Published Date: 12/04/19
You serve many children in your preschool every day. Each classroom has specific needs according to the age of the children; however, every room needs to be staffed by a teacher who is kind, caring, and trained to be aware of the signs of abuse or neglect. If a teacher complains that a four-year-old is “out of control”, throwing things, screaming, or cursing, before they label him as “bad”, consider if the child has experienced a traumatic event in their home.
Neglect can cause silent trauma
Trauma and PTSD are common, but often misunderstood, problems in preschool age children. Signs of physical or sexual abuse can be recognized more easily than the invisible traumatic events, including neglect, that impact the quickly developing brains of young children. “Child neglect is viewed as a major life stressor and a potentially traumatic situation that may strongly impair child development and functioning.”(1)
Neglect can be difficult to identify. In very young children, it may be as subtle as a parent who allows their child to watch tv all day regularly. When children need to be helped and are ignored, their brains do not develop the same attachment instinct with the primary caretaker as those who learn that their needs will be met when they cry or ask for it. As preschool teachers often spend more waking hours with children than their parents do, it is critical that children learn that teachers hear them, will help them, and care about their needs. Training your teachers to communicate with children in a trauma sensitive environment can greatly reduce the amount of disruption in their classrooms and increase the likelihood of children being able to successfully learn and develop.
Trauma and brain development
A baby or young child’s brain development is directly related to their experiences during every waking moment. “Young children learn how to self-regulate by anticipating their parents’ and teachers’ responses to them when they express various emotions.(2) In addition, babies and young children are very sensitive to non-verbal cues such as the look on an adult’s face or the way they react to what is going on around them. If a teacher is calm and smiling, the baby will be reassured that they are safe. An impatient teacher or an angry face can be so upsetting that the child will begin to cry, raising the stress level in the caretaker and escalating the emotional tension in the room.
Some preschool children who have experienced trauma may withdraw and be unable to pay attention in class. They may disassociate with what the teacher is saying when their stress hormones are triggered by things that remind them, subconsciously, of a prior traumatic experience. Even certain smells and sounds may cause them to shut down. Teachers may call this behavior daydreaming; however, in some cases, it is an indicator of prior trauma. This behavior over time may lead to children falling behind academically. If the neglect or trauma is addressed and the child can feel secure and safe in the routines and consistent behavior of the teacher, they are more likely to overcome the trauma and reach their learning milestones on time.
Talk About What Happened Instead of About What is Wrong
A teacher may have twenty students in their room; however, each child brings with him/her the influences (both traumatic and nurturing) of all the significant events in their lives when they come in the door. A child that witnessed parents fighting before breakfast or heard gunshots on the street may come to school with mental trauma that they do not know how to process. Recent natural disasters, such as wildfires in California or hurricanes along the gulf coast cause stress for families, including the children who lose their belongings or are worried about where they will sleep. Teachers need to be sensitive to children’s feelings and give them opportunities to express their fears and tell their stories through drawing, play, and in conversations with children who are old enough to talk. A child who does not have the words to tell you what is wrong with them may either cry or scream. “Trauma-informed” approaches are not new – they have been implemented in many fields including the medical profession and our judicial system. The lessons learned from these evidence-based approaches can be directly applied to classrooms and schools. At the heart of these approaches is the belief that students’ actions are a direct result of their experiences, and when students act out or disengage, the question we should ask is not “what’s wrong with you,” but rather “what happened to you?(3)
Always be aware of the laws that require teachers to report abuse or neglect to the authorities. Teachers need to know that failure to report can result in the preschool being fined or employees losing their jobs. Read more about being a mandatory reporter here: https://blogs.findlaw.com/law_and_life/2015/12/legal-responsibility-of-teachers-to-report-abuse.html
Self-Regulation Can Be Taught
Teachers can be taught calming techniques to help traumatized children learn how to control their emotions effectively. Asking to hold a child’s hand while they talk, teaching breathing techniques, and words to use that express how they feel rather than crying or yelling can make a real difference in how children regain control of their emotions.(4)
“Children’s early experiences of feeling listened to and understood help instill confidence in their ability to make good things happen and to seek out individuals who can support them in finding a solution when they do not know how to handle a difficult situation. (5) As a director, it becomes your responsibility to be sure your teachers are trained on how to respond to behaviors that may be trauma induced. Fortunately, there are several resources available to help you work with teachers and aides to notice neglect as effectively as they do abuse. A good report that outlines steps for public schools to implement to become a trauma informed campus may be adapted to preschools, too: https://www.codmanacademy.org/PDF/Trauma-Informed-in-Schools-Classrooms-FINAL-December2014-2.pdf
Some highlights that apply to preschools include:
- Strengthen the relationships between staff, children who have experienced trauma, and their caregivers.
- Help traumatized children regulate their emotions to ensure academic and social success.
- Maintain predictable routines and expectations that are consistent between rooms and between teachers.
- Teach children the words they need to express feelings, fears, and emotions instead of acting with violence or crying.
- Model respectful, non-violent interactions
Original source of this list: https://traumasensitiveschools.org/tlpi-publications/
What Can You Do to Make Your Preschool A Trauma Sensitive Environment?
A preschool should not be a silent place, but the voices you hear in the classrooms should be positive and happy. If a teacher is dealing with a violent, out of control child or one that is unable to self-soothe their emotional sadness or fear, consider what support you can provide to help both the teacher and the child feel successful and calm. Teachers who are trained on trauma informed communication and recognize the cause of “bad” behaviors feel like they are better teachers and are more self-aware of their own behavior around children.
Here are some additional resources you can use as you plan your staff development for next semester.
- National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN): www.nctsn.org
- Child Trauma Academy (CTA): www.childtrauma.org
- Trauma Center at Justice Resource Institute: www.traumacenter.org
- National Institute for Trauma and Loss in Children (TLC): www.starr.org/training/tlc
- Reporting child abuse and neglect: www.childwelfare.gov/topics/responding/reporting/how (6)
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