By Jane Crecco, MA, MSEd – Training and Support Specialist,
Recruitment, Training and Support Center (RTSC), FCSN
When children enter first grade, perhaps the first time they have entered a structured classroom, it can be a scary event. More kids, more rules, and less time to move around and play. Try to imagine how a student feels if they are coming from a chaotic home, where food might be scarce and parents’ behaviors may be unpredictable or unsafe. These children are used to a dangerous environment where they need to be constantly ready to keep themselves safe.
It is also possible that this student does not have a stack of books by their bed and nobody to read to her/him. This child may spend more time in front of a computer or television with little practice in receptive and expressive speech. No one has provided an opportunity to develop the early skills to read body language and social cues, or develop the ability to feel empathy or remorse, because no trusting adult could teach him how these emotions look and feel. This “traumatized” student is “at-risk” and likely in jeopardy for school failure.
By first grade, typically developing children have already gained enough social and emotional skills to make their way through a school day and all its demands — riding on a crowded school bus; lining up and keeping quiet; organizing personal possessions; eating snacks and lunch with other kids in a noisy lunchroom; going out to play; and finally, returning home and knowing what must be done to get ready for the next day.
However, for children with complex childhood trauma, a lack of stimulus in their early upbringing affects their ability to regulate reactions to these common situations, which instead often appear dangerous to them. In early education especially, children with trauma have not developed the ability to tell the difference between a dangerous environment and one that is noisy and crowded, but relatively safe. These children are always on high alert. Their hyper-aroused state does not allow their brain to process new situations or new learning because it is too busy keeping itself safe.
Social-emotional learning (SEL) in the classroom becomes critical for these children during ages 6-12. An over-reactive child can be disruptive and sometimes dangerous to themselves or others. After these events occur, the student often feels humiliated and stigmatized. SEL can help all students learn self-awareness and self-management skills as well as build self-esteem.
It is important for family members and school professionals to recognize and understand the unique needs of these children. The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education has published the Guidelines on Implementing Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) Curricula (www.doe.mass.edu/bullying/SELguide.pdf) A quick internet search will bring up many different types of evidence-based curricula currently being rolled out throughout the country. A good place to start your search is here: www.casel.org/guide.