This article will discuss research on both adverse and positive childhood experiences and how the findings can inform and transform your classroom.
Understanding Trauma & Adverse Childhood Experiences
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention define Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE’s) as “potentially traumatic events that occur in childhood (0-17 years).” ACE’s include physical, emotional, and sexual abuse, physical and emotional neglect, and household dysfunction, such as adult caregivers suffering substance abuse, incarceration, divorce, mental illness, and domestic violence. ACE’s are associated with “multiple physical health impairments in adulthood, including heart disease, obesity and type 2 diabetes” (NCBI). Research shows that “in 2016, 34 million children —nearly half of all US children—had at least one of nine ACEs, and more than 20 percent had two or more.”
Currently, the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) discusses the need for universal trauma-informed care due to the implications of the COVID-19 pandemic: “In fact, the response to the…pandemic may be amplifying some ACEs. There are several ways in which ACEs may be exacerbated by the social isolation, job loss, school closures, and other stressors unleashed by the pandemic.” This current situation is increasing intra-familial adversity, as well as adding to already high levels of toxic stress in the home due to parental anxiety and depression, which has adverse effects on child brain development.
Understanding Trauma & Positive Childhood Experiences
In September of 2019, researcher Christina Bethell of Johns Hopkins University authored a study on Positive Childhood Experiences (PCEs). Bethell’s findings show that “…even as society continues to address remediable causes of childhood adversities such as ACEs, attention should be given to the creation of those positive experiences that both reflect and generate resilience within children, families, and communities” (emphasis added). Because studies show that low-income, ethnically diverse, and other marginalized people suffer significantly higher rates of exposure to ACE’s, Bethell points out that “success will depend on full engagement of families and communities and changes in the health care, education, and social services systems serving children and families” (JAMA Network).
Positive childhood experiences exist in the home, as well as in community spaces, such as clubs, activity groups, civic organizations, schools, and spiritual communities.
- feeling physically safe and secure
- being able to count on an adult for protection and support
- having an adult you can turn to in times of need
- feeling heard and seen
- having an adult that will listen and talk through difficult situations and emotions
- experiencing a sense of connection and belonging
- having at least one non-parent adult show sincere interest in you as a person
Application: Trauma-Informed Teaching as Positive Childhood Experiences
Childhood experiences have lifelong implications whether they are adverse or positive, and the affirming experiences help to buffer the negative ones. Research tells us that over half of our students will come to school experiencing at least one ACE (SAMHSA). Using trauma-informed practices will ensure every child is cared for. As a classroom teacher you have the opportunity to create supportive, encouraging, and affirming experiences for your students no matter their household circumstances. When the children walk into your classroom, your calm, predictable, and welcoming presence can act as one of the most impactful mitigating factors of their day.
Creating a safe-enough space in your class by establishing calming and predictable routines will allow your students to move toward prosocial behavior. And this will allow their social engagement system to override established nervous system habits of being on high alert, looking for threats, and maintaining vigilant, protective behaviors, which drains energy quickly. Once a student can settle into a sense of trust, safety, and predictability, the brain can shift from functioning in survival mode (using the brainstem and amygdala) to learning readiness (using the limbic system and prefrontal cortex).
The Calm Factor
You and your nervous system are the most important part of creating a calm and predictable classroom environment. Because children’s nervous systems take cues from the adults around them (both in-person and online), the best thing you can do is practice calming strategies you know work for you. This doesn’t mean you’re always calm, content, and blissed out. It means that you’ll be better able to respond to stressful situations. The students will be able to count on you to manage your own emotions. They will see you practicing mindful awareness alongside them, and they’ll see you actively applying social-emotional skills in real-time. When your students don’t have to worry about their teacher having a quick temper or erratic behavior, their nervous system will be able to maintain balance, and their brain will continue to allow access to the prefrontal cortex making learning not only possible but fun.
Experiment with adding five minutes to your morning routine to decrease the likelihood of feeling rushed and increase the opportunities to feel at ease going into your day. Being mindful in the morning can establish an intention to be mindful throughout the afternoon and into the evening. Use your five mindful minutes for:
- breathing practices
- grounding and centering practices
- mindful movement
- eating a nourishing breakfast
- driving slowly
- doing nothing!
These are just a few suggestions. Choose something that works for you, commit to it every day for two weeks and notice the effects.
Creating routines directly impacts the level of predictability in your classroom. Not only will this care for trauma-related learning challenges, but it will also make the school day a little easier for everyone, including you. This is true for the digital classroom as well as traditional in-person learning spaces. Key areas that benefit from routines are processes and transitions. Below is a shortlist of some ideas to get you started.
- entering class in the morning and settling into the room
- taking attendance and lunch counts
- logging into the digital classroom and getting comfortable with the screens, video boxes, and controls
- turning in or submitting work
- staying in touch during remote learning
- moving from one activity to another
- returning from lunch, recess, other classrooms
- taking restroom breaks
- shifting from individual work time to group sharing
- transitioning from one topic or subject to another
Once processes are set up, they pretty much take care of themselves. Transitions, however, take a little extra nurturing. For instance, most of us benefit from an indication that change is coming. Students are no different. Consider adding an audible cue to let students know you’ll be transitioning in a minute or two. Try something like soothing music or a soft chime to indicate that one activity is coming to a close and another is about to begin. This allows the child’s nervous system to activate, reorient, and come back to balance because they know the routine and feel safe in it.
4 Tips & Takeaways
- Share your five minutes of mindfulness with a friend or partner, and try out each other’s ideas to create a sense of community and connection.
- When it comes to routines, there’s no need to strive toward any unrealistic standard of constant order. Let go of rigidity to leave room for vitality and pleasant surprises. Instead of becoming derailed by missteps or perceived failures, offer yourself and your students the grace to be human, make mistakes, learn, and keep going.
- If you know of specific students who have a particularly difficult time, establish some routines just for them that won’t disturb the rest of the class. Or, create routines based on one student’s needs and allow that to benefit everyone.
- Calm is catchy – any little bit of steady, grounded routines and interactions combined with your centered presence will have lasting positive effects on your students.
*If you’re interested in exploring PCEs further, check out this article by Mary Kreitz at Child & Adolescent Behavioral Health.
Amy Secrist, Mindfulness and Yoga Educator (E-RYT 300+), brings 20 years of personal yoga practice and over 16 years of yoga teaching experience to Mind Body Align. She is a trained instructor of trauma-based mindful education. In addition to teaching the MBAwareness Program, she is co-creator of social emotional learning curriculum content. Amy earned her BA in English and Writing from The Ohio State University and her MA in English and Writing from The Bread Loaf School of English at Middlebury College, Vermont. Amy is married to Jeremy and has four school-aged children.