Mimio Educator

When “Trauma Informed” Isn’t Enough

Posted by Kelly Bielefeld on Tue, Mar 10, 2020

When Trauma Informed is not Enough

As a teacher, you have been through all the training. You buy into it, you embrace it, you are as “trauma informed” as possible. You know about ACEs, toxic stress, and restorative justice. Your classroom reflects all of the best practices that we know. You always ensure that Maslow comes before Bloom and you know that in order to learn students must have the executive functioning capable of doing so.

And it works. You have seen it work and have seen students make great strides in every aspect of their schooling: attendance, behavior, academics, and social skills. You are a believer.

Until the new student arrives.

This student is challenging, more so than any student before. The emotions are out of control, learning isn’t happening for him/her or for the other students. No matter what strategies are put in place, they destroy the room day after day. You know that a suspension won’t change the behavior. You know that you can’t “punish” your way out of the situation, but this goes above and beyond anything you have heard at a training. There is no self-regulation and the tools that you have in your toolbox aren’t working. Dealing with this trauma is like nothing you have ever experienced. You, and probably your students, are feeling the traumatic effects of this student’s behavior. You know he would do better if he could, but he can’t...and you can’t either.

What do we do when being trauma informed isn’t enough?

Some might disagree with my premise; they might believe that trauma informed practices always work with kids, especially with the most challenging. I don’t disagree that these strategies do really work will work with all kids. I don’t think it serves any of us to ignore the important point that doing it the “right way” takes immense time, effort, and resources. The harsh reality in most classrooms is that even if the teacher's effort is high, resources and time might be the issue.

It is really no different than teaching reading. With unlimited time and resources, could we, in theory, teach all students to read? Yes, I think we could. So why don’t we? Because with our current models and efficiencies, we can teach almost all students to read. While this really isn’t good enough, it is the best we can do with the resources we have. It is also why teachers search for answers like summer school, retention, and special education or at-risk services. Teachers know that students need support outside of their classrooms...they just don’t always know where to find it. 

Just like in reading, every now and then we end up with a student whose behavioral needs surpass the strategies that we have in place. We know we need to support students’ regulation, we need to offer interventions and not punishments. All of the training is there, but none of it is enough for this one student.

One response to this from the teacher is to revert back to traditional punitive practices that might have worked in the past with some students. A teacher might throw in the towel on any kind of different or trauma informed practices. They might find that some of the most universal principals work for most, but not all. And it really isn’t the principals that don’t work, but the timing and intensity of the strategy that is really the issue.

As a teacher, what can you do? These tips can help to weather the storm.

  1. It is all about time. The variable in most learning situations that matters the most is time. Whether it is math facts, reading, or behavior, students might need more time to learn it. It is hard to find the individual time with a student who is struggling in the classroom, so by spreading the work around to other adults in the building, it can make it much more manageable. The librarian could do a check in/check out each day. The special ed teacher might do the brain breaks with the student. The social worker can manage the student’s school job. All of this time with preferred adults in non-contingent settings help the student to do better and the teacher to manage the classroom better.

  2. Start everyday fresh. This is a tough one. As humans, when we are hurt by something, we remember that hurt and try to stay away from it. The problem with students who have experienced abuse is that their “language” of love is completely distorted. They might try to find love and relationships in the unhealthy ways (such as getting sent to the office to get individual attention). Each day has to be a lesson in reversing the trends of the student's life, even though that is easier said than done.

  3. Trust the process, even when it isn’t working. One of the best parts of being a building principal is that I have been able to watch students grow. From year to year, it is amazing the changes that take place. When a teacher feels that their trauma informed practices didn’t work, sometimes it just takes time. This is incredibly hard for the teacher while he or she is in the midst of it, but it does happen and it does pay off. 

To conclude...trauma informed practices work, even when they don’t. Teachers should fight the good fight and follow best practices to the best of their ability. In the end, it will pay off for the student.

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