Trauma-Informed Instruction in Early Childhood Education

We all know a child labeled as a “problem child” often exhibits disruptive behavior and has difficulty making friends, communicating or focusing. It used to be common to write off these traits as some form of maladjustment or flaw. However, early childhood educators and therapists are now more aware that these types of behavior are not flaws but often reactions due to trauma suffered during infancy and that can improve with the proper support.

“Teachers and caregivers have long understood that children impacted by trauma, including abuse, illness, family conflict, and grief, need additional emotional and developmental support. Young children living with trauma can be easily overcome by fear, anxiety, or aggression, and often have difficulty connecting with others,” according to Teaching Channel. “We can help young students overcome their adverse experiences and thrive in our care when we use trauma-sensitive strategies.”

These strategies are essential for children’s growth and cognitive development into healthy and stable young adults. Though kids usually seek help from an authority figure — such as a parent, older family member or educator — those with previous negative experiences tend to have difficulty expressing how they feel or reaching out to someone. As an educator, it’s crucial to intervene when you notice a child who may be afflicted by trauma. Sometimes, one must try multiple approaches to create a safe, trauma-sensitive classroom.

Starting with Basics

Teachers are not therapists or social workers — their main job is to educate. Therefore, expecting educators to single-handedly cure a student of their trauma is unrealistic. What they can do, however, is teach boundaries and give kids a parameter for expectations around social behavior.

As Roisleen Todd for Edutopia points out, “If we never teach a child how to ask for a turn, we cannot fairly administer a consequence when they yell and grab the toy from another student — we have no way of ensuring that they have ever learned or seen modeled a different way of solving this problem.”

So, the first step is to go back to the basics and teach children to be respectful and ask for what they want and need. Educators must be sure not to treat them unfairly when they react before being taught what to do. This will create an environment where consistency and safety are key, making “[s]tudents feel safe when they know what to expect,” writes Todd. Little by little, students will start feeling like their teacher is a reliable adult to count on, which can lead to them being more open about their struggles and willing to overcome them.

Empowering Your Students

Perhaps one of the most important gifts a teacher can offer to a triggered student is to give them the ability to reclaim their independence. “By consistently empowering students to make decisions about their own actions and learning environments, we are showing them that their voice and identity matter and that they have the power to influence their environment,” continues Todd.

Traumatic events make children feel they do not have control, which can cause incredible anxiety and depression. However, by letting them express their preferences, choose topics to learn from and be responsible for their emotional responses, educators can give students a sense of ownership of their own minds, bodies and learning processes. Todd concludes that this “adds to the sense of safety we are building for our students when they are with us and further strengthens our relationships in the classroom, thus helping students to mitigate the harmful impacts of experiencing trauma.”

Of course, trauma response is not a simple topic to tackle, and educators are encouraged to be as informed as possible about the subject. Eastern Washington University’s online Master of Education (M.Ed.) – Early Childhood Education program emphasizes the importance of informed instruction and includes a course titled The Science of Early Childhood Development: Risk and Resilience. Graduates of this program can develop their ability to work with diverse, vulnerable populations and utilize trauma-informed instruction tactics.

Learn more about Eastern Washington University’s online M.Ed. – Early Childhood Education program.

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