Conferring with Students Who’ve Experienced Childhood Trauma

Mrs. Anthony is a third grade teacher with a classroom of 26 diverse students. This year, she has more students than ever who seem to struggle with emotional regulation, attention, and peer interactions. During recent professional development in her school, she and her colleagues have had the opportunity to start to learn about how the effects of childhood trauma can present themselves in school. Through the lens of trauma, Mrs. Anthony is working to take a careful inventory of her own practices and decisions in the classroom, working to create a calm, predictable, and safe place for learning to unfold every day. As she does so, she begins to wonder about how her conferring practice might intersect with the needs and/or triggers of her students who are experiencing chronic trauma in their lives. 

No matter where you teach, what your class size, or how long you’ve been in the business, chances are you’re working to build more skills yourself for meeting the needs of students whose exposure to traumatic life experiences is interfering with school success.

Although it’s impossible to know exactly which students in your classroom have experienced childhood trauma, research indicates the number is high.  According to the Journal of the American Medical Association Pediatrics division (JAMA Pediatrics), May 2013:

  • Four of every 10 children in America say they experienced a physical assault during the past year, with one in 10 receiving an assault-related injury.
  • 2% of all children experienced sexual assault or sexual abuse during the past year, with the rate at nearly 11% for girls aged 14 to 17.
  • Nearly 14% of children repeatedly experienced maltreatment by a caregiver, including nearly 4% who experienced physical abuse.
  • 1 in 4 children was the victim of robbery, vandalism or theft during the previous year.
  • More than 13% of children reported being physically bullied, while more than 1 in 3 said they had been emotionally bullied.
  • 1 in 5 children witnessed violence in their family or the neighborhood during the previous year.

You can also read more about childhood trauma statistics here and here.

Needless to say, learning to utilize trauma informed practices has become an essential skill set for everyone working in today’s schools. According to School Justice Partnerships Trauma Informed Schools Bulletin, a fundamental principle for a trauma informed approach in the classroom is to focus on helping students feel safe in relationships.  This relationship work is critical for all who work with children, especially teachers.

So, we offer this post, not because we are experts on the subject of childhood trauma, but because we have a deep-seeded passion to help all teachers meet the ever changing needs of students in their classrooms. The more we learn about trauma informed classrooms, the more convinced we become of the power of conferring, an up close, one-on-one conversation, to cultivate relationship, trust, respect, and agency in all of the children we serve, especially in those who are experiencing the effects of childhood trauma. Building and maintaining a classroom conferring practice has the power to support teachers with the four essential considerations of trauma informed care described by Hummer, Crosland, and Dollard (2009).

  • Connect – Focus on relationships.
  • Protect – Promote safety and trustworthiness.
  • Respect – Engage in choice and collaboration.
  • Redirect (Teach and Reinforce) – Encourage skill building and competence.

A consistent, caring conferring practice directly supports students who’ve experienced trauma. Through conferring we have the ability to promote safety and trustworthiness, help students engage in choice and collaboration, and encourage skill building and competence. Most importantly, through conferring, we have the ability to focus on relationships more so than with any other teaching method.

 “There is no more effective neurobiological intervention than a safe relationship”  — Bruce Perry, PhD, MD, researcher & child psychiatrist.

To that end, we offer the following ideas for using conferring to support students who are dealing with trauma:

  • Use conferring to build relationship. When we confer, we offer our wholehearted presence to one child at a time. We show up to listen, to notice, affirm, and teach new strategies. And if relationship is a primary strategy for bringing human souls back into regulation when things have gone awry, then we see regular conferring as a critical intervention for good in the lives of all children, especially in the lives of those whose life experiences have left them feeling afraid, alone, or out of control.
  • Let all students know what to expect. Before you start to confer, let all students know what this practice is. Let them know that you’re committed to spend time with each of them individually. Don’t leave them wondering or worrying what this one on one attention is about. Children living with chronic trauma have an amygdala is continuously overexcited and overworked. This causes them to tend to sense danger even when there is no danger. Until their anxiety is reduced, learning will suffer. So, smile, and use a calm and matter-of-fact voice when you explain, and even model, what to expect in a teacher-student conference.
  • Provide predictability. Chronic trauma can actually change the wiring of children’s brains, making it harder to concentrate, process, and learn to read. Some student’s brains have been trained to live in a constant heightened sense of alert, ready fight, flight, or freeze at the first sign of trouble. The more predictable and safe the environment feels, the more likely the child will be able to let themselves relax enough to engage in learning. Posting daily routines and honoring them is helpful. When you post your daily schedule, make sure conferring is clearly marked. 
  • Enter with care. When we enter  a child’s physical learning space, we like to think of ourselves entering someone else’s home. This helps us remember to do so as a gracious guest. We don’t want to come barging in large and in charge. Instead, we knock on the door, by saying something like, “May I join you?” or “May I interrupt?” Questions like these provide a moment of transition and choice making for students, empowering them as partners from the start. 
  • Be aware of physical proximity.  Some students have had traumatic experiences with adults who’ve gotten too close through physical or sexual abuse. So, as you pull up alongside each student to confer, pay attention to their physical responses to your proximity and adjust accordingly. A failure to do can easily trigger anxiety and shut down learning. 
  • Make a concerted effort to listen more than talk– which can be a very difficult thing to do. Often times, children need to know that there is an adult in their lives who is sincerely interested in listening more than talking. If this is new work to you, we recommend considering audio recording one or two conferences to compare the amount of talking you do and the amount of talking your students do. Once you have a starting point, you have the opportunity to make the effort to allow for more student talk next time. It’s very difficult to know how much we talk versus listen unless we have the audio evidence.
  • It’s a conversation, not an interrogation.Our goal is to show up and show ourselves as caring and trustworthy adults. Yet, the very thought of a one-to-one conversation with an adult causes some kids’ hearts to pound a little faster in their chests. Some students’ experiences that have left them so distrustful of adults, that even your approach leaves them worried they’ve done something wrong or that danger is near. Their  initial instinct might be a defensive response such as shutting down completely, giving one word responses, or even being outwardly defiant. With these students, trust is hard earned with patience and over time. So, tread with extra care, not pushing too hard or too fast. .   
  • Consider starting questions with a “WONDER CLAUSE”. To make sure our questions don’t feel too demanding, we sometimes soften them with what we call a wonder clause.  This means, we insert a simple clause before the question to assure the student of our genuine and caring curiosity. 
    • Rather than, “What are you reading?” We might smile and say, “I’m curious to know, what are you reading, today?”
    • Rather than, “What seems most important?” We might say, “I’d be interested to know, what seems most important to you right now?”
    • Rather than, “Why did you do that?” We might gently say, “Help me understand more about the choice you made.”   
  • Be aware of non verbals. Because students who’ve experienced trauma often pay more attention to nonverbal cues than to verbal cues, make sure your own body language is consistent with your message. A furrowed brow, crossed arms, hovering above a student, using a harsh or accusatory voice are all ways we might send triggering messages to students, even if not with our words. 
  • Use visuals. Most students benefit from visual supports and reminders, and this is especially true for students who have variable attention. So whenever possible, provide simple visual supports to reinforce affirmations and teaching. Examples might include a quick sketch with a few key words on sticky note or bookmark to leave behind after the conference.  
  • Make space for what comes up. When we confer we never know what will turn up. As students start to trust us more, viewing us a safe and reliable adults, they may begin to share information about past traumatic events at unexpected times. If this happens, listen patiently and without judgement. Talking can help children process the event. Reassure them it wasn’t their fault. Remind them they are now in a safe place.

To keep growing in our understanding of the effects and responses to trauma, we’re continuing to read, to research, and to have conversation with other educators about this critically relevant social justice topic. We’re betting that you are, too.  Below are few additional resources to keep the conversation going.

Trauma Informed Schools. The National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges. 2017 

Trauma Informed Approaches to Classroom Management 

Helping Traumatized Children Learn