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The hammering, sawing and drilling next door was more than I could stand. I had planned on a peaceful and relaxing day. Instead what I got was an experience that I won’t soon forget and one that has helped me rethink the effects that childhood trauma and toxic stress can have on our students’ emotional well-being.

By no means am I comparing a few hours of noisy construction to what many students experience on a daily basis. I was simply given a little perspective. I was unable to think, focus or have a coherent thought because of the construction that was taking place next door.

My experience lasted only a few hours and I could have left if necessary. On the other hand, many of our students live with much worse every day with no chance of escape—except for the seven and half hours they spend with us. Therefore, it is our obligation to provide them with a learning environment that best meets their needs. What follows are three strategies I have found to be helpful when working with students that are dealing with trauma and toxic stress.

Don’t Pile On

Many of our students are broken and bent before they even walk through our doors. We know who they are. They are already down.

So why pile on?

Don’t get me wrong. There are situations and circumstances that require us to intervene. And there are certain students that might need more frequent reminders than others. But we should be able to identify these by now. We are the adults. Furthermore, I think we must ask ourselves; will our actions make the situation better or worse? If the answer is worse, then I think we must re-evaluate what we are doing.

I am not implying that we ignore bad decision-making or that we let things go. But I do believe that oftentimes the end result of a pile on is a more beaten and battered child. Instead, we must try to lighten their load or at the very least, not to add to it. We may not always be able to make things better, but we must certainly do everything we can to not make it worse.

Give Space

Trauma and toxic stress can cause students’ brains to feel overcrowded. Unable to escape the thoughts in their head, students quickly become overwhelmed. Oftentimes what they need is just a little extra space. Eric Jensen, author of Teaching With the Brain in Mind, notes that:

“Students need time to digest, think about, and act on their learning; connections need time to strengthen. Therefore, adding more content makes little sense. Each learner probably has an ideal number of ideas that he or she can learn in an hour.”

And yet, because of demands placed on teachers, space is something they feel they can’t afford to grant. But for children whose brains are already stressed, space is exactly what they need.

Sometimes, the best thing for an overtaxed brain is quiet and permission to rest and yet rarely are either given. But they can be. And they should be. As an administrator and former teacher, I was guilty of not giving students space more times than I can remember.

Students often benefit more from time and space than they do a clever word. Many times, I have given what I thought was great advice only to find that it accomplished nothing. I should have simply offered a place to sit and kept my mouth shut.

Remember When They Feel Better, They’ll Do better

As an educator it can be frustrating when we feel as if a student has disrespected us or ignored a simple request. This is when things can escalate quickly and before we know it, there is a confrontation that results in anger, hurt feelings and further emotional stress on a child that can’t afford to take any more.

Think back to last time you had a headache—maybe even a migraine. Anyone making a noise felt your wrath and answering even the simplest question seemed impossible. Well, many of our students feel like this every day. Their memory is weakened because of the stress they are under.

We must remind ourselves that in order for our students to do better they must first feel better. I saved this strategy for last because I think it is not only the easiest to implement but it is also the one that will have the greatest impact.

Helping students feel better is something we can do right away. Or at least we can try. There will be times when we just can’t figure out how to help a child feel better. It is during these times when we must reach out to each other. Our ego must not be allowed to intervene.

Maybe the student feels more comfortable with one of our colleagues. Don’t take it personally. Maybe the student is directing their anger towards us. Not because they are angry with us. Quite the contrary. Oftentimes students who have experienced trauma will lash out at those that help them feel safe. It’s tough to bare but we must ride the storm out as best we can. Or maybe, we ask the student what we can do for them. Yes, we are the adult and they are the child. But sometimes they know best what it is they need to feel better. So just ask them.

Unfortunately, the number of students experiencing trauma and toxic stress is increasing. It is painful, frustrating and heartbreaking to watch what they go through on a daily basis. But we can make things better. Maybe not as much as we’d like and that is difficult to accept. We want to be able to instantly take away the pain and suffering for our students. But we can’t. What we can do though is try and implement the strategies above. That is a start and a step in the right direction.

How Childhood Trauma Affects Health Across a Lifetime – a powerful TED talk by Dr. Nadine Burke Harris that is well worth the 18 minutes it takes to view.


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