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Releasing the Mind of Childhood Trauma Through Writing

By Tiana Silvas
 | May 01, 2018

Society is experiencing overwhelming incidents of violence and oppression. These incidents impact everyone, but they have a heightened consequential impact on children. In an unsettling report from The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the 2010 BRFSS Adverse Childhood Experiences module indicated that almost two-thirds of adults have reported at least one childhood experience, ranging from living with a substance abuser to neglect. This report only includes reported numbers. What about the uncollected statistics? This means millions of students directly or indirectly experience adversity or trauma.

As teachers, we are likely to be the first people at school who have contact with a student who has experienced trauma or adversity. Some students immediately share their experience, while other students display behaviors related to it. I have witnessed students display aggression, a lack of focus, isolation, and regression. Sometimes, students who exhibit these behaviors are misdiagnosed with ADD, ADHD, or learning disabilities.

I will never forget an incident that happened when I taught in the South Bronx. One of our students was caught in gang crossfire and his mother was killed trying to shield him. The next day, students looked stunned and asked me many questions. I knew that this was not my students’ first experience with adversity, nor their last. Students that day said, “This happens. It’s sad, but it happens.” Trauma and adversity do not discriminate and have no boundaries; it can happen to anyone at any time.

As adults, we might have a set of coping strategies when faced with adversity, but what strategies do children have? Are children dealing with emotional situations by thinking those traumatic situations are normal? Are children putting on a brave front to survive? Are children coping with adversity and trauma in ways that others do not understand? Yes. Children are trying to reclaim their childhood.

What can classroom teachers do? In many schools, counselors are in high demand. This shortage extends the emotional responsibility to teachers. As the students’ experiences begin to unfold as they mature, we need to revise our practices to become more responsive and supportive to students who face trauma and adversity. One way I have supported students is by developing a sensitive and supportive writing workshop in which students can utilize writing as a coping tool.

Here are some ways to start creating a sensitive and supportive writing workshop for all students:

Class declaration of trust

Creating a shared understanding about trust in the classroom is key. This declaration of trust goes far beyond trusting students to be responsible. This kind of trust is angled toward the entire community understanding that individuals need to feel emotionally and physically sound. These points might look different for each individual. Some students might feel triggered and respond physically. When this occurs, it is critical that we stay calm and make sure that those students understand that they are not being judged.

Each year I make sure students have plenty of space to share aspects of their lives so they have opportunities to get to know each other on multiple levels. With this practice, we create listening routines that are inviting, and students begin to move from listening to actually hearing one another. As a teacher, I share parts of my life and at times show vulnerability. This openness brings humanization to our practice. Once students have created a trusting environment, they then can define their needs for emotional and physical well-being as they begin to take risks. This is the foundation of my writing workshop.


Choice is one way to return power to the student. Students who are experiencing trauma and adversity need to have a sense of control over some aspect of their lives. As teachers, we cannot control what happens outside of school, but we can empower students by providing choice. To do this, I consider students’ unique ways of expressing themselves and how they construct meaning.

If we want students to write and to feel that writing is a way to work through life, then we must employ multiple areas of choice throughout their writing experiences. Their choices can range from the type of notebook to topic selection. The most important aspect of choice is to make sure that students feel like they can write about any topic throughout the year. Genres are flexible; therefore, student topics can be nurtured across genres. For instance, I had a student write throughout the year about domestic violence in multiple ways though memoir writing, journalism, and essays.

As we nurture freedom of choice, we must keep in mind that what works for one student might not work for another.

Privacy and safety

As a sensitive and supportive writing workshop develops, students might disclose personal information. As a teacher, I feel that it is a positive step when students trust the classroom environment enough to share their stories. However, we must proceed with caution.

First, students should never be pushed to write about their trauma. To honor privacy and trust, the student must initiate this step. At times, a student’s writing has caught me off guard and triggered an emotional response. As we read their writing, we must remain open and grounded. If students decide to share a traumatic or adverse experience, they are showing trust, and we must continue to develop that trust. There will be times their writing will remain private. On the other hand, students’ safety and well-being are the top priorities. Teachers have a responsibility to take action and follow reporting protocols if students reveal something that puts their safety in jeopardy.

There is an emerging need to develop coping strategies for our students facing trauma and adversity. Our practice is calling for the development of a sensitive and supportive writing workshop that provides students with avenues to explore their own topics while allowing them to develop within their writing journey of trust. These values are important to the whole child. As such, I keep these at the forefront of my teaching.

Silvas wrote about the topic of reading in the wake of violence and trauma and how students can find comfort in books in the May/June issue issue of Literacy TodayILA's bimonthly member magazine.

Tiana Silvas is an educator, researcher, and advocate. She is currently a fifth-grade public school teacher in New York City and a Heinemann Fellow.

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