Roughly half of children in the U.S. have experienced some form of trauma, making it critical that educators consider trauma-informed approaches to teaching. This form of instruction recognizes that students’ actions are a direct result of their experiences. It also considers how the brain’s cognitive abilities are affected by trauma and can inhibit learning from taking place.
As the sole art teacher at a Brooklyn, N.Y. elementary school, I have worked with many students who have experienced trauma. I teach the entire student population as they move from pre-K to fifth grade, and my prolonged work with these students has led me to develop specific strategies, like interest-based learning and teaching through a cognitive lens, which have brought personal and academic success to students with trauma.
The cognitive effects of trauma require educators to provide learning modalities and support systems that break down complex information, focus on goal-setting and improve self-esteem. People who experience trauma may live in “survival brain,” which is hyper-focused on threat and overshadows our “learning brain,” which is when we are available to take in new information and grow—the ideal state for students. By understanding the cognitive differences that students with trauma possess, educators can be better equipped to facilitate safe, positive and predictable learning experiences in the classroom.
In my experience, providing students with choices is an effective way to get them engaged and learning. Interest-based learning is beneficial because it focuses on the individual student, using their passions and strengths to engage and motivate. In my art classes, I offer a variety of activity options that students can choose from, as well as different resources and materials they can use. This flexibility helps me build relationships and trust with each learner.
I once taught a student with trauma who only approached art experiences if robots and cardboard boxes were involved. As a trauma-informed teacher, I let go of my desire for the student to participate in whole class activities, like self-portrait drawing, and tailored my lessons to meet his needs. Sometimes this resulted in the student beginning art class by taping together a robot out of boxes. After capturing his engagement, I would prompt him to integrate drawing or painting into his creation, to meet the learning goals for the class. By reframing and redirecting academic experiences to align with my student’s interests, I was able to engage him and drive learning forward.
Breaking Down Complex Information
As students move through the school years, they’re expected to retain most of the information they were taught in previous grades. While there is often a beginning-of-year review, curriculum quickly switches to new content. For students, this requires memory consolidation, which relies on short-term memories turning into long-term ones. For a student with trauma, memory consolidation is underdeveloped or nonexistent. So, when a teacher presents an assignment that requires previous knowledge to complete, students with trauma may struggle.
Consider the effects of the current pandemic on students. The collective trauma associated with staying home and away from school for an extended period of time—not to mention students who have experienced the death of a relative or whose caretakers have lost jobs or wages—will have serious consequences on students’ abilities to engage in memory consolidation during remote learning. Educators must consider this when planning lessons for students by appropriately breaking down complex assignments into segments and checking for comprehension each step of the way.
Because the area of the brain most affected by trauma is connected to executive functioning, students are likely to struggle with analyzing complex data. When a student with trauma is presented with something too complicated to process, it can trigger disengagement or an emotional response such as leaving the classroom or expressing rage. This can be mediated when the teacher plans ahead with the appropriate support strategies, like anchor charts.
Anchor charts are a crucial tool to help students break down complex information and make connections to previously learned content. These charts display visual information in the form of words and often pictures. To adapt anchor charts for students with trauma, they should offer a set of tasks using check boxes or numbers. Using numeric steps or check boxes that direct students on how to consecutively move through a task will assist in the process of goal-setting.
One of the anchor charts I use with my elementary students. (Ava Cotlowitz)
Goals That Motivate
Goal-setting is a proven motivator. This guide from Mentoring Minds provides a nice overview for helping students set behavioral and academic goals.
When a student can check off a box that indicates they’ve completed a goal, there is a feeling of success, which leads to internal confidence and motivation to keep going. The more the teacher can break down large tasks into a series of smaller, manageable, and incremental goals, the more likely a student with trauma will derive positive emotions from the learning experience.
From Stress to Success
Trauma also affects the executive functioning area of the brain through self-narration. Students with trauma often have difficulty mentally talking themselves through what they need to do as they carry out a task. While anchor charts visually support students with self-narration, teacher modeling is another way to help students observe and comprehend complex processes.
I have also discovered that video tutorials are highly effective. Video tutorials often visually and verbally narrate a task from the beginning to its end. For a student who struggles with the ability to self-narrate, video tutorials can be a source of comfort and clarity.
I have observed my students use how-to-draw videos in the art room and watched how students who were previously disengaged from art class suddenly became engaged. These students frequently paused the videos after each line was drawn, showing the smallest incremental advances on their papers. The how-to-draw videos empowered my students to control the pace of their learning. A feeling of success accompanied each mark made, however small, and motivated my students to stay in the learning experience.
As educators, we all want our students to experience academic success. By understanding the cognitive needs of our students with trauma, we are better positioned to support their abilities and make learning feel safe.