The Trauma-informed Classroom - Providing a Safe Base
It’s easy to take many aspects of the classroom environment for granted. Most children can come into the room feeling secure after separating from their parents. Many are happy to share the attention of the teacher and other staff. They are content to follow the lead of staff and peers and not always be in control. They can engage in a variety of activities and tolerate the challenge of a new task.
For children who have experienced trauma, the above factors can be extremely difficult. If their early development has been characterised by a lack of “good enough” care, their brains may be wired for self-preservation. They have arrived at school without many of the protective factors which build resilience – a nurturing and responsive relationship with an adult, consistent routines, co-regulation of emotions – and therefore find the expectations of school much more demanding than their peers.
By helping these children to feel safe and secure, we enable them to engage with us, place their trust in us and take risks with their learning. Here are some factors to consider in making the classroom a “safe base” for children who have a background of trauma and loss.
Personalised greetings can help to convey that the child is a valued member of the class, which can reduce their heightened defensiveness. Some teachers can be comfortable in engaging in elaborate fist-bump or dance routines, as seen in many YouTube videos at the moment. But this can be as simple as welcoming the child when they arrive at the door and asking about what they got up to the night before or chatting about their favourite TV show or football team.
Belonging can be cultivated when we show trust in the child. Giving them a specific job or responsibility to carry out can enable them to feel competent. It can also be a predictable part of the day where they can receive praise and positive recognition from school staff and peers. We can also think about wall displays. Instead of thirty extremely similar pieces of work with each child’s name, how about photographs of the children being successful and having fun when learning? Ensuring the child is featured in school website photos (with parental/guardian consent) can also achieve this aim. For the child who has experienced trauma, this can be a concrete reminder that school is a safe and positive environment.
A typical day at school features a number of transitions. We can alleviate anxiety about various changes throughout the day by actively communicating the schedule of activities. Referring to a whole-class visual timetable or the use of an individual visual schedule can help the child to anticipate what is happening now and next. Consistent routines are important. We can use verbal or visual countdowns to help the child anticipate a transition and provide extra structure. The latter might involve using song or rhythm for tidy up time or using visual labelling for where to sit on the carpet or where to stand when lining up.
The use of a “First…then…” approach is often recommended for children with Autism, but it can also work in the context of trauma. A child who has frequently been let down or prevented from finishing enjoyable activities may not trust that they will get to do something they enjoy after an initial task. We can say “First we do our maths, then you’ll have time with the Lego” and show this visually during times when the child is stressed or anxious. There will always be occasions when the normal routine is disrupted, such as a member of staff being absent or outdoor play being restricted by weather. It’s important to make the child aware of these changes and explain why they have happened with empathy for their feelings and reassurance about what is happening instead.
A classroom environment with high levels of organisation can help to reduce stress for children who have experienced adversity. Start with seating arrangements. For children who are hypervigilant and quick to perceive threat or stress, ensure that they are sitting in an area where they have clear visibility of the room and can see who comes and goes. Proximity to a supportive adult and positive peer role models should be considered. Avoid arbitrary changes to seating where possible, as these children thrive on the safety of a consistent vantage point.
We can also minimise organisational demands through increased visual structure. Areas of the classroom should be clearly labelled with key words and/or pictures, so that the child knows where to retrieve specific books and equipment. Visual checklists can help to break learning tasks down into smaller steps and give reminders for how to get started to a task (e.g. taking out a pencil, opening their book to a new page, etc).
Children with backgrounds of trauma typically find it very hard to regulate their emotions and express them appropriately, due to their lack of experience with a responsive adult who has modelled such skills. Key adults supporting these children will need to regularly label emotions and wonder aloud about how the child may be feeling. It will be important for them to receive non-judgemental acceptance and empathy for the thoughts and feelings behind a behaviour. The use of stories, puppets and cartoons can be safe ways of discussing and expressing emotions.
We also need to provide ways of managing emotions throughout the day. A preventative approach would involve a sensory diet. For example, the child who is constantly fidgeting or leaving their seat may need scheduled movement breaks which allow for stimulation of the muscles and joints. We should facilitate personalised calming activities for times when emotions escalate. These might include deep breathing exercises, listening to music, rhythmic tapping/drumming, constructing items with Lego, making things with play doh or slime or reading a favourite story. Some of these items could be kept in a sensory box which is close to hand. It’s important that we also identify a safe space for the child to go to when they are in a dysregulated state. There might be room at the back of the classroom for a sofa or bean bags to relax on. A calm corner could also be a designated area of the corridor outside the classroom, which they can go to with a key adult.
Children with a background of trauma and loss can often find it difficult to concentrate and fully engage with learning tasks, due to their brains being flooded with powerful emotions. When they lack the same ability as their peers to cope with stress, we need to ensure that the curriculum is modified to accommodate their needs and help them to feel safe when not knowing how to complete a task. If the child struggles to remember and retain information, we need to provide simpler and repetitive instructions and active demonstration. New information can be made more familiar and meaningful if new tasks are explicitly linked with previous tasks or real-life experiences.
Some children may take longer to engage in visual scanning and discrimination. We may need to reduce or conceal the amount of information on a worksheet and provide additional time for them to complete written assignments. The blank page at the beginning of a writing task may be anxiety-provoking – they may need additional scaffolding through numbered bullet points to sequence their ideas or writing frames and key word lists for structuring their response. We can also enable them to show their understanding of a concept through verbal questioning or multiple choice. Keep in mind that following the agenda of an adult can be hard for some of these children, since such agendas have been scary or disappointing in the past. We can help to build trust by incorporating some element of choice and control. For example, the child could choose which part of the task to complete first or which materials to use.
Nurturing and supportive relationships are the foundation of safety. You can refer to my previous blog posts on the care-giving formula of PACE. But we need to consider what kind of proximity is comfortable for the child. Some may be easily unsettled by too much help. They will benefit from tasks with minimal adult instruction or feedback which is given to a group of peers including the child. Others may find it very hard to tolerate separation from a member of staff. They will need explicit commentaries about their effort and reassurance about how long they are expected to work independently before re-engaging with the adult. Such reassurance may be communicated through visual timers, transitional objects or post-it note reminders of when you will be back to check on their progress.
We can also consider how to promote effective relationships with peers. Some children who have experienced trauma may feel safer engaging with a member of staff within the context of a group of friends. Others may find it hard to follow the lead of peers and negotiate in group activities. These children may require a clear and specific role to carry out, so that they can interact with peers in a consistent and predictable manner. Key adults working with the child will need to model pro-social behaviour and how to resolve conflicts with peers. Providing opportunities to talk about or indulge in the child’s personal strengths and interests can also foster positive and optimistic interactions.
As with so many of the factors outlined above, we can establish a sense of safety and security by providing experiences which may have been lacking or inadequate elsewhere.
Key References and/or Recommended Reading
· Geddes, H. (2006). Attachment in the Classroom: The links between children’s early experience, emotional well-being and performance in school. London: Worth Publishing Ltd.
· Delaney, M. (2010). What can I do with the kid who…: A teacher’s quick guide to dealing with disruptive pupils (and their parents). London: Worth Publishing Ltd.
· Ruby, F. (Ed) (2019). Beyond the Boxall Profile: Whole-Class Strategies. Helping children succeed emotionally, socially and academically within the mainstream classroom and other small settings. London: The Nurture Group Network Ltd.