The program also incorporates education and psychological research, which shows that an important part of teaching kids with trauma is recognizing their triggers in the first place. Once teachers understand a student’s individual triggers—like loud noises or touch—and notice signs of agitation early, they can try to deescalate the situation before it blows up. Making a child feel safe in the classroom is paramount. And a child’s brain thrives on repetition and order, so trauma-informed teaching also involves regular, rhythmic activities like drumming, mindful breathing, and visualizations.
Read: The kids aren’t all right
Boyle starts every day in her classroom with body-based rhythmic activities, like banging on drums and shaking shakers. She and her staff expand the children’s vocabulary so they can better express their emotions, and she has the children eat lunch family style in the classroom, at a dining table, to learn certain social skills; there, they practice saying common phrases like “Please, pass the scrambled eggs.” They hold parents’ nights regularly, where families work together on projects like decorating ornaments or cookies.
Boyle and her team also walk students through “do-overs”: If a backpack is thrown in anger, the child is handed back the backpack and given the chance to handle the situation differently. Whenever the do-over is successful, no matter how many times it takes, they celebrate. “Often, we see kids doing their own do-overs or asking for a do-over on their own,” she told me. “The power of a do-over is pretty amazing.” Boyle can give those students the attention they need, while students in traditional classrooms can learn without interruptions.
Ben, the student who melted down during the math lesson, was often triggered by assignments that felt overwhelming, so Boyle helped him “chunk” large projects into smaller tasks, and has found alternative workspaces for him to use where he feels more comfortable. She also helped him recognize and record his pulse and heart rate, so he could identify when he was heading toward an outburst, and she encouraged him to take short walks to calm himself.
The ATLAS class has been a learning experience for Boyle, too. “The first day of school I wanted to walk the kids out to the playground,” she said. “I thought, ‘There’s twelve of them, right? How hard can this be?’” It turns out that even walking down the hallway was plenty hard. Students jumped, punched each other, and touched displays on the bulletin boards. But the next day, she had the students focus on clapping and snapping to a rhythm while they walked. The change worked like magic. These kids don’t need expensive interventions; they just need a teacher to pay attention to what works for them.
More than anything else, Boyle has learned that building an emotional connection with students early on is essential. That connection starts over the summer, when she reaches out to students with phone calls, email, letters, and sometimes visits to their homes. Once school begins, she has her students help decorate the ATLAS classroom so they can build a sense of community and feel ownership over the space. Every day, they are greeted with a personalized greeting—a high five, a pinkie shake, whatever they choose. And Boyle makes a point to share some of her own life with them.