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May 14, 2019
This is a paid piece sponsored by Dakota State University.
Future teachers leave Dakota State University with the skills they need to help students succeed. But one class teaches them something especially critical: how to create a learning environment where kids feel safe.
That sense of security is necessary for all students, but it’s especially important for those who have experienced trauma such as abuse, disruption to family life or even the death of a pet.
“It’s about getting to the underlying issues and resolving them. That’s what’s going to make kids realize that school is a safe place where they can focus on the learning and not what’s happening at home,” said Kindra Schneider, DSU instructor of elementary education.
DSU’s trauma-sensitivity training is sponsored by Sanford Harmony and Sanford Inspire. Both are programs championed by philanthropist Denny Sanford that promote and prepare teachers to build strong classroom relationships with their students.
“Sanford Harmony and Sanford Inspire are great tools to help support students who have experienced trauma,” said Katie Anderson, DSU instructor of reading and language.
“These types of programs focus on building relationships and positive classroom communities and environments.”
Students who have completed the DSU training and are now working in classrooms and have incorporated what they have learned.
“One of my biggest goals when I started teaching was to create a safe environment for my students. I wanted them to know that they had someone to talk to and that my room was a safe place for them,” said 2018 graduate Samantha Luze, who now teaches first through fourth grade special education.
“Being sensitive to trauma is incredibly important. It impacts how students interact with their environment and can inform teachers on how to increase their empathy and improve their teaching,” she said.
Experiencing these different types of trauma can negatively affect a student’s classroom performance. Acting out, not listening, missing homework and even daydreaming can all be signs that a kid is going through a tough time. What is traumatic for one student also might not be for another.
“It depends on the student, their personality and how they respond to the traumatic event,” Schneider said.
For teachers, learning to handle a child who has been through a traumatic event can be challenging, but being cognizant of when a student is struggling is key. DSU students are taught to look for chronic signs such as a student being disengaged, quieter than normal or demonstrating uncommon behavior for that child.
“Trauma-sensitive teaching requires a lens that teachers use to view their students,” Anderson said. “It begins with empathy and considering the underlying causes of behaviors occurring within the classroom. It helps teachers formulate their reactions in ways that are supportive and nurturing.”
To help students get through traumatic events, Luze, Schneider and Anderson encourage teachers and other staff members to create relationships with students and parents from the beginning of the school year.
Parent-teacher conferences, family nights and school events are a few ways teachers, students and families can form those bonds. However, making even more of a personal effort like using their names, being at the door to greet them and striking up a conversation when seeing them around town can have a positive and lasting effect.
Additionally, creating strong relationships with other staff members within the schools, practicing procedures and having high expectations also can help a child who has experienced trauma to feel safe in a school environment.
“Our faculty discusses this with students and incorporates it into their curriculum that day,” Schneider said. “We know that unless we teach the whole child socially, emotionally and academically, we’re really not preparing that student to be successful later on in life. All of these aspects are very important.”
The DSU College of Education also incorporates these learned skills when prospective teachers enroll in observation classes and as they student teach. Student teachers are encouraged to monitor their students and take further initiatives if needed.
“The DSU College of Education discusses quite frequently and fervently how rapport and relationships are the cornerstones of what an educator does,” Luze said. “We can teach content and standards or have the most innovative lessons out there, but if we don’t have mutual respect and relationships with our students, our methods won’t be effective.”
Although South Dakota teachers typically have students for nine to 10 months out of the year, DSU students are encouraged to keep active connections with students and families, and provide them with additional resources throughout the year, including during the summer. That can be anything from counselors, churches, agencies and other personnel.
On May 30, the DSU College of Education will host its inaugural workshop on trauma-sensitive teaching. It will be held in the Kennedy Center on the DSU campus from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. and is for K-12 educators.
“We’ll be discussing the warning signs, what to look for and what you can do both inside and outside of your classroom for your students,” Schneider said.
For information, please visit dsu.edu/TraumaWorkshop.
DSU also hosts lunch-and-learns on how to handle students who are acting out or going through trauma throughout the school year. During this time, prospective teachers are able to collaborate with peers and faculty members and gain different perspectives.
“Teachers are, by nature, nurturing and caring individuals. Seeing students who are dealing with trauma can cause secondhand trauma for the teachers themselves,” Anderson said. “They need to have self-care strategies to help them deal with the stress of supporting students who are dealing with trauma.”
Like teachers, employers also should be wary of traumatic events their employees may have gone through and, if necessary, provide them with the appropriate resources such as counseling or food bank services.
“It truly is about approaching situations through a lens of empathy and considering the root cause of the behaviors or stress,” Anderson said.
Thanks to a Denny Sanford-backed program, future teachers at DSU are learning how to help kids in the classroom who have dealt with trauma. This month, current educators can learn the same skills.