When Kids are in their Seats, but not Present

Trauma Sensitive Schools: A perspective, not a profession

With early start times, the pressure to get good grades and the desire to fit in, no wonder some students have a hard time excelling. There are countless school-day realities ranging from bullying to disruptive behavior that can commonly distract from lesson plans.

But what about the student who seems unbothered by all of the above, yet still isn’t performing? Or worse, doesn’t seem engaged in his education at all?

Why Some Children Shut Down

Childhood adversities, such as abuse and neglect, can lead to a trauma response, which has an impact on both behavior and the ability to be available for learning.

According to The Heart of Learning and Teaching Compassion, Resiliency and Academic Success*, traumatized children are two and half times more likely than their peers to fail a grade in school. These children tend to score lower on standardized achievement tests and are frequently placed in special education classes.

“Childhood trauma can cause behaviors that aren’t necessarily disruptive, but do detract from a child’s learning experience. These include withdrawal and problems with relational engagement,” explains Kanisha Phelps, staff development and Trauma Sensitive Schools (TSS) trainer at SaintA.

Every student “spaces out” in class from time to time or becomes so absorbed in a book or a computer game that he does not seem to be aware of the world around him. However, if a child is exposed to adverse experiences, particularly ones that are frightening and from which he is unable to escape, his stress response may be to “escape” by blocking out the bad thoughts and feelings.

That child’s focus may shift from the external world to his internal world. If this pattern of stress response becomes common in the classroom, students are at risk for missing significant portions of classroom instruction and may just seem disengaged.

Help in the Classroom

Strategies that can be helpful in the classroom include grounding activities, reassuring him that he is safe and avoiding triggers whenever possible. Phelps and colleagues like Sara Daniel, senior TSS trainer and director of clinical services and staff development at SaintA discuss ways trauma impacts learning and behaviors in their 7 Essential Ingredients of Trauma Sensitive Schools Tier 2/3 Training.

Related: Read stories written by Sara Daniel

“Among other skills, our trauma sensitive school trainings teach educators to identify and understand the impact of trauma and adapt accordingly,” says Phelps. “That’s where the perspective shift begins.”

She goes on to say that when a teacher is able to reframe the question, “What’s wrong with you?” as “What’s happened to you?” the rest of the TSS skills and tactics begin to fall in place.

Read descriptions of these and other trainings

*Wolpow; Johnson; Hertel & Kincaid, 2009

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