Trauma is Messy

A teacher creates a learning environment that meets the needs of students dealing with the effects of childhood trauma.

I will always remember the day that, as a student teacher, I watched as a student covered in blood entered my second-grade classroom. After quickly establishing that he was not injured, we learned that the blood was that of his brother who had been shot the night before. No parents were around that night, so this second grader became the sole caregiver of his bleeding brother. This traumatic event would deeply impact him for the rest of his life. He would never be the same. I, as a teacher, would also never be the same. 

This event defined me as an educator. At that moment, I realized my purpose reaches far beyond grades and test scores. I realized that my calling is to defend the weak and the oppressed (Psalm 82:3). As Jesus is an advocate for me, I am to advocate for my students, embracing them just as they are. 

A few years after that harrowing day, I began a year of action research with Classroom Teachers Enacting Positive Solutions. My research helped me better understand the physiological and psychological effects of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and my traumatized students’ desperate need for God’s love demonstrated through my intervention in their lives. 

It didn’t take long for me to realize that trauma is messy. I also realized that if I want to teach with excellence, especially my students with ACEs, I would need to unconditionally accept their “messy” circumstances. I knew that I could not control what happens in their lives when they leave my classroom, but I could find, create, and implement strategies in my classroom that provide my struggling students with greater chances for academic success. 

Although the following strategies may seem simple, I have found them to be an effective way to create a learning environment that meets the needs of students dealing with the effects of childhood trauma.

  • Movement breaks - The strong emotions kids with ACEs experience can interfere with their ability to quietly focus in school and can sometimes lead to disruptive behaviors in classrooms. As a result, these students need physical movement during the school day. So, I incorporated many movement breaks linked to learning readiness into my instructional day. These breaks included stretches, jumping jacks, 30-second dance parties, or something random, like 76 steps around the room, which we took as we were learning about the date of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. When we were about to complete an assignment that would take some time, I modeled how to move and stretch without leaving the task or bothering a neighbor. This provided my students with an outlet for their need to move often while maintaining a calm learning environment with limited distractions. 
  • Alternative seating - Students with ACEs have different needs when it comes to space. They often need a safe space to de-escalate strong emotions, and since some do not “own” anything, they feel an increased need for personal space they can call their own: desk space, cubby space, or a little floor space by their seat where they can take off their shoes while working. In response to this need, I offered my students choices as to where they were allowed to sit. Also, I allowed them space to de-escalate or overcome a stressful moment. They could ask to go to the carpeted reading area, get some water, or even work at my desk. The students knew they could practice self-regulation using these spaces without fear of punishment. 
  • Morning greetings - Many students with ACEs struggle with not only academic confidence, but also relational confidence. Therefore, I made it a practice at the start of each day to stand at the door of my classroom and greet each student by name as they entered, asking about their morning, the night before, their weekend, their ball game, their family, etc. Eventually, they began to tell me all the news before I even asked them. Also, they started to feel confident enough to ask me about my day, my family, my interests, and even what challenges I was experiencing. In addition, I intentionally checked in with my students with ACEs throughout the day. Not only did my students grow in their relational confidence, but they also demonstrated more confidence in their academic abilities through their willingness to actively engage in relationships and learning. 
  • Healthy mental practices - For students with ACEs, anxiety and toxic stress can serve as huge barriers to academic success. And, unfortunately, difficult classroom activities and unavoidable, long standardized tests can often trigger these destructive emotions. To combat this obstacle, I led the class in regular mindfulness activities. I hosted morning meetings about healthy self-talk, deep-belly breathing, grounding exercises, and goal setting. We practiced these stress and anxiety management skills together regularly as a class. And, I would cue students to practice them prior to typical anxiety-producing events or activities like tests. Eventually, my students got into the habit of implementing these skills in their daily classroom lives and began initiating them on their own when needed. They began to plan for their own success. As a result, my students with ACEs were overwhelmingly successful at meeting their growth goals, continuing the cycle of increased academic confidence. 
Even though I couldn’t conduct official family surveys to identify all of my students’ ACEs, I knew of many situations already: divorce, death of siblings, relocation due to war and religious persecution, alcohol and drug abuse in the home, incarcerated family members, under-nourishment, abandonment, and more. After implementing these strategies, I’m proud to say that over 75% of my targeted students, many of those with multiple ACEs, met or exceeded their Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) testing goals that year, with several achieving multi-year gains!

Sometimes trauma looks like a child covered in blood walking into a classroom. Sometimes it looks like excessive movement, emotional outbursts, poor social and educational confidence, or anxiety. Other times students exposed to trauma look like every other student in the class. No matter the presentation, trauma is messy. Working with students who have experienced ACEs is, at best, unpredictable. And, due to trauma’s messy nature, we will inevitably make mistakes; however, we can fail forward. We will face mountains, but we can climb them. We can meet our students in their mess, accept them as they are, and advocate for these precious students. 

Jon Eppley lives in Lexington, KY, with Rachel, his wife of 17 years, and their two children. He enjoys time with his family, traveling, and experiencing nature. In his career as an educator, Jon has focused on students from poverty or those who have experienced childhood trauma. It is his hope that all students will be able to learn in trauma-supportive environments.


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