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The Trauma-Sensitive Classroom—Tish Jennings

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The Trauma-Sensitive Classroom—Tish Jennings

Curry School of Education professor Tish Jennings is a leading expert on the use of mindfulness-based interventions and social and emotional learning to improve teacher and student wellbeing. In her new book, The Trauma-Sensitive Classroom: Building Resilience with Compassionate Teaching (W. W. Norton, 2018), Jennings applies that expertise to an increasingly prevalent issue for U.S. classrooms: students affected by chronic stress and the long-term consequences of adverse childhood experiences such as abuse, neglect, or parental incarceration or addiction. 
 
As a survivor of childhood trauma, herself, Jennings says that at 17 she began practicing Zen meditation as a way to heal. Drawing on those personal experiences as well as extensive research, she provides teachers with knowledge and practical tools to enable all students, including those touched by traumatic experiences, the opportunity to flourish.
 
CSC had the opportunity to ask Jennings about the book, which the editors of Greater Good magazine recently selected as one their favorites for educators in 2018. 
 
CSC: Why was it important to write this book now?
 
Jennings: Growing numbers of children and teens are exposed to traumatic and adverse experiences due to growing inequity, the opioid crisis, the refugee crisis, family substance abuse, and family and community violence. At the same time, there is growing evidence that teachers and school communities can help these students heal from trauma by building warm and supportive relationships with them, creating safe spaces, and teaching self-regulation skills. Schools are working to address this issue by applying trauma-sensitive approaches, but I noticed some important missing pieces where I saw that I could make a valuable contribution. One primary problem is that our culture tends to be punitive. When someone is suffering, rather than showing compassion and support, we tend to punish them. My new book helps educators face this problem and make the necessary mind- and heart-shifts required to support these children and teens. That’s what my book is about.
 
CSC: Can you explain how early childhood trauma can cause a ripple effect that often compounds throughout a student’s school experience?
 
Jennings: Exposure to trauma at any time during development can result in adaptations to the trauma that interfere with functioning in other contexts. However, this is particularly evident when the trauma occurs early in childhood. Human beings have a relatively slow developmental process, compared to other mammals. This allows for us to develop adaptive strategies that respond to our environment. These adaptations become “baked into” our body and nervous system. For example, to adapt to domestic violence, a young child might become hypervigilant—watchful for situations that might be dangerous so she can protect herself. Hypervigilance is adaptive in her home, but interferes with functioning in the school context. She has a hard time focusing her attention because she doesn’t feel safe enough to let down her guard. She may appear to have a learning disability such as ADHD. She may imagine there is danger when there isn’t and be overly defensive and aggressive, getting into trouble with teachers and peers. Without safe and understanding educators, these students’ maladaptive behaviors are reinforced. They get the message that, like home, school is a place where people are mean to me and no one cares about me and I must be a bad person because this is happening to me. 
 
CSC: How can an individual teacher make a difference for those students?
 
Jennings: Children and teens exposed to trauma and hardship are often missing a strong and supportive relationship with a caregiver. They often have attachment problems that interfere with social functioning. The school community can serve as a substitute attachment. Students who feel safe at school and bonded to their school community can learn positive models for relationships. The teacher’s job is to cultivate a supportive and trusting relationship with the student and his peers, create a safe environment, and teach the students how to regulate strong emotions using social and emotional learning activities and mindful awareness and compassion practices. First and foremost, the teacher must be an outstanding role model for these students by bringing her authentic, mindful, and compassionate presence to her students.
 
CSC: Can you give some examples of what a trauma-sensitive classroom looks or sounds like?
 
Jennings: The classroom will feel warm and inviting. There will be a happy buzz of busy energy. In the typical classroom, the policies and practices that support students exposed to trauma are instituted at the universal level, e.g., every student is introduced to them, not just trauma-exposed students. This is because it’s very hard to know which students are living with trauma, and at any time, any of your students might be impacted by stress or trauma. These policies and practices include very clear expectations that are reinforced consistently with firm kindness and spaces in the classroom where students can have privacy to calm down when they need to. This can be a quiet corner of the classroom that has a soft, calming atmosphere and activities students can engage in to de-escalate. The teacher spends time building a strong community of learners and explicitly teaches and models social and emotional skills. When there is conflict she coaches her students through the difficulty rather than judging and punishing. 
 
CSC: Much of your work has focused on how teachers can better manage their own stress and emotions for better wellbeing and student learning outcomes. How does teacher self-care contribute to more a trauma-sensitive classroom?
 
Jennings: To shift from a punitive to a compassionate approach requires self-compassion and self-care. When our stress response is triggered, we often can’t see the situation clearly. When we are emotionally exhausted we are more likely to overreact to challenging behaviors that may result from trauma. We may imagine that the behavior is intentional and take it personally. It’s harder to show the understanding and compassion that is required in that moment, and we may reinforce the student’s negative beliefs about us and themselves.