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October 1, 2020

Helping Kids Facing Trauma Do Better

By building relationships and engaging them in art and literature, teachers help students foster skills for managing challenging emotions.
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Social-emotional learning
Instructional Strategies
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The traumatic experiences our students go through surface as a range of behaviors. While some students are explosive, others react by disengaging and withdrawing—and some react in ways we don't notice at all. Although the behavior of students experiencing or processing trauma can be challenging, educators can look to what works for all students—relationship building and developing "wellness tools" young people can use—as key parts of helping these students in their self-management and healing process. As Rosenbaum-Nordoft, a special education teacher in Calgary, notes, "Teachers who know their students well and who create relationships from the outset help contribute to a student's healthy mindset and feeling of safety within the school" (p. 6).
When I first stepped into a classroom 20-plus years ago, it was clear to me that although educating students was my mandate, relationship building was nonnegotiable. Without healthy relationships in place, educating was impossible, across all grade levels and subject areas. My experience tells me that when a teacher makes him or herself available to respond to students' emotional needs, that openness provides a safety net for students who hurt, and a feeling of safety will often allow mental barriers that students may have put up to fall, providing an entry point through which you can help those students learn to handle challenging emotions.
Here are key practices I use to build relationships and trust with students who struggle with trauma or stress, plus help students develop their own tools for wellness. Many of them make good use of relevant children's books.

Unpacking Students' Gifts—and Their Trust

Last fall, I moved to a high-needs elementary school. As a learning coach, I supported all students, but every Wednesday, I taught health, art, and writing to one 4th-grade class. The first few times I met with this class, as is typical, they were nervous to meet their new teacher; atypically, they were noticeably agitated. Most had their walls up. It was clear I had to work for their trust.
One way I built trust was by helping students talk about their gifts and how to express them—which is a wellness tool. I read aloud The Dunderheads by Paul Fleischman (Candlewick, 2012) to develop the idea that we all have gifts and that using and sharing those gifts can help us manage our emotions. In the book, a young character's glass cat is confiscated by the teacher. The character's friends band together to retrieve the glass cat, and for their mission to be successful, the students need to use their various strengths or gifts—many of which are not generally characterized as special. For example, one character can make spitballs (which comes in handy when the other characters need to block the movement sensor on a video camera).
In the whole-class conversation following my reading, we discussed how our gifts are whatever makes us unique. Gifts are things we enjoy doing, and they often help us manage difficult emotions. One student mentioned how playing soccer helps him calm down by getting out his excess physical energy. Another said that her gift for art helps her focus when she's anxious or her mind is full of stressful thoughts. After this discussion, more students told me about their gifts. Sharing gifts became a part of how I related to the students and they related to each other.

The Gift of Drawing

It was clear early on that these 4th graders were challenged by transitions. Most students can line up by 4th grade, but these students resisted the concept of "orderly fashion." Some of it had to do with not wanting to stand next to another student or with an unwillingness to hold the door. When these learners entered class after a recess break, I'd have to remind them to sit where assigned, change their shoes, and take their materials out.
I wanted to develop an art-related tool that could be used outside of art class and help them settle into transitions. Referring to our book about student gifts, I told the students that I wanted to share one of my gifts; I then led them in a guided drawing activity that resulted in an image of a pigeon created in the style of Mo Willems (see Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus, Scholastic, 2004, and the other books in this series, and Pigeon Presents).
When I do this activity, I purposely don't tell students what they are creating as we draw a series of marks that eventually make a bird. I want them to enjoy creating without judgment about what they're supposed to be aiming for. In the end, they are delighted to produce a Mo Willems-style of pigeon. That is my gift to them: the satisfaction of being able to express themselves through art, even through this simple drawing.
After this activity, I introduced sketchbooks and gave one to each student. I encouraged the kids to sketch after they came back from recess or gym. This eliminated waiting time for them. Because the sketchbook task was open ended—students could draw anything classroom-appropriate—there were no battles over task expectations. Students could settle down independently, focusing on drawing. With most students engaged, students who displayed off-task behavior in transition times no longer had an audience, so they settled in quickly too. For students with emotional challenges, this chance to sketch (during times of regular emotions and especially intense emotions) was an important tool aiding their self-regulation.

Nurturing Friendships and Empathy

As researchers Cole, Eisner, Gregory, & Ristuccia note, students with trauma backgrounds "may have difficulty with peer and/or adult relationships because they cannot trust that other students or teachers have their best interests at heart" (p. 7). Despite that difficulty, for many students, school is their safe place; home might not provide the emotional nourishment and stability that they need. Students also need to know that they matter, that friendships matter.
I observed signs of underlying trauma and friendship troubles in many of these 4th graders. Kids would come to class uncharacteristically disheveled, lugging a personal item like a stuffed animal that only showed up on their dysregulated days. Students with friendship troubles displayed agitation, yelling across the classroom or crying at their desks. Sometimes students who had trauma or friendship issues would be clingy, wanting to be near me in the classroom or walk with me on supervision, and when I'd find a quiet moment to talk with these students, they'd share serious worries.
To begin talking about friendships and relationship building, I again reached for a book; this time it was Rumple Buttercup: A Story of Bananas, Belonging, and Being Yourself by Matthew Gray Gubler (Random House Books for Young Readers, 2019). Rumple Buttercup lives in a sewer with an imaginary friend, afraid to be with everyone else, fearing rejection. Eventually, he summons the courage to join those in his neighborhood for a parade and learns the power of belonging.
Drawing on Rumple Buttercup, the class made how to belong and be a good friend a theme of our class. This theme, including positive relationships between students and teachers, could apply in many classes and subject areas. For some students, the classroom might be the only place that they witness positive relationships between grown-ups and kids. And the ability to foster and maintain healthy relationships is a wellness tool.
The ability to connect emotionally to literature is also a wellness tool, one I wanted to give these children. Empathy is an essential emotion for healing. The Little Big Book of Happy Sadness by Colin Thompson (Kane/Miller Book Pub, 2008) is a book I read often to students to talk about empathy and build this quality. I start by saying, "Look, I am probably going to cry when I read this. I have read this book several times, but I always cry. You know when you read a book and your cheeks get hot? That's your body, making an emotional connection." For many students, someone telling them that books are part of managing emotions, that feeling an experience through a story's character helps them with their feelings, is powerful.
Of course, I did cry in places as I read, and students shared their feelings too, sometimes telling how they felt when their pet passed away. Once I looked up to see a student carefully watching my face—and tearing up with me. It's important to let students know that in the safe place I cocreate in my classroom, it's OK for everyone to express their emotions.

Showing Care to Help Students "Do Better"

One irony about helping our students who arrive at school carrying heavy emotional burdens is that, as Rosenbaum-Nordoft (2018) explains, "for students who come from trauma backgrounds, a trusting relationship with the teacher is critical for their success, but also challenging for them to form" (p. 8). Because it's challenging for these children to forge relationships, it helps for any school adult who connects positively with a child—not only their classroom teacher—to make an attempt. One way to help strengthen their own wellness is to subtly build on a positive connection you have. Help the child de-escalate, suggest coping ideas, mentor them.
As a learning coach, I work with our emotional behavior therapist and our school's administration to act as an extra support for students who become overwhelmed by stress and "act out" in their classrooms. In most cases, I help a student de-escalate through establishing a connection—or reminding that student of a connection I've begun with them—and then following their lead.
Recently, I was called to help in an incident in which a student had left the classroom, upset and without permission. I found Carl (a pseudonym) outside his classroom, and asked, "What's up?"
He looked at me, mumbled, and turned to walk down the hall. I followed behind, walking quickly enough to keep up, but not crowd him.
"Carl, are you OK?" I asked. "Can I help you?"
He said without looking back, "I am tired."
"Do you want to rest on the office couch or phone your mom?"
"Yeah, I am going to phone my mom." Carl, with me still accompanying him, went into the office and straight to the student phone kept there. He began dialing and was frustrated.
"Dial 9 first," I said, "before your own number."
He completed dialing and talked to his mom. I couldn't hear the mostly one-sided conversation, only Carl answering "yes" and "no." After a couple of minutes, he hung up the phone, and I asked, "What did your mom say?"
"She said I need to do better."
"Okay," I said, "how can I help you do better?" After a pause, I ventured, "Can I help you with your science?" Carl nodded, and we walked back to class together. Having an accepting adult stay with him and offer things he might try to feel better had helped him regulate his emotions and be ready to learn again.

Fashioning Wellness Toolboxes

Today's classrooms are challenging. More students require teachers to have skills not often mentioned in teacher-preparation programs. By falling back on what we know to be true about relationship-building—unpacking people's strengths, discovering art, helping students learn how to be friends, and modeling for kids how to care for and respectfully help others—we can help students to create a wellness toolbox, not only for school but for life. Together we can help students who face trauma in any way do better.
End Notes

1 Rosenbaum-Nordoft, C. (2018). Building teacher capacity for trauma-informed practice in the inclusive elementary school classroom. Early Childhood Education, 45(1), 3–10.

2 Advocates for Children and Harvard Law School. Available from

 Brandi Clark is a learning coach in the Edmonton Catholic School Division, Alberta, Canada. She has a passion for writing and is working on her first book about supporting struggling writers in the classroom.

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