The teacher explained that every child should have the opportunity to feel
totally safe and valued and that unexpected actions by others or sudden changes
in the schedule can cause these children to feel very threatened and scared. He
led his class using strict ground rules to determine what the class might do to
help their classmates deal with their deep fears. They discussed how to help these
students feel safe and a part of the classroom family again.
The suggestions were printed on a poster and hung in the front of the room.
The boys with the grave behavior issues were included in the discussions. The
explosive episodes slowly began to subside, and the class worked together as
more of a unit.
Trauma-informed teachers also realize that stressed students intensely
watch teachers’ body language and nonverbal behaviors more than they
listen to the teachers’ words (Perry 2004). For example, they learn that
one easy way to assure and calm a student is to offer a smile. Tense stu-
dents benefit greatly when their teachers use the sensory, body-focused
language of the survival brain. Teachers can help calm tense students by
referring to the physical sensations of being upset and reassuring them
that these sensations are normal: the bodily feeling of “butterflies in the
tummy,” “a lump in the throat,” tense muscles, tingling, jumpiness, diz-
ziness, numbness, or a tightening in the chest (Levine and Kline 2007).
Sensations are experienced, so using descriptive terms resonates with
children. Mindfulness, or the ability to sense what children are experi-
encing and be attuned and responsive to their feelings and interactions
(Ogden 2009), becomes a teacher’s true gift to overwhelmed children; it
means children are “feeling felt” (Levine and Kline 2007, 302).
Children with traumatic stress sometimes get stuck in a frozen memory
of fear. Describing possible sensations will connect with tense children
and possibly help them process such a troubling or unconscious mem-
ory, bringing relief to the children. Such relief can restore access to the
learning process. Traumatic memories and the stress that envelopes them
are recorded through the senses of sound, sight, touch, and aroma. Such
memories can be reactivated through the senses and not by words alone
(Rothschild 2000). Teaching children about deep breathing and how it can
bring them a calm sense of relief can also help (Levine and Kline 2007).
Instead of asking “why” questions, ask, “Where in your body do you
sense being upset?” Or if children are not able to articulate an answer, ask
them to show what the ache feels like. Invite children to draw how they
COPYRIGHTED MATERIAL Early Traumatic Stress