It’s a Monday morning in the New Haven (Connecticut) Public Schools. Every Monday, my speech-language treatment sessions kick off with one of my kindergarten students. Every week with this student is a new adventure.
This Monday, he wears his typical soiled clothes and clings to the arms of the paraeducator bringing him to the session. He is not crying. He is not mad. He is clearly preoccupied, resulting in his usual withdrawn demeanor. He clings harder to the helper as I approach, places his head down and falls asleep within seconds as if he didn’t sleep the night before.
We finally make it to my office but not without some apprehension. At the start of the school year, it took us nearly 10 minutes before we were able to start our walk to my office.
We know this student at some point experienced trauma. Unfortunately, we don’t know the details. We don’t know what precipitated his presenting behavior this morning, but this is how he arrives at school and we rack our brains to figure out how to best meet his needs while giving him a positive and enriching learning experience.
What I just described is common for many of my students.
The prevalence of childhood trauma is at an all-time high in our nation and is drastically greater for students in inner cities, like my district, who are living in poverty. Trauma can present in many forms, including maltreatment, witnessing violence, or loss of a loved one. We know trauma can affect brain development, behavior, and emotional intelligence. Many of my students also experience learning, behavioral, and intellectual difficulties.
Working with so many students who experience trauma, I scoured the research and found the following strategies helpful in my sessions with this population:
- Be as flexible as possible when responding to “good” and “poor” behaviors and provide tactful reinforcement. Not every “poor” behavior warrants attention unless it’s unsafe. Understand that this population of students may react disproportionately to a prompt, present with unique aversions, and become easily frustrated or triggered. If possible, know and understand potential triggers.
- Create a trusting environment for the student. Establishing a trusting relationship opens the door to addressing your intervention goals. My students usually require regulation before they can focus on session activities. A strong rapport with students goes a long way!
- Choose high-interest materials and give as many opportunities for “choice” materials or activities. Students should enjoy their time with you. Make sessions easy-going and predictable while (hopefully) addressing their treatment objectives.
- Empower! Recognize and highlight individual strengths as often as possible. Foster self-love, worthiness, and respect.
We eventually make it to my office on Monday and play a few rounds of “Hungry, Hungry Hippo” while working on our target /ch/ sound. We place his hard-earned sticker on his speech chart while reciting our weekly self-love mantra. He looks up at me, points toward his feet and says, “ouch” with particular emphasis on /ch/. I look down to find that his shoes are on the wrong feet and before I can even think about feeling sad or concerned, he lets out a laugh and allows me to fix his shoes as he proudly repeats his articulation target and I proudly listen.
Cayla White, MS, CCC-SLP, works in the New Haven Public Schools, New Haven, Connecticut. firstname.lastname@example.org