By Teresa Rogers
According to the 2015 Kentucky Behavioral Risk Factor Survey, more than half (59 percent) of Kentucky residents have experienced at least one Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE). Of those that have experienced at least one ACE, 64 percent have experienced two or more of these events.
ACEs include child abuse, which includes sexual, physical, psychological/emotional and childhood neglect. Students may experience household dysfunction, such as living with a parent who has a mental illness or having an incarcerated parent. They may witness violence between the adults or the effects of a parent’s substance abuse. Students may feel a sense of isolation and abandonment due to the loss of a parent due to death, separation or divorce. The impact of these traumatic events can have negative, lasting effects on health and well-being.
According to the Kentucky Department for Public Health’s Division of Maternal and Child Health, the risk for chronic conditions and risky health behaviors rises as the number of ACEs increase. Students who experience multiple ACEs also are more likely to engage in risky health behaviors such as smoking and binge drinking.
The impact of these events are visible in the classroom as well. Chronic exposure to trauma can affect a student’s ability to focus, organize and process information, often leading to overwhelming feelings of frustration and anxiety. Teachers see the results of these statistics every day, so how do we address the pain and trauma suffered by more than half of the students in our classroom?
In an article in a 2015 issue of the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, “Teaching with strengths in trauma-affected students: a new approach to healing and growth in the classroom,” University of Melbourne researchers Tom Brunzell, Lea Waters and Helen Stokes identified teachers as the “front-line trauma healers in the context of the classroom.” For students with little security in their lives, the predictable routine of school can be a key element toward healing. Structure and clear expectations provide a sense of safety and lead to opportunities to form positive relationships with teachers and peers.
Although counseling is outside the realm of a teachers’ scope of practice, they are responsible for creating a positive, safe space and an engaging, rigorous curriculum that allows for the success of all students. The nature of the English language arts curriculum provides a relatively endless choice of tools for students to develop a resilient mindset and build upon their individual strengths.
These powerful tools are the books that we put into the hands of students every day.
Throughout history, people of all cultures have used stories and creative writing to make sense of the world around them. Early physicians and healers recognized the therapeutic use of reading, and often recommended reading for medical purposes. The term bibliotherapy was introduced in 1916 by Samuel Crothers in an article in the Atlantic Monthly. Bibliotherapy – which can be defined as the use of reading to promote healing and growth – has been used in both the educational and psychological disciplines.
In the classroom, bibliotherapy can provide a safe distance from which to explore stressful or painful experiences. As students connect with and follow the struggles of characters much like themselves, they are able to see life through a broader lens. The emotions, choices and outcomes of the character provide a context for the student to be able to look beyond their current situation as the story unfolds. Bibliotherapy also can bring equity into the classroom. Students find comfort and acceptance as they see themselves mirrored in the diverse life events of others, gradually building a vocabulary and voice to advocate for themselves.
As you reflect on how to use literacy to meet the needs of students with acute childhood experiences, there are several aspects to consider.
Creating a sense of safety and stability in your classroom is a crucial first step to meeting the needs of students experiencing a traumatic event. Remember, school may be the only stable part of a student’s life. Provide a structured routine. Set clear expectations and norms of how students communicate and treat each other. These boundaries can set the stage for a strong sense of peer trust and respect. Develop an ear for student conversations and reinforce classroom norms when needed.
Developing a supportive, trusting relationship with students facing an adverse childhood event is critical to determining appropriate instructional practices. Privacy and student wishes must be always respected.
Consider the impact of a text on your students. Talk to any student(s) privately before introducing a text that may stir an emotional response. Some students talk openly and freely about personal struggles, others do not. Always leave the door open for students who aren’t ready to talk. Show them you care, but never force a student to reveal more than they are comfortable with sharing
Know your students reading preferences by asking which books they want to read. What lessons, insight or inspiration could the text provide? Is the text better suited to the needs of the whole class, a small group or do you simply recommend it to a student who may find it beneficial?
As you guide students through the text, point out the resiliency of the character(s). Ask students to identify how the character overcame or adapted to hardships or challenges and what resources did they have? Proceed cautiously when asking for connections to personal experience, especially in a whole group setting. Honor any student’s wishes to process information privately.
After reading, allow for all kinds of emotional responses. You may choose to simply end a chapter and let the impact sink in. Provide opportunities for reflection through writing and/or drawing. Remind students of the caring adults within the school to talk with when they are ready.
Finally, be sure to provide a balance of reading. Don’t overwhelm students with “heart heavy” topics. Instead vary the genre, tone and diversity of what students read. Give students opportunities to laugh, dream and wonder through the texts you offer.
Although the world of reading can offer an escape, educators can help reduce stress and anxiety during difficult situations, and should be sensitive the individual needs of each student. But recognize the limitations of your role as a teacher. Consult with the school counselor and parents if you have concerns or questions. Your library media specialist may be able to recommend appropriate texts.
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