color drawing of a girl hunched over her desk with a dark confusing cloud above her headMore kids are suffering from trauma-related sensitivities than you might realize  The gold standard research on this matter is the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  They looked at almost 10,000 adults at Kaiser Permanente in San Diego,, California, who were asked questions covering seven aspects of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) that they might have had in their early years, including:

  1. childhood psychological abuse
  2. childhood physical abuse
  3. childhood sexual abuse abuse
  4. violence against mother
  5. living in childhood with household members who were substance abusers,
  6. living in childhood with household members who were mentally ill or suicidal
  7. living in childhood with household members who were ever imprisoned

More than half of respondents reported at least one ACE, and a quarter reported two or more instances of ACE.  The researchers noted:

Persons who had experienced four or more categories of childhood exposure, compared to those who had experienced none, had 4- to 12-fold increased health risks for alcoholism, drug abuse, depression, and suicide attempt; a 2- to 4-fold increase in smoking, poor self-rated health, > or = 50 sexual intercourse partners, and sexually transmitted disease; and 1.4- to 1.6-fold increase in physical inactivity and severe obesity. The number of categories of adverse childhood exposures showed a graded relationship to the presence of adult diseases including ischemic heart disease, cancer, chronic lung disease, skeletal fractures, and liver disease.

As a teacher, you might thinking, ”well, what can I do about it?  In most cases the damage has been done.  It’s not really my problem.”  And that’s true, it’s not really your problem.  But it can be your solution, or to put it another way, you can be part of the solution for many of these kids.  And it doesn’t take a lot of time, money, or training for you to turn your classroom into a trauma-sensitive environment.  Here are five tips:

  1. Greet your students as they come into your class. Simply being acknowledged as a human being can make a big difference for a traumatized student.  Ask friendly questions:  ”So, how’s your day, so far?” ”How are you feeling today?” or some reference to their specific concerns (e.g. ”Feeling ready for the test tomorrow?”). You don’t need to create an I and Thou relationship, but spend just enough one-to-one time with your students to send the message that there’s a safe, caring, humane person who’s in charge of this class.
  2. Have some soft soothing music on as students come into the classroom, and also when they leave.  Choose calming music, or even recordings of nature sounds, and change selections frequently to find out which ones work best (you can take a vote of your students).  Music hath charms to soothe the savage breast goes the old saying from the British writer William Congreve.  It sends a message that this is a safe place where students can learn without fear.
  3. Put plants (and even animals) in your classroom. Research suggests that nature has a calming effect on kids diagnosed with ADHD, and its impact on everyone else can be likewise profound.  Have a classroom pet.  Place potted plants on the window sill and let students take turns watering them.  Nature invisibly heals wounded souls, and your students can be among those to reap the benefits.
  4. Create a Center for Calm somewhere in the classroom or school where kids can get away when feeling especially stressed.  The last thing a traumatized student needs is to be yelled at by the teacher, or get into name calling or fighting with classmates.  Above all, short circuit the potential for a melt-down or other major stress response by letting students know in advance that if they feel a strong emotion and are likely to lose control, that there’s a place where they can calm down and regain composure before coming back to the classroom.  Stock the Calm Down Center with pillows, high interest books, puzzles, and even headphones and a music source.  Some teachers think: ”Well then, aren’t you rewarding bad behavior?” First of all, it’s not ”bad behavior.  It’s being stressed out.  Second, in going to the Calm Down Center the student is learning appropriate ways to handle himself when under stress.  This is a gift that he can use for the rest of his life.
  5. Teach mindfulness practices.  Students from traumatized background generally speaking don’t have a lot of tools for emotional self-regulation.  They may respond to stress by fighting, yelling, calling names, crying, withdrawing, or engaging in some other less than optimal strategy. The good news is that there is a simple tool students can use that will help them react to adversity in a self-healing way. Mindfulness practice involves paying  attention to some focus (usually one’s natural in-and-out breathing) for a period of time, and if interruptions come up (outer sounds, inner ideas, feeling, or perceptions), to simply notice them without judgement and then return to the focus to one’s breathing. It’s that easy!  Start kids off doing it for a minute or two, and gradually make the sessions longer. You’ll find that the time you’re spending doing this practice is more than made up for by the focused attention students are likely to have on their school lesson that day. And kids who have been traumatized in their early development will be the biggest winners of all, since research supports the idea that mindfulness helps calm down the stress response (it even has been observed to lower the resting state levels of the fear-inducing amygdala and other stress-based structures in the brain).

Early childhood traumas (and continuing trauma from early childhood to the present) are creating major challenges for society.  Since we can’t know in advance who the most traumatized are among us unless we’re trained professionals (and by all means should not single out who we think is most traumatized in the classroom for special treatment), we need to treat all of our students with gentleness, care, and friendliness.  In this way, all classrooms can serve as ”stress free zones.”


For more information about implementing mindfulness in your school setting, see my book Mindfulness in the Classroom:  Strategies for Promoting Concentration, Compassion, and Calm.

This page was brought to you by Thomas Armstrong, Ph.D. and www.institute4learning.com.

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2 Responses
  1. When kids leave the classroom to go to the Center for Calm (or for any other reason), once they are ready to return, they might have missed out on part of the instruction.
    Obviously this also happens for many other important reasons (doctor appointments, illness, etc.), — and equally obviously, the missed instruction can itself be a source of further stress.
    What can be done to keep any missed instruction from itself having any bad, long-term effects on the student and on his/her educational progress?
    Also, what can be done in cases where the stressed student (who leaves the classroom to go to the Calm Center) is routinely needing to do this during a particular time of day, only during a particular subject, only during a particular type of classroom activity, etc?
    For example: if a student heads for the Calm Center every time there is math, or every time there is writing in English class, etc., over time this may add up to the student missing a significant part of his/her education.

    There is also unfortunately the issue of students sometimes figuring out that they can actually intentionally “stress out” or “trigger” a particular other student (whom they don’t want around) to the point that the attacked student voluntarily leaves the room — at which point, the Calm Center becomes a rewarding strategy for classroom bullies. (For example: just by stressing out another student a few times a day, the bully can ensure that this targeted student misses instruction for long periods several times a day.)
    Note, in this connection, that classroom bullies aren’t always children. I know of cases in which teachers (especially teachers who were opposed to the school’s introduction of a Calm Center) would first intentionally stress a particular student until that student left the room, and would then (as soon as the student left) introduce a new topic or group activity, on which the student would be tested (or would have his/her non-participation evaluated) the instant that s/he returned. How can teachers, as well as students, be prevented from falling into this pattern of misusing the Calm Center as just one more enabling tool for classroom bullies?

  2. Thank you for your thoughtful response to my blog post on trauma-sensitive classrooms. I think that the contingencies you bring up would need to be dealt with on a case-by-case basis. The intra-class bullying would become a bullying issue for those involved, and the connection to the Calm Center would be only incidental. The idea of missing work could be dealt with by meeting with the student one-on-one and giving him assignments missed etc. (and the one-to-one could be a positive nurturing factor as far as the trauma is concerned). The ”gaming” the system could be dealt with by paying attention to whether or not the student really needed to go or was just pretending – this is where social and emotional self-regulation strategies can come in (e.g. noticing what physical triggers sets a given student off etc.). If the student leaves every time there is a math lesson, this would indicate something about their attitude toward math and that would need to be discussed with the student one-to-one also. I hope this is helpful!

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