During one year teaching second grade, I had a student who I’ll call “Ashley.” In our small inclusion class of 14 students, Ashley was personable with her peers and with teachers. She loved horses and always had a story to tell when she arrived in the classroom or during recess.
In first grade, Ashley had been evaluated for a learning disability and had received an educational classification of “emotionally disturbed,” one of only two students in our school with this classification. At that time in my teaching career, I didn’t yet understand how to support students like Ashley. I knew nothing of the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) study, the neurobiology of childhood trauma, or any of the manifestations that could show up in school. But before the start of school, I had participated in a workshop that inspired me, and I was determined to implement my new learning with my students.
We worked diligently to build a caring community, in which Ashley was fully embraced. I carefully thought about how classroom routines would go and then strategically taught them to my students. We practiced, I taught them again, and I told students when they were successful: “You all worked to carefully switch out your independent reading books, and the classroom library is still neat and organized!”
We set goals for the year and used those to guide us in creating the rules by which our classroom would operate. We recognized from the start that we would all make mistakes and break the rules sometimes (even me), and when that happened, we would get back on track together. We gathered each afternoon to reflect on the positives of the day and take stock of what we had done successfully so we could do it again the following day. We met to brainstorm solutions to class problems, and role-played tricky social situations, like how to ask a peer for a turn on the swings at recess. Ashley thrived, along with the rest of the class, my student teacher, and me. It was a marvel.
What I now know is that the strategies I was implementing were creating opportunities for my students to grow their social-emotional competencies alongside their academic skills. And all the time we were building self-awareness, managing ourselves and our relationships with others, setting goals, and learning to make responsible decisions, our classroom was providing a trauma-informed environment.
More than two-thirds of children in the U.S. experience at least one traumatic event by age 16. Children who have early traumatic experiences may have missed out on opportunities to express their emotions in safe and healthy ways. They may misinterpret the emotions of others or be hypervigilant in the classroom, which can lead to difficulties with peer and adult relationships. Their early adverse experiences may have taught them that they have no control over what happens to them in the world, or that things happen without any logical or apparent cause. The prevalence of traumatic experiences means that schools need to incorporate strategies that support healing for all students, in all classrooms. While social and emotional learning (SEL) does not replace therapeutic or mental health services when needed, it offers universal strategies that create a safe learning environment for all students.
Classrooms and schools that incorporate SEL give students:
- Safe experiences with identifying their own emotions and recognizing the emotions of others.
- Opportunities to be in community with peers and adults, where they can feel a sense of belonging and significance.
- Practice with setting and working toward goals, which helps develop hopefulness.
- Support from adults who can model healthy examples of stress management, collaborative relationships, and responsible decision making.
- Agency to make choices and explore strategies for learning and relationship-building that work for them, helping children acknowledge an internal locus of control.
Adult social and emotional skill-building is also essential in a trauma-responsive school. Because early adverse experiences can cause the body’s stress response to be overactive, students who have traumatic histories can display extremely challenging behaviors in school.
The body’s fight-flight-freeze response may be activated by seemingly small stressors, like a difficult math problem, sending a child into survival mode. This might look like yelling, throwing things, lashing out physically at peers or adults, running away, or ripping up a frustrating assignment.
School adults who respond in moments like this need to call on their own skills of self-awareness, self-management, and responsible decision-making to support a dysregulated student back to a sense of safety and calm. Integrating CASEL’s 3 Signature Practices into staff meetings and professional learning opportunities is one way educators and staff can work to refine their own competencies at school.
By making space for SEL alongside academics, schools can also provide a trauma-sensitive environment that creates the conditions for all children to find success.
Melanie Barbas is the lead teacher for classroom culture in the Colonial School District in New Castle, Delaware. Prior to taking the role as lead teacher in 2017, Melanie spent 18 years as a dually certified teacher with experience in first, second, and third grades. She is a CASEL SEL Fellow.
The views in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of CASEL.