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Considering Their Past: How Trauma Plays a Role in Learning

by Gregory J. Moxley

Imagine that you are driving down the road in your car on a beautiful, sunny afternoon. A moment later, your world flips upside down. You are involved in a car accident with another vehicle. As the ambulance sirens echo in the background, you start to consider what kind of toll this accident will take on your physical health. As the minutes progress, you begin to think about the individual in the other car. How badly are they hurt? How long will it take them to recover? Will either of you ever be the same again?

Trauma comes in many forms, and just like after a car accident, how each person recovers from their traumatic experience will be vastly different. By definition, trauma is an experience that overwhelms an individual’s capacity to cope with that experience. A growing focus on educators becoming trauma sensitive has been sweeping through the profession in recent years, as educators seek ways to gain a better understanding of who their students are and why they operate the way that they do. As student and teacher bonds form, the educational experience becomes more enjoyable. These shared bonds lead to more empathic experiences between the teacher and the student. As teacher and student learn to connect and develop a deeper understanding of each other, methods of communication are refined, and this results in stronger teaching and learning.

Being trauma sensitive does not mean that teachers need advanced training to handle trauma in the same way a psychologist does (we already have enough hats to wear). Rather, teachers need to have an understanding of what role trauma has on their students’ learning. Individuals deal with trauma in a variety of capacities that can range from isolation to aggression. The effects of trauma can extend beyond anti-social behaviors as well. Studies conducted by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention found that individuals that experienced multiple traumatic events during their adolescence are more likely to suffer from physical and mental diseases; these include obesity, diabetes, depression, COPD, stroke, cancer, heart diseases, and suicidal thoughts. The research suggests that the more traumatic experiences you have in life, the shorter your life expectancy will be.

“By offering to listen, you are affirming to your student that they matter to you.”

So how does one go about incorporating trauma sensitive practices into their pedagogy? The first step in trauma sensitive teaching is to acknowledge the impact trauma takes on the whole person and put supports in place to help individuals manage their traumatic stress. More often than not, your schools will not have immediate access to the appropriate long-term supports needed to help this person combat their trauma. However, you are always capable of listening. By offering to listen, you are affirming to your student that they matter to you and that you have their best interests at heart. For students with intensive trauma, they are immediately seeking an answer to this question every time they meet another individual: Is this person here to help me or to harm me?

Greg Moxley leads the ISAEP program for Virginia Beach City Public Schools. Prior to his current role, he taught social studies at the high school level. Greg has a passion for social-emotional learning and working with resilient youth. He has attended Longwood University, Old Dominion University, and George Washington University