Trauma Sensitive Schools
Parents and Teachers Working Together to Ensure Success
by Janine S. Fisk, Ed.D.
Will I be okay? WIll other kids accept me the way I am? Will the teacher understand my needs? With back-to-school season quickly approaching, these questions might be creeping into the minds of kids and parents alike.
Interacting with peers is one of the most important steps to recovery after trauma, but many families struggle with anxiety and apprehension about this crucial time. As parents, there a few things we can do to ensure the school year begins on a positive note.
Develop a relationship with your child’s teacher.
Teachers and school support staff want to see their students succeed. Although they are trained in educational and behavioral strategies, they might not be familiar with trauma-sensitive needs. You can help by developing an open and honest relationship with your child’s teacher.
When you share their story, emphasize the importance of supporting and understanding the effects of the trauma—rather than getting caught up in the narrative. Your child is a burn survivor, not a victim. Burn survivors are more than their story. Caution teachers to be sensitive to difficulties and limitations, but to not make judgments based on your child’s trauma or scars.
Help educators understand the effects of trauma.
When kids misbehave, teachers are trained to follow specific disciplinary steps, often resulting in loss of recess, trips to the principal’s office, and detention. But none of these disciplinary actions help kids regain normalcy after trauma.
The stress of an acute trauma makes it difficult for a child’s brain to tell the difference between real and imagined threats. Every person handles trauma differently, but humans are hardwired to respond to danger in one of three ways: fight, flight, or freeze. When your child senses danger, real or imaginary, they can be triggered into one of these three modes.
This can cause both academic and behavioral disruptions in the classroom. Academically, your child might struggle to organize materials, be attentive, regulate emotions, and control higher-level functions such as setting and following through on goals. Behaviorally, they might be reactive and impulsive, defiant, or withdrawn. They may also struggle with perfectionism and have a hard time working well with others.
As a parent, you have an important role in helping teachers understand your child’s behavior and handle any disruptions. When teachers understand the motives behind disruptive behavior, they can address that behavior effectively, maintain the classroom environment, and support your child’s recovery.
Create a plan.
Children who experience trauma have a deep need for a sense of order and control. The following are suggestions parents, teachers, and school staff can implement to help children transition smoothly back into “normal” life.
- Check your assumptions, observe, and question.
- Ask yourself: Is this child purposefully being disruptive? What is the motive? Sometimes behavior is the only way they know to communicate.
- Facilitate supportive relationships between adults and children
- Always empower; never disempower.
- Set clear limits and consistent routines.
- Provide public praise and discuss concerns privately.
- Build a sense of self-efficacy and perceived control.
- Give the child choices.
- Provide unconditional positive regard.
- Provide a safe place to decompress and/or talk.
- Warn children of disruptions and changes in routine ahead of time.
- Reassure the child that they are not a bad kid.
- Maintain high expectations.
- Set clear, attainable goals for students.
- Involve student in setting goals for themselves.
- Help strengthen adaptive skills and self-regulatory capacities.
- Take time to embed mindfulness exercises into the daily routine. (Try Insight Timer -- a free mindfulness app.)
- Be a relationship coach.
- Explicitly teach how to have healthy relationships.
- Use phrases such as: “I can see that you are frustrated, how might we adjust things to help you get through this?”
- Provide opportunities for meaningful participation.
- Think ahead about barriers that might be present and intentionally design a meaningful adaptation for the student’s participation.
Learning how to cope and manage stressful situations is critical in developing resilience. These suggestions have shown to predispose children to positive recovery outcomes. By understanding and advocating for your child, you’ll enable them to succeed and thrive.
Your child’s teacher will thank you for the input.
Janine Fisk is an Assistant Professor of Education Studies at the University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire. She has been an educator for 26 years and has worked with kindergarteners through adult learners. Her emphasis is on reading and literacy education, as well as creating trauma-sensitive schools. Nine years ago, her eight-year-old daughter, Abby, was burned in an agricultural fire. Navigating the path of school re-entry and the challenges of teen angst after a traumatic injury has guided Janine’s work and research with pre-service educators.