Managing Conflict Resolution with Children of Trauma
Excerpted from “The Emotional Backpack: Managing Conflict Resolution with Children of Trauma,” by Carly Ly, LMSW, The Active Learner, Fall 2018
It’s the beginning of the school year. Classrooms are being stocked with materials to welcome children into the learning environment. Teachers put letter links or names of their students above each hook that will hold the backpack of the student. Yet, what arrives in the “backpack” of a child who has experienced trauma is often loaded not with tools for learning — but tools for survival. These students operate from a primal state of fight or flight, with their backpack full of the instincts and impulses necessary to survive in what has been an unsafe world.
Exposure to trauma can interfere with a child’s ability to access higher-level executive function skills, such as the ability to solve problems, initiate and maintain healthy interpersonal relationships, and resolve conflict. As a teacher, you will have children in your classroom who have been traumatized. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES) Study tells us that more than 50% of students in a classroom have experienced one or more adverse childhood events (Stevens, 2013).
Types of childhood adversity include
- Physical, sexual, and verbal abuse
- Physical and emotional neglect
- Having an alcoholic, addicted, or mentally-ill parent
- Frequent abuse in the home environment
- Loss of a parent to divorce or abandonment
- Having an incarcerated family member
Research indicates that children with four or more ACEs are 32 times more likely to have behavioral problems (Stevens, 2012). Adults often confuse behavioral problems with attention deficit disorder (ADD), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), oppositional defiant disorder (ODD), or autism spectrum disorder (ASD) — which is understandable. Signs of trauma often look very similar to these disorders. So, a child in your classroom who is inattentive, hyperactive, or impulsive may be living with trauma.
Without safety and connection in a relationship with a trusted adult, conflict resolution is impossible for a child who has experienced trauma. Trauma interferes with consideration of consequences, appraisal of safety and danger, and the ability to govern behavior (Bath, 2015). Children of trauma are living in and acting from the survival brain and do not have access to executive functioning skills such as planning, memory, and problem solving. When their internal state is focused solely on surviving, they do not have the capacity to focus on learning how to resolve their own emotional issues, much less those involving others.
Tools for Easing Into Conflict Resolution
Before initiating the steps of conflict resolution, the internal state of a child who has experienced trauma needs to be addressed. By addressing the internal state that precedes behaviors, children learn to self-regulate and develop executive skills they need to resolve conflicts.
Here are some tools to help initiate a child’s awareness of their internal state:
- Calm Down Kit — This kit can include a feelings check-in chart, glitter jars, play dough, and similar items that help the child to focus on being present with one item and easing into a more learning-ready state. Before introducing this kit and its contents, discuss with the child the changes they feel in their body when they get angry or frustrated. Empower them by displaying the contents and explaining the purpose of each component of the kit. Let the child know that it is okay if they try something and it doesn’t work, or that it may take time for their body to learn how to calm down (Ethington, 2018).
- Cozy Cove — A “cozy cove” can be used as a place of comfort for a child to regain control or remove themselves from a triggering situation. This space should include comforting, calming, and soothing items that will add to serenity of the “cove.” This space should be introduced to all children in the classroom and the teacher should demonstrate how to use it (Grogan, 2012).
- Brain Breaks — Children who grow up with emotionally unavailable caregivers have not learned how to self-soothe and have trouble staying focused for long periods of time. “Brain Breaks” are small and simple activities, only 2–3 minutes long, that get children moving to release energy during the day, and teach them to gain control of their actions. To help children cope in the classroom, plan time in the daily routine for “Brain Breaks” before behavior gets out of control (Young, 2018).
- Visual Schedules — Children of trauma often worry about what comes next and have very little internal structure. Regular routines in the classroom and support of the child during transitions will help the child develop internal structure. HighScope’s Daily Routine Cards are a great example of a visual schedule.
- Emotional Literacy Charts — Putting feelings into words activates the higher-level functioning of the brain and puts the brakes on the survival brain. It allows us to make meaning of experience and gain a sense of control. These charts give children a concrete feeling to point to, which helps them not only feel a sense of control over their emotions, but helps you discern how to talk about their feelings with them.
As teachers and caregivers of children who have experienced trauma, we need to be reasonable with our expectations. Even after a day, month, or year of working with a child, the child may still have outbursts, run away, or rarely engage in anything — much less in conflict resolution. Because of this, often teachers feel defeated or believe that they didn’t accomplish anything for the child; however, research indicates that school connectedness is the number one protective factor for children who have experienced trauma (Hardison, 2017).
Your classroom may be the only place a child gets to experience emotional stability and safety. Giving them the tools to access their emotions and engage in conflict resolution will help their brains develop at a pace at which academic learning can truly begin.
To read the complete article or for a list of references used in this article, view The Active Learner, Fall 2018.
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