Sometimes, saying “I understand” doesn’t calm an enraged student.
“If you have a truly traumatized student, that just makes them angry. You don’t understand that their dad beat their mom last night. You don’t understand that they had to feed their sister last night,” said Nicole Hassan, an elementary teacher at Leggett school in Akron.
In order to understand more fully how life-altering events like abuse, neglect or violence are affecting a child’s learning and cognitive development, Hassan and Michelle Jones, a middle school teacher at East, have partnered with Akron Children’s Hospital to lead a series of professional development sessions on the topic of childhood trauma.
After the latest two-day session at Akron schools’ Ott Staff Development Center last week, more than 220 Akron educators have participated in the program, which provides scientific evidence to explain the dysfunctional and fragile minds of traumatized children while supporting best practices to mitigate the disruptive effects of trauma on education.
After teaching for the past 12 years, Hassan and Jones increasingly have noticed the main symptom: disruptive, sometimes violent, behavior. They long have known that students, especially those in poverty or who lack family support, have issues.
“We knew the trauma,” Jones said. “We just didn’t know what was happening in the brain.”
They had been told that learning is a cognitive process and that trauma is an emotional response. The two were separate — until Hassan and Jones looked at the research.
Scientific evidence suggests the answers lay inside the head of a traumatized child, said Melissa Peace, project director for The Center for the Treatment and Study of Adverse Childhood Events at Akron Children’s Hospital.
Certain areas of the brain shrink after a traumatic experience, like the neocortex, which allows for higher-level cognitive processes and learning, Peace said.
Children recovering from a traumatic experience are stuck in another area of the brain that promotes a survival, or fight-or-flight, mode. They’re edgy, easily aggravated, anxious and unable to break out of the emotional realm of the brain’s limbic system, driven by instinct and reflex.
“They’re constantly scanning their environment for threats,” Peace said. “If a student bumps them in the hallway, they take that as a threat and not an accident.”
Peace led the session with Hassan and Jones. She said the program isn’t designed to teach educators how to identify a student who has suffered a traumatic event. Rather, the program builds on best practices already implemented in the classroom, like those outlined in Akron schools’ Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) program.
Educators are encouraged to reward good behavior, even if the behavior is as simple as sitting in a chair. That’s a difficult concept for “old school” educators, Hassan said. But times have changed and bad behavior has been exacerbated by diminishing family supports and poverty.
Teachers also are encouraged to provide a calm, safe and secure environment for children to learn.
“If children aren’t in the mindset for learning, they won’t,” said program participant Cate Alexander, a kindergarten teacher at Case Elementary.
Alexander utilizes PBIS practices that have been implemented in more than 19,000 schools nationwide. A wind chime distracts a student who is stuck in an aggravated state. She tells her frazzled students to take a deep breath.
In that moment that her classroom is taking a deep breath, Alexander can take attendance and check her plans for the day’s lesson. And her students can take a moment to jump out of the frantic limbic system and into the neocortex, where the learning begins.
Doug Livingston can be reached at 330-996-3792 or firstname.lastname@example.org.