School in Brockton in late May! It is always amazing to have the rare opportunity to get out of our own school building and see other schools in action, but this was especially meaningful as the Mary Baker shares many of the same challenges we face in working with students exposed to trauma and has dedicated itself to consciously establishing a trauma sensitive “ or as we learned “ safe and supportive school.
Principal Ryan Power came to the Mary Baker last year after doing similar work at another Brockton school. He and his administrative team are passionate about the importance of creating a safe and supportive environment for all students and recognizing that such an environment is central to learning and achievement.
He and his team shared with us how in their first year they used limited professional development time to raise awareness among the faculty around how much trauma actually impacts their particular student population and how trauma directly affects student behavior and learning. Leveraging their partnership with Mass Advocates for Children and the District Attorney”s Office, the administrative team had presenters from both organizations share powerful visuals highlighting the “hot spots” in Brockton where the most drug activity and violence takes place and the proximity of students” homes to those “hot spots.” The majority of Mary Baker students live right in the middle of those areas. That powerful presentation alone opened a conversation among staff that focused on creating strong supports in the school so that children could be successful. There was a shift in mindset at the school from being reactive to proactive.
When walking through the school, the commitment to creating a calm, safe and supportive environment is apparent everywhere. There is clear diversity of teacher styles and approaches to teaching, but the common thread is the attention paid to supporting students around self-regulation and problem solving. One classroom does daily yoga practice, while one classroom is implementing daily routines from Responsive Classroom (a book focused on social emotional learning published by Northeast Foundation for Children). Several classrooms had soft soothing music playing in the background and there were many displays that supported students” understanding of emotions and how to manage them.
Above: Pictures that capture the calm, safe, and supportive environment of the Mary Baker school
Throughout the school, even in the spacious cafeteria, adults used a calm, even tone. The mindfulness around student emotions is further enhanced by innovative practice the admin team referred to as “red envelope”. Often administrators will send an email to staff with the subject line “red envelope.” In the email it will state “Please be mindful of __________ today”, indicating to the staff that a student had an experience out of school that put them in a potentially fragile state for the day. All staff including specialists, lunch and bus staff are then aware of their interactions with that student. The team will always follow up with the classroom teacher in more detail around the students” circumstances.
The visit left us feeling inspired and hopeful because the practices we noted are so easily replicable. We realized that starting at a place of raising awareness around trauma and its impact on student learning makes perfect sense and we are thrilled that the BTU Professional Learning Conference will give us a place to start to raise awareness with our colleagues. See you there!