February 10, 2020
Great research momentum is building on adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and the impact they can have throughout life. This research provides a new window into the thoughts and emotions of what may be a troubling number of your students. Consider for a moment what the view might be from their side of that window. Is it a jungle out there?
Ask yourself, “Do I see a pattern of any of these behaviors in a student I’m concerned might be experiencing trauma?”
- Inappropriate displays of emotion, whether anger, crying, or even laughter that’s not appropriate to context
- Withdrawal from activities or peers, especially when others are enjoying themselves
- Tendency to jump at sudden sounds that don’t startle others
- Expression of distressing thoughts, either verbally or through drawings
- Ongoing complaints of a stomachache or headache
- Quickly changing emotions
- Habitual absences
If you answered “yes,” that student may well feel like getting through each day is like navigating a jungle. One common finding in children who’ve experienced trauma is a heightened state of arousal, which can resemble a sensory processing disorder. This could mean hypersensitivity to sounds, lights, touch or movement. Your 21st CCLC program could feel as loud and overwhelming to a student as a Grateful Dead concert would to Grandpa. But before you go lowering the lights, demanding silence from everyone, and pushing for 6-foot personal bubbles, bear in mind these essential tips for building resilience:
Encourage doing for others. When students feel they’ve helped another person, especially if they have a unique gift to share, it boosts their confidence and sense of purpose.
Be positive. The old fake-it-till-you-make-it adage came about for good reason. There’s a wealth of data on the impact of gratitude in one’s life. Transition times are a great opportunity to play with positivity. Maybe students can quickly call out their favorite dessert or color as they pass under the overhead fire alarm, starting their turn with “I LOVE….”
Create safe opportunities to socialize. Humans are unquestionably social creatures. Of course, circumstances matter. Be intentional in grouping students into small groups for looser activities, especially when you suspect a student may be dealing with trauma.
Talk about feelings. Remind students that there are no bad feelings to have. Naming feelings instead of pushing them away helps people process emotions so that they can move forward.
Reinforce and exhibit good self-care habits. A sense of powerlessness is likely to plague traumatized students. Healthy eating, sleeping and exercise habits may not be fully within their control, but you can talk up simple practices like treating oneself to dancing around the room for exercise, getting outdoors as much as your program allows, or taking a 10-minute “power nap” to get back some of that lost power. (Stress management ideas are available on Y4Y).
Help students think constructively about the future. Universally, children are focused on the future. That is where most of their living lies, after all. Thoughts and dreams of a better life are not exclusive to students of any demographic, but an understanding of how to get there may be. Make a practice of brainstorming as a group how, for example, a student whose parents can’t afford college could become an engineer. Better still, bring in visitors who have personal stories like this to share.
Remember that behind every success story are a few whopper “failures.” Maybe you’ve heard the saying “Failure is the breakfast of champions.” It’s not failure itself that feeds success; it’s what you learn from it. You can embed the practice of thinking about something constructive you’ve learned from failures — whether it’s something as small as spilling water on the floor or something more significant, like failing a test or a class — into every undertaking. It’s not a true failure if wisdom is gained.
Get students to think for themselves. Ask leading questions instead of offering solutions to problems or dilemmas. Help students view problems as jigsaw puzzles: the person to place the last piece is the one who finishes the puzzle. How gratifying it is for a student to solve her own puzzle.
Researchers and frontline professionals are in agreement that even a single nurturing, attentive connection with an adult — and it truly could be any adult who has the child’s best interests at heart — improves the odds that a child who has experienced trauma will succeed in building resilience and overcoming ACEs. Put on that big yellow hat and be prepared to fight your way through the jungle together.
Check out Y4Y’s Click & Go on Trauma-Informed Care for more ways to serve these very special students.