by Christa Rogers, Team Leader and Hope Fleece, Teacher
In 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic interrupted the daily lives of people globally. Families sheltered in place, people who commuted daily to the office worked from home, and students who spent time in the classroom socially engaged with peers and learning from professionals found themselves thrust into chaos learning from home. From this, many students developed anxiety from traumatic events happening around them, and missed out on important growth and development opportunities from their routine, in-person school engagement.
Education was disrupted. For most students, the last few months of the 2019-2020 school year were inconsistent and confusing. As the threat of the pandemic emerged, educational professionals struggled to quickly develop alternative curricula for their students in attempts to keep a "normal" routine. For families unequipped to transform their homes into educational facilities, this presented a unique challenge. As a result, some students faced the task of self-discipline to keep routine and, as a result, their education took a back burner to physical and mental health concerns. As the pandemic progressed over the following two years, so too did the educational challenges expand. Thus, with the lack of consistent structure, students continued to struggle with academics, and some found themselves in situations that resulted in self-teaching.
Additionally, natural social transitions occur between elementary and middle school, and again from middle to high school; however, due to the pandemic, many of these transitions were disrupted. Further, while academics were able to continue with limited in-person interactions, other school social events (e.g., sports, dances, clubs, etc.) were placed on hold. While working with students, our team discovered that the students who struggled the most during our last academic year were those who were transitioning from elementary to middle school, or from middle to high school. For context, these students were in the 4th and 7th grades when the pandemic shut down their district, and returned to full-time instruction in 6th and 9th grades, respectively. Thus, not only were the students returning from learning in the comfort of their homes, but they were being introduced to unfamiliar buildings and personnel. Ultimately, this overwhelmed the students and created a social-emotional imbalance that resulted in disruptive behaviors.
So, we are faced with a daunting challenge. Our students have lost social-emotional growth, the ability to mature, and the ability to transition without behaviors of concern. The last two years have been everything but a "normal" routine for them. Yet, despite the constant mantra of coming out of the pandemic and returning to "normal", normality may be elusive when considering the trauma and two-year disruption to the routines and rituals necessary for normal child growth and development that many children have experienced.
As educational professionals, it is important that we engage students with the understanding that this extreme gap in routines and rituals is changing how students interact with teachers and other school personnel. As teachers and paraprofessionals in the classroom, we need to focus on our ability to encourage students to return to structure that will allow them to identify their needs, regulate emotions, and learn coping skills that will build resilience.
Now, as we look forward to the upcoming academic year, it is important that we utilize the trauma-informed practices provided by Laurel Life that can allow us to reintroduce "normal" routines and rituals to the students, and allow the them to find success in the classroom and everyday living. By utilizing trauma-informed care, the goal is to treat the root of the problem, not the symptoms of students’ behaviors. It is our purpose to understand the why of a child’s actions, while also understanding that the child is vulnerable. We do not want to do anything that may retraumatize our students, but instead supply services that can promote feelings of comfort and security to be successful.
Routines and rituals are crucial components of a trauma-informed classroom. The Attachment, Regulation, and Competency (ARC) Fundamentals (What Is ARC? – ARC Framework, 2016) that govern the interventions used by Laurel Life state that establishing routines and rituals is a cross-cutting strategy essential across treatment targets. This means that it is imperative that every student have a clear understanding of the expectations of their daily routine. Without clear expectations and appropriate classroom management, students will not find value in their educational opportunities. In particular, children who have experienced trauma and anxiety need consistency. Therefore, it is important that we use routines and rituals to establish a baseline of safety.
Our classrooms are a safe space to learn. Each day, students can expect to be engaged in the same manner. When there is a change in the routine, it is important to announce this as soon as we have the information. However, we do not want to give too much information too soon, as some students become hyper-focused and begin to worry about the change. Thus, utilizing a classroom calendar and a daily routine chart for students to reference can help the students focus on learning and not worry about the unknown.
Although routines and the rituals of the classroom environment and daily routine are consistent, there should be opportunities for staff to be flexible. It is important to follow the schedule, but allowing flexibility provides a demonstration of fairness and reward for students who are making progress. Encouraging the students to recognize that they have grown and are making strides towards their academic goals is important when the specific, overall goal may be overwhelming. Celebrating the steps to success is crucial to supporting growth. Further, recognizing progress and adjusting the routine, on occasion, to celebrate can promote more positive interactions.
Staff should take the time to get to know their students, and allow the students to know their contributions to the classroom are valid and important. Although the classroom includes students of similar age and some basic grade-level functions, it also presents a room full of students with varied abilities and individual needs. Being prepared to meet the needs of the individual learners is crucial in the classroom, and this includes their social and emotional needs. Therefore, having strategies in place that can promote success is important.
It is important to create and maintain a culture of care. All students have strengths and can be motivated. Just because a student may fail to show that strength does not mean it does not exist or cannot be developed. Having a positive attitude and building relationships can lead to healthy and respectful rapport. Students who achieve rapport in the educational setting have a better chance at building and keeping positive interactions outside of the classroom, as well.
Every person who is engaged and involved in a child’s education should be open to differences and flexible with instruction while providing consistent routines and rituals. Educators should encourage a child to succeed. If a child feels welcomed and included in the classroom through relationships and rapport, they will find the confidence to transition beyond the classroom. Understanding that the student is capable and making it possible for the student to learn will provide a continuum of care that will address concerns, celebrate successes, and achieve the goals of the students served. These students may then find a familiar feeling of "normal" as they return to their classrooms in the upcoming academic year.
What is ARC? ARC: Attachment, Regulation and Competency. (2016). Retrieved August 22, 2022, from https://arcframework.org/what-is-arc/