Predictability is Key

Here’s a simple piece of advice when working with kids who have experienced trauma.

By Momentous Institute | Jan 13, 2016
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Here’s a simple piece of advice when working with kids who have experienced trauma. If you’re not sure if you work with kids in trauma, read this post: Chase the Why. If you’re still not sure, you can use this advice anyway – it works for all kids!
Predictability is key. Kids who have experienced trauma often have anxiety around change. This makes sense when we think about it. Think about a kid who has a regular, predictable home life – dad picks him up every day from school, they go home, eat dinner, play, read some books, take a bath, and go to bed. One day dad has an appointment so mom picks him up. This kid can probably handle that change. It’s not the normal routine, but he’s secure in the predictable nature of his environment and so he’s adaptable. Now think about a kid whose home life is chaotic. Sometimes mom picks him up from school. Sometimes no one shows up and the office has to call home to see who is coming. After school, sometimes they go straight home, and sometimes they drive around and stop a bunch of places, but he has no idea what mom is doing. They live in a house, and then one day mom tells them that they had to move somewhere new. When you think about this kid, you can imagine that he’s constantly in a state of unpredictability. He never has a clear grasp on what’s normal, and what’s coming next.
That second child could benefit from having some predictability in his life. If every day at school, there is a set schedule that the teacher shares at morning meeting, there are established rules that are consistently enforced, and there are familiar faces in the classroom, the child will start to settle in. His brain won’t constantly have to monitor the situation for risks or potential changes. His anxiety might begin to go down. And he can access the prefrontal cortex – the part of his brain that helps him pay attention in class and learn.
Of course, nothing is predictable all of the time. But now that we’re thinking about this child and how his brain handles change, we can do our best to preempt anything that might trigger his anxiety. If the routine is going to change in any way, we can let him know in advance. We can tell the whole class that tomorrow is field day, and first we’re going to eat lunch in our classroom, and then we’re going to go outside and play for 45 minutes. Then we might also talk privately with that particular student and explain to him what to expect. If we’re going to be absent, we can explain what a substitute teacher is and what to expect. Despite our best efforts, there will be times when things come up and students will have to be flexible. But when we use our trauma lens, and think about life through the eyes of these particular kids, we can see that something like predictability can go a long way to helping them thrive.