by Carolyn Webster-Stratton, PhD, Incredible Years Program Developer
An increasing body of research identifies the long-term impact and health harm to children’s learning and behavior due to chronic stress or a traumatic or frightening event. Collectively such childhood stressors are called Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). ACEs experiences can include physical and sexual abuse or neglect, witnessing domestic abuse and violence, parental drug and alcohol problems, incarceration of a parent, severe accidents, natural and human-made disasters such as an earthquake or tornado, or a pandemic such as the Covid-19 virus, violent or accidental death of a parent, sibling or important relationship figure, parental separation or divorce, and exposure to terrorism, or refugee conditions.
Research has also shown there are protective factors that promote the resilience and recovery of children exposed to multiple ACEs. These include positive trusting, loving, and safe parent and teacher relationships, positive and supportive peer friendships, predictable rules and routines, and support to develop positive social, emotional, and academic skills. Teachers and parents working together to help children cope in healthy ways with traumatic events can have a major impact on their long-term emotional, educational, and health outcomes. One documented factor that significantly impacts children’s response to trauma is the amount and quality of trauma-related emotional support that children receive. Parent and teacher support and appropriate responses to their symptoms has been found to be a significant predictor of children’s mental health outcomes in several outcome studies (e.g., Cohen 2007).
What does it mean to be trauma informed?
This is an approach where the teacher is trauma-sensitive and considers the possible impact or link of trauma on children, their behavior, relationships with others, learning and their symptoms. The teacher uses cognitive, affective, and behavioral principles as well as relationship building skills involving the school, child, and parents to overcome the negative effects of traumatic experiences.
Being trauma informed begins with an understanding by the parent, teacher, and child about the specific trauma or complex traumas that the child experienced and the child’s symptoms, emotional reactions, and current triggers. It also includes education about normal psychological and physiological responses to trauma and how teachers can reinforce the students’ accurate cognitions about what has occurred. It involves teachers offering hope and reassurance to the student and parents that the child’s symptoms will improve with support and trusting relationships. Other aspects of trauma-informed teaching include therapeutic approaches woven into the classroom such as affect literacy and self-regulation, cognitive and behavioral coping strategies, and support from parents, teachers, and peers.
All of the IY parent, teacher and child programs focus on positive parent-teacher-child relationship building, child directed play, four types of adult coaching methods (academic, social, emotional and persistence coaching), praise and incentives, predictable routines and rules, positive discipline, teaching children problem solving and building support groups. These methods are central to creating a safe and secure home and school environment and helping children persevere and become resilient in the face of adversity and traumatic experiences.
Key Points about Delivering IY Teacher Classroom Management Programs that are Trauma-informed and Promote Students’ Resiliency and Hope
Creating Students’ Sense of Belonging, Connection and Trust
• Teachers help students develop a sense of belonging and resiliency by developing nurturing and trusting relationships with them and by using persistence, social, and emotion coaching in child-directed play individually and in small groups
• Teachers set specific goals for students’ social, emotional, and cognitive development as well as academic development
• Teachers improve student’s sense of belonging by building collaborative and honest relationships with their parents to enhance consistency and predictability of responses across settings
• Teachers help students to feel a sense of connectedness with peers by setting up support groups, normalizing their responses to traumatic events by helping them understand they are not alone and that others have experienced similar traumas and by reinforcing accurate cognitions about what has occurred
Creating Students’ Sense of Control, Predictability and Safety in the School Environment
• Teachers help students feel they are in a safe and secure environment when there are clear, predictable routines and transitions, agreed upon rules, consistent limit setting, opportunities for choices, proactive discipline, and a strong teaching pyramid foundation of relationship building, coaching methods, praise and encouragement in a planned and strategic manner
Helping Students Learn to Self-Regulate
• Teachers help students learn to self-regulate by listening and supporting their ability to communicate their thoughts and feelings. Teachers also work to understand potential trauma triggers that can result in the child’s misbehavior and understand how to manage and help children cope with these thoughts and responses
• Teachers help children learn to self-regulate by teaching deep breathing methods, positive imagery, positive self-talk, and how to ask for what they need in order to feel safe and loved
• Teachers use puppets to help students discuss and practice solutions to problem situations and to involve their peers as support in this learning
• Teachers help children learn to self-regulate by modeling calm, patient, and predictable responses to their students’ misbehaviors
Teachers Building Support Networks
• Teachers understand the value of developing their own support networks through their teacher group experience, sharing of ideas and problem solving. This support helps them cope with the stress of managing their student’s trauma reactions
• Teachers practice self-care through reflection, relaxation, and mutual support.
Working with students who have experienced trauma is a difficult balancing act for teachers. Teachers learn to recognize, acknowledge, and understand the harmful impact of their students’ past traumatic experiences on their learning, and development as well as the way that these experiences are manifested in students emotional and behavioral responses. Teachers work to support these students and their families and to hold out hope for the future of successful healing. Because this teaching work is emotionally and intellectually challenging and can lead to teacher “compassion fatigue”, it is important that teachers are supported by a school-wide trauma informed approach where teacher peer support and wellbeing is encouraged so that they don’t feel alone and have the energy for this work. This requires a school commitment to a partnership and interdisciplinary team-based approach between counselors, teachers, parents, and administrators to help guide students in their recovery. Moreover, it is important to remember that trauma-informed practices such as building children’s self-awareness, self-regulation, feeling literacy, empathy, teamwork, and ability to problem solve should not be seen as something extra. This approach benefits all children, not just those who have been trauma-affected in terms of social, emotional, and academic success. It should be the core of teacher practices.