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Best practices for supporting and educating students who have experienced domestic violence or sexual victimization.

Students exposed to potentially traumatic experiences often demonstrate emotional and behavioral difficulties that dramatically interfere with their ability to engage in school. Such characteristics can both negatively impact the educational experiences of traumatized students and present significant challenges for the teachers tasked with supporting them. However, these same teachers are in a unique position to create a compassionate, encouraging environment for these students, which ultimately improves the learning environment for everyone. Supporting and educating students with trauma histories has become a priority item for the National Education Association (NEA), with a specific focus on students that have experienced domestic violence, sexual abuse and related traumas.

Prevalence

More than half of women who experience domestic violence have children under the age of 12, with nearly half of those children actually witnessing the abuse (Burgess & Phifer, 2013). These same children are at greater risk for experiencing neglect and physical abuse, among other mental health problems. Domestic abuse can create a host of disruptions to family life, including distressed parents, physical injuries, changes in parenting style, possible parental incarceration, and less focus on meeting the child’s basic and educational needs.

As with domestic violence, child sexual abuse is a widespread problem that has the potential to significantly interfere with a child’s social, emotional, behavioral, and educational well-being. Given that only about half of victims report sexual abuse to anyone, and disclosure typically does not occur during childhood, identifying victims of sexual abuse can be challenging. In fact, estimated rates of sexual abuse are 30 times higher based on self-report compared to official reports filed. Nevertheless, some estimates suggest as many as 1 in every 8 people report child sexual abuse, with one-quarter of victims reporting they were first abused before age 6 years (Collin-Vezina, 2013). As with many potential sources of trauma, it is highly likely that teachers will have victims of sexual abuse in their classrooms at some point, if not consistently. Sexual abuse can happen to children of all ages, cultures, and socioeconomic backgrounds; occurs to both males and females; and all educators should be prepared to help support students that may disclose such abuse.

With both domestic abuse and sexual abuse, some adverse experiences are not one-time events; many students live with ongoing potentially traumatic events. Such chronic exposure over a long period of time can create the view among educators that the children are “always this way” rather than continually responding to a set of adverse experiences in their lives.

[Data on exposure to adverse experiences can be viewed through the Child Health Data website]  

How Culture Affects the Experience of Trauma

Importantly, children respond to trauma differently depending on numerous factors, including the cultural lens through which they interpret the experience. Some cultures may be more accepting of abuse, less trusting of authorities to disclose such abuse, or afraid of fallout within the community. For example, Latino women identify as strong, resilient, and even secretive, leading this culture to be less inclined to disclose experiences of child sexual abuse (Collin-Vezina, 2013). Other cultures, such as Arab communities, dissuade discussion of sexual experiences, which may minimize the likelihood of disclosure (Collin-Vezina, 2013). As another example, women in patriarchal communities may view their roles as keeping the family together, avoiding disclosure out of perceived devotion to the family (Burgess & Phifer, 2013).

Student Reactions to Trauma

Students experiencing trauma often display specific characteristics. These characteristics can be separated into three main categories: emotion and behavioral self-regulation, social skills, and cognitive functioning. All of these characteristics impact educational outcomes.

Regulatory Skills

- Traumatic experiences may affect a student’s regulatory skills by impacting their ability to appropriately express and manage their emotions. Students may have difficulty labeling and recognizing their own emotions, or explaining their own emotional reactions to situations and events.

- Students may appear inattentive, while others seem hyperactive. For some students, they may fluctuate between the two.

- For many children who have experienced trauma, loud or busy activities can also be overwhelming and may affect their ability to regulate their reactions. This can be especially confusing for teachers if students respond negatively to highly desirable activities.

Social Skills

- Children affected by traumatic experiences frequently demonstrate disordered social skills. They may struggle to engage in appropriate play with peers. This can present in several different ways, including “over-involvement” in social interactions demonstrated as a lack of boundaries.

- Children who experience trauma may appear withdrawn socially or may need to make themselves feel in control of even small situations. These students may display bullying behavior or may “talk back” to others in an effort to maintain their own control.

- Students with trauma histories may establish negative peer relationships, either because of a need to experience control or because of difficulties many students demonstrate in identifying characteristics of high-quality, appropriate friends. For these students, they have often not had sufficient opportunities to see parents and other adults demonstrate appropriate social interactions. These experiences can subsequently inform a child’s ability to discern the qualities of good peer relationships.

Cognitive Functioning

- Students may be easily overwhelmed and have difficulty following single or multi-step directions. They may appear inattentive or struggle to shift from one activity to another, despite significant prompting. Educators often mistake these behavioral cues for deliberate defiance.

- Students with trauma histories may also struggle to ask for help or, conversely, may be overly dependent on others to start and complete work.

-Often executive functioning skills such as initiation of tasks, completing tasks, attention and concentration and working memory are impacted by traumatic experiences.

What Does Trauma Look Like In School?

Importantly, many students are resilient and respond adaptively to adverse experiences in their lives. Other students may experience severe distress yet demonstrate no overt changes in behavior or disruption to the classroom. In many cases, responses to trauma may look a lot like disobedience, lack of motivation, or other disabilities. Some “common” reactions to trauma include:

Learning and Cognition (may look like a learning disability, ADHD, or an emotional disability)

  • Difficulty processing instructions
  • Decreased attention, memory, and focus
  • Reduced executive functioning
  • Difficulty solving problems
  • Difficulty understanding consequences of actions
  • De-emphasis on skills/tasks that are not directly relevant to survival

Behavior (may look like emotional disability or ADHD)

  • Heightened vigilance; Inaccurate perception of danger
  • Rapid response to perceived threats (e.g., may jump or raise fists from pat on the back)
  • Self-protective behaviors (i.e., aggression or withdrawal)

Socialization

  • Social withdrawal, difficulty making friends, untrusting, involvement in bullying
  • Easily frustrated, quick to give up, unwilling to try new things, difficulty setting and working toward goals
  • Inconsistent moods, easily overwhelmed or upset, hopelessness, confusion, rigidity, perfectionism

Trauma-Informed Practice: Beneficial For All Students

Traumatized students often present significant behavioral challenges for educators. Teachers are often forced to spend precious time and effort merely containing a student’s social, emotional, behavioral, and academic issues without having the opportunity to adequately address student needs. In many cases, educators are unaware of a student’s trauma history, or have difficulty discerning traumatic reactions from disobedience or an underlying disability. Understandably, this approach often leaves educators feeling frustrated, powerless, and emotionally drained.

A trauma-informed approach to education aims to implement techniques that benefit students with trauma histories, educators, and the larger educational community as a whole. Such a model focuses on providing universal, tier-one interventions that provide valuable support to all students. Additionally, a trauma-informed approach abandons the notion that punitive discipline or special education referrals are a front line intervention when symptoms emerge. Rather, such an approach encourages educators to ask “what happened to you?” instead of “what’s wrong with you?”

Steele and Malchiodi (2012) provide a helpful framework for creating a trauma-informed program. The Trauma and Learning Policy Initiative and Compassionate Schools are also excellent resources for identifying and implementing universal, trauma-informed school practices. Many of these concepts dovetail into a strong system of positive behavioral supports. Important considerations include:

  1. Examine your school’s values around students. What are students responsible for in their daily lives at school? What do teachers, administrators, and other staff believe their role is in creating a supportive atmosphere for all students? These are difficult questions to ask, but you may be surprised at the differing opinions. Understanding these differences and resolving opposing viewpoints will create a stronger support network for all students.
  2.  Develop a list of central values and beliefs that will guide your school community as a whole. This should be considered as a guiding set of principles that take into account the cultural values of students and their surrounding communities.
  3. Provide ongoing professional development that incorporates trauma-informed practices.
  4. Identify ways to engage every student in some aspect of the school community. Students who have experienced trauma may struggle to create strong, lasting connections on their own.
  5.   Foster quality relationships between students and educators.
  6. Provide reliable, consistent structure for all students. Students who are able to reliably plan out their day are also able to devote more cognitive energy to emotion regulation, social skill practice, and academic tasks.

Strategies to Support Traumatized Students

Additional approaches that can effectively support traumatized students, and all students in the classroom, may include:

Provide structure and a sense of security, including developing a safety plan:

  • Children who experience abuse often yearn for structure and predictability. Help students by clearly outlining daily schedules and providing them with a brief, private warning if you become aware of a change in the schedule.
  • Make a safety plan with the student, parents, and guidance counselor. The plan should outline strategies the student can use when feeling anxious or upset. It can also include appropriate school staff to speak with, places to go, hotlines to call, and activities they can do in the classroom and other parts of the school. Be clear with the student about activities that are always acceptable in your classroom and activities that are only appropriate at specific times. Students may benefit from visuals that they can reference when they begin to notice that they are feeling upset.

Help students understand available support and your role as a mandated reporter:

  • Make all students (regardless of trauma exposure) aware of school-based support personnel. The larger the number of people available to listen to a student, the more likely that student is to disclose abuse.
  • Become acquainted with the other professionals in your school who can provide you with support in working with traumatized students. Talk with administrators, school psychologists, school nurses, counselors, and social workers to gain new insights and supports. Remember: it is not your job to keep a child’s disclosure “private”, in fact, it is typically your legal obligation to report even suspicion of child maltreatment. As a mandated reporter, you are obligated to report concerns about potential abuse and neglect. See the Child Welfare Information Gateway or Child Help for resources on mandated reporting.
  • Ensure that students understand your limits as a mandated reporter. A good way to phrase it may be “As a teacher, it’s my job to try and help students be safe. That means that I am here to listen to you, and I will also help you find the right people to talk to for help. I respect your privacy, and I want you to know that I am required to tell someone if you tell me that someone is hurting you, that you are thinking of hurting someone else, or if you are thinking of hurting yourself.”
  • Don’t make promises you can’t keep. As much as we as educators want to ensure the safety of every student in our care, it would be unfair to tell a student “I am going to make sure no one ever hurts you again.” That is not a guarantee you can make, and you will damage your trusting relationship with the student if something happens to them.

Validate and reassure the student:

  • If a student discusses exposure to abuse, make it clear to them that they are safe with you and that you will not judge or question their report. Students must know that you will believe them in order to feel safe in disclosing abuse.
  • If a student discloses any abuse, respond positively and with care – make it clear that you take the student seriously. Students whose teachers react positively and with sincerity are more likely to fully disclose any potential abuse.
  • Provide non-judgmental, validating statements if a student discloses information. Sample statements include “That must have been scary” or “It must be difficult to see that happening.”

Identify triggers of anxiety or challenging behavior:

  • Students who have experienced abuse may have difficulty remaining calm in frightening or anxiety-producing situations. Keep in mind that loud noises (such as assemblies or fights), talking about violence, or raised voices might cause an emotional reaction. Offer the student a quiet place to stay until situations become calmer and be prepared for negative emotions and behaviors from the student in response to triggers.

Use a daily check in to provide a solid foundation for relationship building:

  • Take time to check in with students, either in a group format or on an individual basis. This is a great relationship-building technique to use with any student, but it can be especially important for students who have experienced abuse. Find out whether students have gotten enough sleep, have eaten breakfast, and how they are feeling. It can be helpful to use pictures or a rating scale to help students identify and label their emotional states.

Directly teach problem solving skills:

  • Social skills and emotion regulation curricula are helpful, but they can be effectively supported with your own modeling. Be honest with students about how you’re feeling and talk through your actions in response to challenging situations.
  • Remember that while students are learning from your behavior, they are also learning from the behavior they observe at home. It may be confusing for a student who witnesses domestic violence at home to understand that violence is an inappropriate strategy at school. Help students find alternative responses and be clear with them about what is acceptable behavior at school.

Closely monitor attendance and immediately refer attendance problems to administrative staff:

  • Many students who witness domestic violence may fear leaving their parent at home. Students living in stressful situations are often responsible for getting themselves (and their siblings) to school on time. It is important that you keep students and their parents aware of the attendance expectations at school. Make sure administrators are aware of any changes in student attendance, as it may be a sign of larger concerns at home.

There is a wealth of resources available to support you in your work with students who may have experienced traumatic events. The following are helpful sources of information on supporting students with a history of domestic violence, sexual abuse, and other traumas.

Web Resources

Child Help Lines

Selected Children’s Literature

Elementary School-Aged Children

  • Federico, J. K. (2009). Some parts are not for sharing. Mustang, OK: Tate Publishing.
  • Hansen, D. (2004). Those are MY private parts. Redondo Beach, CA: Empowerment Productions.
  • King, K. (2008). I said no! A kid-to-kid guide to keeping your private parts private. Weaverville, CA: Boulden Publishing.
  • Kleven, S. (1998). The right touch: A read-aloud story to help prevent child sexual abuse. Bellevue, WA: Illumination Arts Publishing.
  • Ottenweller, J. (1991). Please tell!: A child’s story about sexual abuse (early steps). Center City, MN: Hazeldon Publishing.
  • Spelman, C. M. (1997). Your body belongs to you. Marton Grove, IL: Albert Whitman.
  • Starishevsky, J. (2009). My body belongs to me. New York, NY: Safety Star Media.

Adolescents

  • Carter, W. L. (2002). It happened to me: A teen’s guide to overcoming sexual abuse. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.
  • Daugherty, L. (2004). Why me? Help for victims of child sexual abuse (even if they are adults now) (4th ed.). Roswell, NM: Cleanan Press.
  • Mather, C. L. (2004). How long does it hurt: A guide to recovering from incest and sexual abuse for teenagers, their friends, and their families (rev. ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
  • Riskin, K., & Munson, L. (1995). In their own words: A sexual abuse workbook for teenage girls. Washington, DC: CWLA Press (Child Welfare League of America).

Domestic Violence

  • Bernstein, S. (1991). A family that fights. Morton Grove, IL: Albert Whitman & Co.
  • Holmes, M., Mudlaff, S., & Pillo, C. (2000). A terrible thing happened. Washington, DC: Magination Press.
  • Watts, G., & Hodson, B. (2009). Hear my roar: A story of family violence. New York: Annick Press.

References

Burgess, D. A., & Phifer, L. W. (2013). Students exposed to domestic violence. In E. Rossen and
R. Hull (Eds.), Supporting and Educating Traumatized Students. (pp.129–138). New York: Oxford University Press.

Collin-Vézina, D. (2013). Students affected by sexual abuse. In E. Rossen & R. Hull
(Eds), Supporting and Educating Traumatized Students: A Guide for School-Based Professionals (pp.187-202). New York: Oxford University Press.


RELATED LINKS

NEA Health Information Network - School Crisis Guide resources on preparing for, reacting to, and responding to a crisis.


RELATED TOPICS

Healthy Students/Healthy Schools

Teaching Students Healthy Habits

Mental Health and Wellness

School and Community Safety

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