Trauma Sensitive Schools: Universal Precautions

We are familiar with universal precautions taken in hospitals: gloves, masks, gowns, and boots- all things used to stop by spread of germs. These precautions keep everyone safe- not just the patient. They are designed to keep ALL patients healthy as well as the doctors. However, what about universal precautions in the classroom and school building?

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If we apply this same concept, we should be taking the same precautions to stop the spread of trauma in our building, but also taking steps to create an environment that is safe and secure for those who may have experienced a trauma.

What do I mean by spreading trauma? Have you ever had a kiddo that just can’t regulate? Perhaps they escalate to a state of yelling or throwing. Perhaps they become unsafe to others or self. Perhaps they become a distraction or perhaps the entire class has to leave the area.

When this happens, it’s reasonable that other kids will have a reaction (fear or worry) or even that it may trigger a memory or experience they have had. Watching your classmate struggle and how the adults around you handle these situations can help affirm for students school is a safe and secure place or that it is a scary, unpredictable place.

By taking universal precautions, we can help create an environment that is not just focused on the student that is dysregulated or experienced a trauma, but is focused on all students. So what are universal precautions?

Calm Corners

Calm or peace corners provide a safe space inside the room designed to help students self regulate. You don’t need “stuff” in the space- in fact, having visuals of coping skills a student can do anywhere is even better because it helps them transfer this skill to other areas.

It is important that you don’t just set it and forget it. You need to teach students how to use the area, when to use it, how to access it, expectations, and the coping skills they can use.

Looking to set up a calm corner in your office or start them school wide? Check out my starter kit.

Morning Meetings

Class meetings are a responsive and restorative way to build class community. If we want our students to problem solve and care about each other, we need to foster empathy. I find class meetings are a powerful way to create a positive class culture.

In our building we use the Sanford Harmony ‘s Meet Up and Buddy Up resources to guide our class meetings.

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Greet, Then Question

Before you start to question about why they were absent or why their homework isn’t done, talk to them! Welcome them to school and tell them how glad you are they are here. Talk to them and then ask about attendance, homework, etc.

Remember to be mindful of how you ask! Instead, of asking “why isn’t your homework done” try “I notice your homework isn’t done, what’s getting in the way?”

Instead of “how was your break?” try “what are you looking forward to this year/week?”

Neutral tone of voice

It’s not easy to be neutral, but the tone of voice is just as important as what you are saying.

When you finally hit that right tone of voice - Rafiki Meditating - Lion  King | Make a Meme

Consent

The idea of teaching kids consent has been a powerful one for me the last few years. We had a student with a history of sexual abuse who loved to hug and get hugs. Everyone thought it was fine, until it wasn’t.

It is vital that we teach kids consent at an early age. They are the boss of their body, which means they can say no, even to hugs from family and friends. I often teach students if someone invades your personal space, put up a hand to signal a stop sign and saying, “please stop” or even “I feel uncomfortable, please back up.”

This also means we need to model consent, for example asking if a hug would help instead of just hugging. Sure, that student may have liked hugs, but we are teaching them boundaries, appropriate adult relationships, and life-long safety skills.

Greetings

Greeting our students and using their name is a foundational block in building relationships. It is also important that we teach our students to greet each other by name. It’s a perfect skill to practice in your class meeting. Looking for a greetings resources, check out my beginning of the year pack?

Avoid re-traumatizing

What does this mean? The amygdala stores the visual images of trauma as sensory fragments, which means the trauma memory is not stored like a story, rather by how our five senses were experiencing the trauma at the time it was occurring. The memories are stored through fragments of visual images, smells, sounds, tastes, or touch.

Being mindful of how we engage our students senses is key here. How loud are we? How fast are we moving towards them? Are we on eye level or standing above them? Is the story one they can relate to and thus may be triggering?

Sensory Sensitive

Being sensitive to senses isn’t just for allergies or kids on the spectrum. Smells, sights, and sounds also trigger our amygdala and send us into fight, flight, freeze or fawn.

Studies have shown that children’s cognitive abilities was reduced in high-loaded visual environments. A study in 2020 showed that the rate of off task behavior was higher in the decorated classroom (38.6% time spent off-task)  than in the sparse classroom (28.4% time spent off task).

So I encourage you and your teachers- take the stuff off the walls and purge, purge, purge.

Self Care

It’s really true- you can’t take care of others unless you take care of yourself first. Flight attendants have been telling us for years, “Put on your oxygen mask before helping others.” It’s time to listen to this wise wisdom.

Provide choices

For some of our students, choice means they feel a sense of control they have never felt before. While for others, it means giving them opportunities to practice decision making and responsibility. Giving kids small choices is a simple tool that encourages them to be thoughtful thinkers.

Here are some simply choice ideas:

  • Would you like to use pen or pencil?
  • Would you like to sit in the front seat or back seat?
  • Would you like to write or draw first?
  • After you are finished, would you like to read or color?
  • Would you like to start here or there?
  • Would you like apple or orange juice?
  • Would you like to start with #1 or #3?

Being trauma sensitive is more that preventing and responding to kids with ACES- it’s about creating a school wide culture and climate of safety and security!

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