Missy McClain is passionate about her job advocating for kids and educating teachers on trauma informed care. Having experienced a traumatic childhood herself, she knows firsthand what some of these kids are facing.
“It’s important for teachers to understand the impact physical and social trauma has on a child’s ability to focus and learn,” said Missy. “That trauma could be anything from child abuse or violence to someone who was the victim of a fire. Kids who have experienced trauma often think and learn differently and frequently act out in the classroom.”
Missy says trauma is deeply personal, and it can’t be solved by any one approach.
“Trauma isn’t just one thing, it’s a complex and unique experience for everyone,” she said.
In her role educating teachers, she stresses the value of creating sustainable relationships with students because teachers are often the one constant in a child’s life. Her training includes teaching strategies to help kids de-escalate, redirect and cope while in school.
Missy likens stress to something a person carries around in a backpack. From the predictable light daily stressors like being on time for carpool, to the heavy, less predictable stressors like car accidents and illnesses.
“All of our backpacks have a capacity,” she said. “We all carry around things that other people don’t know about. Some kids are carrying very heavy stressors (being in foster care, food insecurity or parents who are incarcerated or addicted to drugs) and when their bag reaches capacity, they lose it and act out, often in school.”
Trauma, which Missy describes as the prolonged activation of the body’s stress response, can often be helped when there is a trusted adult in a child’s life to act as a buffer. Without that buffer, trauma can impact cognitive development – meaning kids can’t self-regulate, describe their feelings or communicate their wishes or desires. It can also impact social development leading kids to withdraw and isolate themselves, distrust others and have difficulty establishing social boundaries. This is one of the reasons Missy encourages teachers to utilize social and emotional supports in the classroom.
“Research shows that test scores increase when you consistently use strategies as simple as deep breathing exercises or allow kids to talk about their feelings,” she said. “Helping kids feel safe and supported in the classroom has to happen every day – all the time – when the stakes are low, so that when the stakes are high these kids have coping skills to fall back on.”
“Rather than punish a child, teachers should ask the child, ‘What’s going on? I can tell you’re having a bad day’,” she said.
Missy says other methods she encourages teachers to use include progressive relaxation, guided visualization, fidgets, coloring and using flexible seating like floor mats, bean bag chairs and stability balls.
“Teachers are the ones who work with these kids every single day,” she said. “For some children, relationships with their teachers may be the most valuable and sustainable relationships they currently have going for them.”
As such, Missy says knowing a child’s history and how to avoid trauma triggers is invaluable.
“For a child who was a victim of a fire, a fire drill can be a very traumatic experience,” she said. “Expecting that child to be able to immediately refocus after the drill, when he just thought the school was on fire, may take a little extra time.”
Akron Public Schools’ teacher Ann Grass, who teaches ESL (English as a Second Language) at Harris- Jackson CLC, recently went through one of Missy’s trainings.
“As a teacher, it is extremely important for me to be educated on the types of trauma my students face, how it affects their cognitive abilities and how I can prevent a trauma-based reaction in my classroom,” she said.
Missy, who has presented to every metro school district in the state, as well as 275 other districts in Ohio, offers a live, online binder with tips and tools for educators who have gone through her training.
“I am constantly updating the binder and adding information and topics,” she said. “It’s a great resource on topics like stress, trauma, bullying, school violence and resilience to give teachers useful strategies.”
For more information on scheduling trauma training, contact Missy at firstname.lastname@example.org.