Awareness Helps Students and Staff Break the Trauma Cycle in the Classroom


May 31, 2023
Dr. Lori Desautels

We live in an ever-changing world. In the past 10 years alone, social media, the pandemic, gun violence in schools, and more have all increased feelings of panic and stress. And these traumatic incidents are overwhelming students and teachers in classrooms across America.

For many years, I have been working with CPI to promote greater awareness and adoption of trauma-informed teaching practices. That’s because awareness is one of the most powerful tools we have as educators to manage trauma for ourselves and our students. It allows us to break the cycle of trauma that makes us all feel less safe—and more vulnerable to aggressive behaviors.

To do this, it’s important to understand our own adult nervous system: why we react to certain circumstances, and how recognizing the sensations in our body can help us prepare for—and prevent—reactions that may negatively affect our students.

Being consistently mindful of our own trauma responses can help us throughout our day-to-day interactions with students, parents and colleagues. It’s also the first step toward creating a safer and more effective learning environment.

But before we can be mindful about how our body responds to trauma, we first need to define it.

Trauma is Personal—but Also Universal

When many of us hear the word trauma, we generally think of severe, acute trauma: acts of violence, the deaths of loved ones, accidents, or natural disasters. The truth is, trauma lives on a continuum. Day-to-day stressors being on one end of the spectrum, and those more vivid examples on the other.

Throughout our lives, we all experience some degree of developmental or relational trauma—whether it’s from our parents or classmates. The importance of feeling safe is deeply seated in our genes. Because of that, even small trauma touches us all to some degree and ultimately shapes our stress responses.

In our last blog, Guy Stephens and I discussed essential brain science. Understanding brain development gives us a better understanding of students’ reactions to different stimuli, many of which are shaped by trauma.

But it’s equally important to acknowledge that our own adult brains have been shaped by trauma in the same way. And we need to be aware of how that trauma shapes our reactions. As adults, we have greater control over our impulses. Our responsibility is to use that control to create a feeling of safety and support within our classrooms, rather than relying on punishment.

The Body-Brain-Trauma Connection

The brain is only one part of the equation when it comes to our physiological stress and trauma responses. The brain connects to all parts of our body through the central nervous system. A brain affected by trauma has been fundamentally rewired. So much so, that it even impacts the way our physical body responds. This is why two people can experience the same event but react to it in completely different ways, emotionally and physically.

Stress and trauma responses are part of our body’s biology. Different sensations help cue us to run from danger or to defend ourselves. It’s part of the reason humans have been able to change and thrive over hundreds of thousands of years.

When we feel threatened, physically or emotionally, our body reacts instinctively, triggering our autonomic nervous system. The autonomic nervous system is responsible for our body’s unconscious processes, like our heart rate and breathing.

You’re probably somewhat aware of your own stress responses. Some people feel hot or lightheaded. Others may sweat or feel dizzy. These physical sensations are the language of our autonomic nervous system, preparing our bodies for fight or flight, or to shut down.

According to the organization Mental Health Systems, “Traumatic events push the nervous system outside its ability to regulate itself. For some, the system gets stuck in the ‘on’ position, and the person is overstimulated and unable to calm. Anxiety, anger, restlessness, panic, and hyperactivity can all result when you stay in this ready-to-react mode. This physical state of hyperarousal is stressful for every system in the body. In other people, the nervous system is stuck in the ‘off’ position, resulting in depression, disconnection, fatigue and lethargy. People can alternate between these highs and lows.

This is where awareness becomes critical.

The early bodily sensations we experience in stressful situations are our first warning signal. As an adult, using these cues to get in front of our own behavior can make a powerful difference in how we interact with our students, and how our students can learn from us.

Being mindful of our body’s physical responses to stress and trauma allows us to refrain from personalizing someone else’s behavior. It also helps prevent our physical impulses from controlling our ultimate reaction.

Trauma is All Around Us—Today More Than Ever

As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, educators today must contend with many new challenges. What makes those challenges unique is how traumatizing they are for teachers and students alike.

Going back again to our ancestors, the hunters and gatherers, a sense of belonging was essential. If you were ostracized from your group, your chances of survival were minimal. The biological makeup of our nervous system is still about survival. But now, it’s affected by the social and emotional ostracism a human may feel, and the trauma that it can cause.

Consider how students today depend on social media for approval and acceptance. The 24/7 pressure creates undue stress for students to fit in or be cast out. On top of that, students frequently witness school violence in the news and practice active shooter drills. Add this to the unprecedented uncertainty caused by the pandemic. Suddenly, “normal” school stressors like tests and exams seem small by comparison.

Put together, these stressors have deeply disrupted our students’ nervous systems, making depression, anxiety, attention deficit disorders and reactive behavior more prevalent in classrooms. Today's science tells us that the societal and environmental stressors taken in combination have become neurobiologically detrimental to generations of youth in this crucial time, as they move through puberty and into adulthood.

Our modern adolescent youth crisis of well-being is not just a psychological phenomenon, but a biological one. That’s why awareness of our biology—and finding strategies to temper our stress responses—are more critical than ever.

Finding Hope in Awareness and Intention

Children didn’t cause the challenges we’re facing in today’s world. It’s unrealistic to expect children to be mild-mannered and even-tempered in an era of unpredictability. Especially if the adults in the room are struggling to manage their own stress responses.

The contagious nature of our autonomic nervous system states is felt by the children around us. When we are triggered by trauma and react negatively, kids see and feel those responses, and their developing brains are shaped by it. More importantly, when we move out of states of disconnection into states of protection, so do our students. They mirror us.

A shift in perspective can help us focus on the sensations of our experience, as the creation of intentional routines and resources eases our own stress. I recommend all educators explore practices and strategies to begin developing awareness of what the nervous system is telling them and become more intentional about giving themselves space to manage their reactions.

If you or your team are looking for more resources, CPI has done incredible work to develop resilient educators and offers many training programs that provide strategies and techniques focus on the Care, Welfare, Safety, and SecuritySM of all students and staff. Their evidence-based, trauma-informed behavior management and crisis prevention approaches are designed for all levels of educational professionals, from district administrators to classroom staff.

Maintaining mindfulness helps us focus on the things we can control. Rather than lashing out instinctively or withdrawing from a situation, awareness helps us take better care of ourselves and protect our students from the traumatic effects of punishment. It’s a small but important step we can each take to promote greater safety and stability in an unpredictable world.

Dr. Lori Desautels is an assistant professor in the College of Education at Butler University in Indianapolis, Indiana. Lori was also an assistant professor at Marian University in Indianapolis, where she founded the Educational Neuroscience Symposium, now sponsored by Butler University. Lori creates webinars for educators, clinicians, and administrators illustrating how educators and students alike must understand their neuroanatomy to regulate behavior and calm the brain. You can learn more about her work at Revelations In Education.

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