First and foremost, I think it’s important to remember that kids can’t learn under stress, so creating, a calm, safe, warm environment is the most important thing to focus on. What that looks like to you will mean something different, but it helps if the space is calm and you are calm. And if you aren’t calm, that you explain to the child that it’s not their fault because they will pick up on whatever energy is out there.
Trauma can make it difficult to focus, so often it is helpful to provide warm redirects and to understand that children facing trauma will often have shorter attention spans and will need patience and more breaks. Set more realistic goals for attention, get a baseline read by finding out the amount of time it takes for them to get overwhelmed and then work five minutes back from there. So if they freak out after 15 minutes, you know that they need a break at ten and slowly and gently work your way up. Breaks look different for every kid but the little ones benefit from physical movement, which can be walking or dancing. The older ones benefit from being able to stop sensory overload. I highly recommend music breaks or walk breaks.
It helps if you vocalize things for the kids. So in my case, I used to flinch if people touched me, someone broke me of it by noticing I was doing it and saying, “hey, you flinch when you are being touched, why is that” and then I could be both conscious and aware that my trauma wasn’t normal, this is especially important for victims of early childhood trauma and kids who went through years of trauma like I did.
I had a pass in my room where I allowed kids to step out at any time if they needed to gather themselves. It was used, very rarely, but it made the kids who needed it feel safer because they knew they had the option and they knew I was aware and they weren’t going to get in trouble for their trauma.
Some kids benefit from having a peer age buddy they sit next to or can call on if they need them. I gave my students input on the environment so they felt more in control of the situation.
Trauma can make kids feel uncontrolled frustration and anger and most of the time this is what leads to kids acting out. I’m a big believer in giving kids things like stress balls or stuffed animals (if they are little), this can give them a physical way to deal with their emotions and it’s something they get to be in control of. I also allow doodling as long as it doesn’t get in the way of work, I doodle myself and also often make comics or basically provide running commentary that are definitely not notes that I used to get in trouble for but it kept me from getting frustrated or blurting things out. In fact, I’ve used this for non-traumatized kids too.
If something happens and a kid starts to become defiant, DO NOT escalate by yelling at them in public. Ever. Ask them to take a break outside and go talk to them. Yelling will automatically trigger a negative response. Don’t take it personally, don’t assume they are just being a jerk or trying to engage in a power struggle. Be the adult in the situation and calmly tell them to take a break and then go talk to them. Kicking kids out of class and to the principal’s office ought to be reserved for students who are a direct physical danger to others, otherwise you are just sending the message that these kids are “bad” and unwanted and unlovable. Kids who have this self image will act out when a teacher loves them and likes them, because they will want you to confirm their image of themselves. That’s the worst thing you can do, instead you should break them down over time by loving them everyday no matter what they did the day before. Give your students a clean slate everyday. Are they likely to disappoint you by misbehaving on a given day? Yes, but in the long run, their behavior will change over time. And besides, you are the adult here, their job isn’t to please you or to make life easy for you, your job is to teach and love them. Be the adult.
And the most important thing I can say is to remember that if a kid is acting out, he’s not being an asshole. There’s a reason for it. The best way to diffuse a freak out is to say, “hey, this isn’t like you. Is something going on? How can I help?”
And finally, it might seem obvious but I rarely see teachers do it, develop a rapport with students and open up a line of communication and ask them what they need to be successful. Giving them agency is critical and it sends all the right messages to them about their power and rights after being robbed of that. Some kids might not immediately turn into the compliant happy kids you want, some will take all year and some will take decades but if you are consistent, loving, kind and professional, you can take solace in knowing that they will remember that you provided the counter narrative and a model for what a good adult looks like.