I’m happy to see that educators are paying more attention these days to the impact that past traumas have had on students and the need for an emphasis on social and emotional learning in the classroom. This comes as welcome relief from the strong emphasis that has been placed in past years on standards and accountability. Educators have come to realize that if a child doesn’t feel safe in the classroom, or responds to changes in the classroom by going into flight, fright, or freeze mode, then he or she is not going to be present and available for whatever learning is going on. The brain simply ”downshifts” from activities in the neocortex (the rational brain), to function at the level of the emotional brain (limbic system) and the reptilian brain (brain stem).
Researchers estimate that 45 percent of all schoolchildren have experienced at least one ”adverse childhood experience” (ACE) in their lives (e.g. traumatic events such as parental conflict, mental illness, poverty, violence etc.), and around 10 percent of students have experienced three or more ACEs, placing them at high risk of developing depression, anxiety disorders, addictive behaviors, or even physical illness now or later on in their lives.
Trauma-informed teaching is mostly about cultivating a special attitude toward all the students in the classroom (since we can’t be 100% sure who has and hasn’t experienced trauma). The emphasis should be on developing trust with students, recognizing stress signals when they occur (and not confusing them with common misbehavior), and relating to each student’s issues in an honest, sensitive, and caring way.
Trauma-informed teaching also includes stress-reducing strategies that can provide students with a way of developing emotional self-regulation skills, so that they don’t retreat from any perceived challenge by striking out, seeking to escape, or closing up entirely. One tool that can help meet this need is the practice of mindfulness. With mindfulness, students receive practice in staying in the present moment, rather than reacting to past events (including past traumas), or worrying about future possibilities that may or may not materialize.
The most common way of practicing mindfulness involves focusing on one’s breath, noticing the rise and fall of the belly or chest, or the rush of air into and out of the nostrils with every inhalation and exhalation. Whenever students become distracted from this focus, they are instructed to notice the distraction with a nonjudgmental attitude, and return to a focus on their breathing. Thus, for example, if they are focusing on their breathing, and then suddenly feel an itch in their knee, they can simply notice ”oh, I’ve got an itch in my knee” and then return to their breathing.
This process develops both one-pointedness (which helps promote calm), and also offers a new way of approaching mental and emotional experience. Instead of reacting with belligerence, for example, when an angry feeling rises to the surface, students can learn how to simply watch it emerge and then fall away. One teacher observed a preschool girl about to kick apart a wooden block structure another student had made, but then saw her take a deep breath, and walk away. This is the kind of self-regulation that can help students cope with past traumas, without creating new problems for themselves and others.
The only proviso I might make with regard to mindfulness and trauma-informed teaching, is that for some students in certain instances, closing one’s eyes and focusing on breathing may actually uncover past traumas. In this case, the teacher needs to let students know that they can ”opt out” of the practice any time they want to and that they will receive one-to-one support for any difficulties that may come up. Also, it may be that the practice in such cases ought to shift from a focus on the breath to other more active forms of mindfulness, including mindful walking, mindful eating, or mindful stretching, each of which provides better ”grounding” and less likelihood of an adverse experience being exposed and activated.
The emphasis in mindfulness should be on gentleness. Students should be allowed to discuss their experiences after a session, and teachers need to be supportive with regard to whatever students bring up. The emphasis in trauma-informed teaching is ultimately on building support and one-to-one relationships, not simply between teacher and student, but also between students, and between students and other members of the school community. Finally, educators should make sure that they are sensitive to their own past traumatic experiences and engage in a personal mindfulness practice, so that they have the empathy and sensitivity necessary to support the social and emotional lives of their students.
For more information about setting up mindfulness practices in the classroom or school, see my book: Thomas Armstrong, Mindfulness in the Classroom: Strategies for Promoting Concentration, Compassion, and Calm (ASCD).