Classrooms are places where stories are shared and often, often in unexpected moments, children can share stories about traumas they have experienced in their lives. For this reason, Angela Wiseman, associate professor of literacy at NC State College of Education, says it’s important for educators to have the necessary preparation and understanding to engage in trauma-informed teaching.
Trauma can refer to any event that challenges a person’s sense of physical, emotional, social, or moral safety. Trauma can happen at a domestic and individual level – such as emotional or physical abuse, family separation due to issues such as homelessness or imprisonment or illness – or at a community and global level – such as natural disasters and poverty or, more recently, issues of racial injustice and the ongoing COVID 19 pandemic.
Wiseman, whose research focuses on a trauma-informed approach to family skills and preparing teachers who can implement trauma-informed practices in the classroom, said treating trauma issues in students begins with normalizing various experiences happening in the world through their classroom and actions.
“Some of the components that are really important when working with teachers are that they need to create classrooms that are safe and acceptable places, and the importance of bearing witness when telling stories. In other words, acknowledge that these stories happened and that this child had legitimate experiences,” she said. “When teachers take a trauma-centric approach, they really build a community and acknowledge what can happen when difficult experiences and stories are told, and how students can support one another when difficult stories are told.”
Make classrooms a safe space to share
As mental health issues, such as anxiety and depression, rise among children and adolescents in the second year of the pandemic, Wiseman believes trauma-focused pedagogy is important for all students, especially since teachers don’t know everything students went through during the time classes were online took place.
Wiseman found that children have experienced even more stress over the past two years. For example, many children have lost family members or caregivers as a result of the pandemic, and normal classroom activities could serve as a trigger for students to tell these stories. For example, reading a story about family can cause a child to start thinking about a loved one who has passed away and to talk about their loss.
It’s important for teachers to acknowledge their students’ feelings in such situations and reassure them that the classroom is a safe place to express their feelings.
“When it comes to difficult topics, you often want to quickly deviate from the conversation, but that can be really difficult for children. If they share their feelings and they come to you about it and you’re not sure how to acknowledge it, it can cause them to relive those feelings,” Wiseman said.
Teachers need to be prepared for moments when trauma-related stories surface, but ideally, says Wiseman, teachers shouldn’t have to deal with trauma issues alone.
Teachers interact with their students on a daily basis and are therefore well placed to notice when a student’s behavior changes or when they express something that suggests they have experienced trauma. Although teachers are often the first step in acknowledging or recognizing a problem, working with social workers and psychologists is key to treating trauma issues.
“Teachers have some knowledge and see children from the classroom perspective, but I hope that we will work with social workers, counselors and community organizations so that we can get support for children who really need it. And right now, there’s an increasing number of kids who need resources and support in different ways,” Wiseman said.
Wilsman’s own research brings teachers and social workers together in schools and communities through her ongoing project Trauma Informed Practice Support (TIPS), an interdisciplinary approach to trauma developed in collaboration with Qiana Cryer-Coupet, an associate professor at the NC State College of Humanities was and social science faculty for social work. The project linked research to professional development for prospective and in-service teachers and social workers to help them provide trauma-informed support to students while being mindful of the contexts in which they work.
The use of picture books to treat trauma problems
Wiseman, whose research also focuses on analyzing children’s picture books, said picture books for young children can be a great tool teachers can use in the classroom to normalize a variety of different experiences.
“Picture books can make people’s different experiences understandable or confirm the experiences they have had. When children see themselves in books, they can see that we know there are different experiences, you are welcome here, and your life and experiences are represented here, in this classroom and in this place,” Wiseman said.
When choosing picture books for their classes, Wiseman recommends that teachers focus primarily on recently published books. She recommends using those published within the last decade, as some, but not all, older books may present outdated or problematic accounts of different groups. Additionally, more recent books tend to focus on more relevant social issues.
“There are some really good books that are older, but we need to look at our more recent insights into different social issues and how they’re presented now,” she said. “Finding quality books is challenging, so I think it’s best to really engage with online resources that highlight the experiences of different communities and different demographics.”
To find appropriate and diverse books, Wiseman recommends using the Brown Bookshelf, which focuses on books by black authors, highlights diverse children’s literature, publishes book reviews, and hosts author book talks throughout the year.
The Children’s Literature Assembly (CLA), a nonprofit association of scholars, critics, professors, students, librarians, teachers, and institutions dedicated to the academic study of children’s literature, also offers a variety of resources, including a blog that and a variety of books with a particular emphasis on those highlighting diverse social justice experiences and issues.
Two picture books that Wiseman recommends for use in the classroom are Milo imagines the world by Matt de la Peña and Christian Robinson and Drawn together by Mihn Lee and Dan Santat.
Milo imagines the world tells the story of a little boy who visits his father in prison and what he notices as he takes the subway there.
“It’s something you could read in the classroom because it portrays an everyday kid that’s very relatable, but it shows the diversity of their family situation,” Wiseman said.
Drawn together is the story of a little boy who is dropped off at his grandfather’s. The duo struggles to relate due to language barriers and cultural differences, but ultimately bond over a shared love of drawing. Although the book does not specifically deal with trauma, Wiseman uses it in her family literacy program to help fathers who have been separated from their children understand how they experience feelings of separation and come together with children in different ways be able.
“I actually like open books that don’t deal directly with trauma, but where people can think about how to deal with it in their own way,” she said.
Other resources for trauma-informed teaching
Beyond picture books, Wiseman recommends teachers who want to use a trauma-informed approach visit the Learning for Justice website to build community and acknowledge different ways of thinking and behaving within the classroom.
To help in-service and part-time teachers gain a basic understanding of the long-lasting effects of trauma on children, Wiseman also encourages educators to listen to Nadine Burke Harris’ TED Talk, How Childhood Trauma Affects Health Across a Lifetime ” to watch.
“Once you’ve experienced trauma, the effects can linger for so long, so I think it’s important to recognize that often when something happens to children, it spreads throughout the lifespan,” Wiseman said.