Creating Trauma Sensitive Classrooms and Schools

We highly encourage anyone going into the field of education to become familiar with the Adverse Childhood Experience Study. Known as ACE, this research was conducted by the American health maintenance organization Kaiser Permanente and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

The participants were chosen in the mid-nineties and have been followed up as they matured. The study is frequently cited as a landmark in research and has demonstrated a direct association of adverse childhood experiences with physical and emotional health issues in later life.

Ten types of childhood trauma were identified: 

  • Physical abuse
  • Sexual abuse
  • Emotional abuse
  • Physical or emotional neglect
  • Exposure to domestic violence
  • Household substance abuse
  • Household mental illness
  • Parental separation or divorce
  • Incarcerated household member

Why is it so important that educators not only be aware of this study but take the time to investigate more deeply? Approximately one in three to four children have experienced significant ACEs. Think about an average classroom of thirty students. Statistically speaking, a teacher will be trying to teach ten to twelve children who are overwhelmed with stress hormones, leaving them in a constant state of arousal and alertness to environmental and relational threats. These kids are known to have a hard time focusing on schoolwork and tend to exhibit behavioral problems as well. In addition, many have trouble trusting people in authority and struggle to create and maintain relationships with other children. Throw into this mix your one in five highly sensitive children and it becomes obvious that attention only to academics is no longer the focus of a conscious and compassionate teacher.

These children have legitimate emotional issues and their stress levels can throw them into a state of dis-regulation with a minor challenge. Some of these children are in a chronic stress state. Instead of insisting on following rules and handing out punishments, teachers will need to broaden their skill set in teaching children how to self-regulate. The last thing we want to do as professionals is re-traumatize a child by ignoring their needs to be seen and understood.

What complicates this entire subject is the fact that many adults in power, including those who become teachers, are wounded grown ups themselves. While past generations buried their hurts and remain unconscious to the depths of the pain caused by their early traumas, the effects of ACE come out in the way we, the trusted professionals, react to our dis-regulated students.

Compassionate schooling must be as high, if not higher on our priority list as is test scores. One step in counter-acting childhood trauma is learning how to become more resilient. Setting up our classrooms to be sensitive not only to the children’s, but the adult’s emotional worlds is one way we can create a new era in mindfulness and a new definition of authentic success.