If your church has classrooms, you’ve no doubt taken the time to make sure you have all the right supplies. You’ve probably even put hours of work into making the classrooms attractive, fun, and welcoming to put both kids and their parents at ease. You’ve chosen the teachers and aides with great care, ensuring they have the right knowledge and personalities to support the messages you want to deliver.

But if you haven’t made the effort to ensure your classrooms are trauma-competent, you may not be connecting with some of the kids who need you most.

When counselors speak of trauma, we’re generally referring to what have come to be known as adverse childhood experiences (ACES), situations in children’s lives that have affected their sense of safety or well-being. Some ACES are obvious, such as being the victim of physical or sexual abuse, living with a parent who is suffering from a mental illness or substance abuse, or being a witness to domestic violence in the home. Other examples that might not come to mind as quickly include having been in the foster care system, experiencing a high number of medical procedures, being bullied, or having been homeless for any length of time.

While it’s not unusual for people to have suffered at least one adverse experience in childhood, we start thinking in terms of trauma when children face severe or multiple ACES during their young lives. Researchers have found direct connections between the number of ACES and a child’s ability to focus, learn, and behave appropriately in settings such as a Sunday School class.

For example, kids who have experienced trauma have a difficult time self-regulating their attention, behavior, and emotions. Success requires developing trust in adults and the ability to understand, organize, and remember subject matter, and kids who have lived through multiple traumas often struggle with all of those. A kid whose brain is focused on survival can’t focus on and process new information. So he or she may react in unhealthy ways, creating problems in the classroom and with other students.

There are sound, proven strategies for supporting students who have been exposed to trauma, such as creating a calmer environment and developing healthy ways for students to cope with their feelings. Our team has created a workshop using the ACES study and other evidence-based models, to help your staff maintain a classroom environment that encourages student learning. Contact us to learn more.

Brittany Smith is one of Care to Change’s licensed therapists. She focuses on helping young children and teens who have faced challenges find the guidance and support needed to become healthy adults. 

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