The students in my class for behavior disordered boys usually burst into the room with energy enough to light a city. One morning, the six of them dragged their feet along the linoleum. Their heads hung from drooping shoulders. Bags worth of packing hung below drooping eyes.
This was a sign that the day was not starting in the same direction as the carefully scripted lesson plans lying on a paper laden desk.
“Why the hang dog expressions?” I asked as they plopped into their chairs.
Rashad answered for the group. “Slept in the bathtub again. Second time this week.”
Nods of agreement and low mutters.
“Bathtub?” I cocked my head in confusion.
“Yeah. You know.” Rashad stared at me. “When the gangs are shooting in the neighborhood, my ma puts me and my little brother in the bath tub to sleep.”
“Safest place in the house,” mumbled the group.
“You probably didn’t know the kid who was shot last year just sitting in his own bedroom.” Rashad added. How would he know that the story circulated the teacher’s lounge often, filled with the tragedy of another life lost at a young age?
Standing in that room, sensing the exhaustion of these preteens, the thought of delving into new concepts overwhelmed me. Today, Plan B in the plan book would be put into operation: a day of review. Repatterning the brain from anxiety to calm. Relaxing of the nerves in the safety of community. Enjoying the freedom to move about. Using muscle memory and the familiarity of handwriting for focus. Coloring maps with a Strauss waltz playing softly to organize thinking. Exercising in extra gym to relieve anxiety. After years of trying to cope with outside neighborhood stresses, I learned how to construct a “trauma-sensitive classroom” long before the buzz word became fashionable.
It has been in recent years that educators connected exposure from unrelenting stress and repeated traumas to changes in the brain. For example, the child flashes from “flight to fight” when faced with danger. Sustained emotional strains make it harder for students to focus and learn. John Snelgrove, head of guidance services for Brockton Public Schools estimates that 30 percent or more in a student body exhibit behaviors suggesting adaptation for survival under the worst conditions. For students who cope with domestic violence, neglect or abuse, teachers should expect problems with paying attention, memory, and language retrieval. Aggression, disrespect and shutting down are also signs that pupils may be struggling to survive.
The trauma-sensitive classroom creates a comfort zone, a safe place for kids to retreat. Neat, clutter free rooms with cool colors are soothing. Predictable routines help the brain to center. Movement breaks every thirty minutes help to “reframe the brain”. As a teacher, reflecting on the things that make life feel calm and safe are what should be incorporated in any classroom.
As teachers, we have no control over society, the homes that our children live in, or the circumstances in the community. What we do have in our control is our physical classroom. We owe it to our students to make it the one place where they can count on being protected. Only then we can go on to the task of teaching and learning. That is working with the whole child.