Empathy empowers learning at The Jefferson School

September 18, 2017

These past few weeks, Mother Nature has amply demonstrated her power to upend entire communities. As families rebuild their lives, the resulting trauma can linger for months, even years, impacting classrooms as well as homes.

With their professional development focus on the science of learning and social-emotional development, The Jefferson School faculty has been exploring the effects of both long- and short-term childhood trauma on learning and classroom management. At the end of the last school year, a workshop called The Trauma Informed Educator: Setting Students up for Success was presented by Candace Shetzler, MS, OTR/L, Cape Integrated Wellness, and Rebecca Ghabour, PhD, associate professor and Psychology Program chair, Wilmington University. In early September, Ghabour and Shetzler returned with a follow-up workshop, Trauma Informed Teaching. Both Shetzler and Ghabour are Jefferson School parents.

The ongoing goal of these explorations is to create a compassionate classroom environment. A compassionate classroom does not lack academic rigor. Rather, it is a place where children feel they belong and are understood. It is a place to meet challenges head on, a safe place to fail as well as succeed.

Trauma is not an event itself; it is a response to a stressful experience in which a person's ability to cope is dramatically undermined. This is particularly the case for children, who are still in the process of developing coping skills and building resilience to weather life's challenges

Children embody a complex mix of interests, joys, passions, fears, needs and hopes. This combination may also include traumatic experiences, either past or ongoing, the causes of which are varied. In some cases, events like separation or divorce, serious illness or death of loved ones and even pets, can trigger symptoms of trauma. In addition to catastrophic events like natural disasters, long-term effects can also be caused by emotional or physical abuse or neglect. These experiences can manifest themselves in a variety of ways emotionally through anger, withdrawal or anxiety, for example. Learning can be adversely impacted regarding focus, skill development and retention.

Traditional classroom management strategies may not be effective for children struggling with trauma. Teachers who strive to create a compassionate classroom environment work to create relationships between the teacher and students that is controlled, but not controlling. Children experiencing trauma often feel that their lives are out of control. The goal is to build trust by providing structure and support in the classroom. Working in partnership with parents is a critical component of the compassionate classroom. Working with family members or caregivers of traumatized children is particularly important.

The final, often overlooked component of compassionate classrooms is the teachers’ attention to their own well-being. Great teachers care deeply about the welfare of their students. When one or more students are going through trauma, empathetic teachers can become worn out by the demands of the work, becoming less effective individually and collectively. Acquiring the awareness and techniques to manage the anxiety and stress that often accompany the work is essential to maintaining balance, enthusiasm and energy. By learning about the effects of childhood trauma together, they can develop a network of support for each other.

The Jefferson School has a history of creating enduring bonds with students and their families. When children experience trauma, secure attachment to their school can bring stability in an otherwise unstable world. By offering dependable, trusting relationships, and nurturing friendships and positive, enjoyable learning opportunities, TJS will continue to provide an emotionally safe learning environment where all students can thrive.