Kids Should Feel Safe At School

Saturday, July 8, 2017

I am a social worker in foster care.  In this job, I see many stories of child neglect and abuse. I get their story, then I see their school behavior reports and think, “these are normal responses to what they’ve been through”.  Teachers cannot know what children go through at home. Sometimes, everything seems okay other than the child is “acting out”, or perhaps they are given a diagnosis of ADHD, when really their behaviors are a response to their environment.  

I would like to help teachers understand how trauma in a child’s life can greatly affect a child’s ability to behave appropriately, as well as their ability to learn.  A study called Adverse Childhood Experiences was conducted many years ago, but we are constantly learning more about what trauma does to a child’s brain.  When a person experiences a traumatic event, let’s say physical abuse, the body rushes cortisol to the brain to give them extra adrenaline to respond to the danger.  We know these responses as “fight, flight (run away) or freeze”.  The body’s natural response is to calm the brain once the danger is over.  When this type of situation is a frequent occurrence, the brain cannot return to “normal” and it experiences “toxic stress”. Therefore, it stays continuously heightened in what we call survival mode.  Psychologists and neurologists have determined that this state of mind creates difficulty with learning, memory retrieval, and concentration.  Irritability, fear and loss of control are other common symptoms. 

Since we cannot know what children endure outside of school, it is safest to assume that many of them have experienced difficult times such as poverty, abuse or neglect.  So, what can we do differently about difficult behaviors and learning setbacks?  My hope is that staff from every school becomes trauma-informed and they begin to think of children in terms of “what has happened to you?”, rather than “what is wrong with you?”  Especially for teenage students. 

What would this look like?  For a start: 

Patience (in your tone, and your face). Children are smart and pick up on negativity. 

A peaceful and joyful atmosphere.  Children need a safe place, and often, school is it for them.  Make them feel like you are happy they are there. 

A classroom/school that is mindful of sensory issues, not just for those with diagnosed sensory issues. All children can benefit from proper stimulation. Structure and predictability can go a long way in making children feel safe. 

The ACEs study revealed that children with high number of adverse experiences had difficulties even into adulthood. However, the study also revealed that at least one supportive and stable adult in a child’s life helps to build resiliency.  Imagine if every staff member that interacts with students made them feel safe and loved- consistently and unconditionally, how much resiliency could we instill into our students? I am hopeful that we can move in this direction in every school. 

For information on the Tennessee ACEs Initiative or for information on training to become a trauma-informed provider, please visit:  I am also happy to answer any questions that I am able, at   

If you suspect child abuse or neglect, please call the Child Abuse Hotline at 1-877-237-0004. 

Melissa Hand, MSW

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