What can one teacher really do about trauma?

When training teachers on trauma-informed classroom strategies, the most frequent pushback I hear is “I don’t have enough time or resources.”

Maybe this is because we start with defining the problem, and it is bleak. Some estimate that between one third and one half of all children experience trauma. The impacts of trauma on the brain and body can be severe, pervasive and long-lasting. Trauma can contribute to challenging behavior and mental health challenges, and can negatively affect a child’s ability to learn.

It’s easy to feel hopeless.

Something we’ve known for a long time is that consistent, caring relationships are one of the biggest factors in helping children heal from trauma. Enter the teacher’s protest: “I have so many students,” “I don’t have enough time to help them all,” “There are no resources in my school.”

All of those things are true – and I do believe that we need to drastically change the education system in many ways, for the benefit of all students. But what can we do the in the meantime?

The answer, it turns out, is to sweat the small stuff.

In Bruce Perry’s updated version of The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog, endnotes add updates from current research to his classic accounting of the effects and treatment of trauma. In one section, Perry discusses the idea of “therapeutic dosing” – the question of the timing, frequency and content of therapy that best supports healing from trauma.

Indeed, long-term and enduring changes to neural networks can be created by an intense period of stimulation that lasts less than a minute. Synaptic splitting, which is one way these connections can change, can occur in meres seconds of intense stimulation – and if the intense experience is repeated four times within an hour, the change will be maintained long term.

Just as a traumatic experience can alter a life in an instant, so too can a therapeutic encounter.  

….The good news is that anyone can help with this part of ‘therapy’ – it merely requires being present in social settings and being, well, basically, kind. An attentive, attuned, and responsive person will help create opportunities for a traumatized child to control the dose and pattern of rewiring their trauma-related associations. … The more we can provide each other these moment of simple, human connection – even a brief nod or a moment of eye contact – the more we’ll be able to heal those who have suffered traumatic experience.

  -Bruce Perry , 2017 edition of The Boy who was Raised as a Dog, p 308-9

This idea of “therapeutic encounters” or “therapeutic moments” should be one of the first things we teach pre-service teachers. What I love about this concept is that it both gives us permission, and it holds us accountable. It gives us permission to play an active role in the healing of others, because that role can be a tiny empathetic moment, a personal question, a joyful high-five. It also holds us accountable, because this work isn’t too hard for any of us: none of us can say we don’t have the training, the experience, or the expertise to have a therapeutic encounter.

Now imagine that every teacher, staff member, adult in a school commits to creating therapeutic moments within the school day. Imagine they all agree to slow down just a little bit, be kinder in the hallways, use twenty seconds of passing time as an opportunity to say a genuine “It’s nice to see you” to a student. If we can create a web of therapeutic moments, interconnected by our unconditional positive regard, we can create the environment for change.

My favorite part from the quote above, again: Just as a traumatic experience can alter a life in an instant, so too can a therapeutic encounter.  You never know how the small moments can add up to change for a trauma-affected child – so let’s create a tapestry of these small moments within our schools so we all can heal.


15 thoughts on “What can one teacher really do about trauma?

  1. Great post! I hadn’t formally heard of “trauma-informed” strategies until just now; however, I certainly think often about the traumas my students have endured. When they make it to me, they’re already almost out the door. So many have experienced so much pain and loss. My heart breaks often reading their writing. Makes me love them more, for being brave and vulnerable.
    I love the notion of creating healing through moments. It makes it seem more possible and less daunting. Gives me hope that maybe I am already doing something to help, even when I feel like I’m at a loss.

    • I would suggest that the opposite of “overwhelm“ is “bouy”. Students impacted by trauma can easily be overwhelmed by grief and not understand why. But, loving kindness from staff members creates safety, trust, and the ability to develop a desire to ”try”. Our loving kindness, our “therapeutic moments” become flotation devices for students who might otherwise drown.

  2. Brilliant & timely reminders as the 2019 school year is about begin. I will ensure our team of 100 plus staff have the opportunity to read this article & reflect on the importance of every encounter.

  3. Great article…reminds me of a traumatized child in my music class. i visited them once a week. The child’s outrageous behavior was out of sync with her normal good behavior. The classroom teachers had grown weary of this new behavioral element. I took the child aside and said “I can see you’re really upset, what’s going on?” She told me through her breaking tears that the man who had molested her was getting out of jail that day, and he was staying at her house! No wonder she was upset. She was placed that same day in protective foster care, thanks to a very small, very short verbal exchange between us. One born of concern and more importantly, of paying attention.

  4. Hi Alex, a great article and gives some neuroscience to the approach we take in our school. Some astounding differences in behaviour and we are always seeking to theorise and share it. Would be great to chat at some point.

  5. Hello Alex! I have found your material very relevant to my work as a Mental Health Therapist providing consultation to local child care centres. Would I be able to print and copy this article or any others (I’m looking specifically at “8 Ways to Support Students…”) to provide to Registered Early Childhood Educators as a resource and a discussion point in our conversations about trauma-informed care?

    • Go right ahead! As long as the author/citation information is clearly on your handouts, I love it when people share out my writing. And definitely encourage those educators to reach out if they have any questions or want to connect!

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