In part two of our heart-to-heart conversation about understanding trauma in the classroom, Megin Ruston illuminates the path to empowering educators to step into their roles as unwavering advocates for their young charges. We discuss understanding the profound impact of trauma on a child's brain and behavior and equipping oneself with the tools to manage those critical dysregulated moments. 

By embracing self-care and emotional regulation, teachers can become the bedrock upon which children can rebuild their sense of safety and learn to express and regulate their own emotions. From the practicality of visual aids for emotional communication to the subtleties of co-regulation, this conversation is a treasure trove of insights.


Kate Cline  

Megin Ruston

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Kate: Hi, everyone. Welcome to the Teaching with CLASS podcast, the podcast that gives you quick, actionable tips to easily implement in your classroom. I'm your host, Kate Cline. In this episode, we continue our conversation with Megin Ruston on understanding trauma. 

In this episode, our focus is on the strategies that you can use in classrooms every day supporting children who need that extra bit of support and guidance. Let's dive in and continue the conversation.

Kate: We've got a lot of technical things going on. We know how this is relating to every day in classrooms and things like that. It feels to me like if we shift gears and talk about some strategies, also let's talk about strategies that are teacher-focused. Now that I understand my regulation is really important, what can I do to make sure I'm not bringing my own dysregulation to a situation, and then also child-focused strategies that we can use?

The question I have about that is, do I as the educator have to know all the stuff that's happened to the students in my classroom? You're saying it's a pretty safe bet given the instances. You said two-thirds of children generally have experienced some sort of trauma in their life. It's a fairly safe bet if something's going on. Responding in a way that needs a child's dysregulation is helpful to that child, whether I can say, it's because of their trauma or not. 

Really, thinking about what are those strategies that teachers can start with to help meet those needs, and also regulate their own amygdala responses that are happening, because it's stressful in the classroom. When a child throws a chair, jumps off a shelf, whacks somebody in the face, kicks you, or all these things happen, it is very, very hard to manage your own emotions and then be able to decide, how do I respond in this moment to help this child?

I have to get my own self under control because I have big decisions to make about how to respond. Talk to me about this whole situation and what we can do as educators.

Megin: To answer the first part of your question, do you need to know definitively whether this particular child has experienced trauma? Do you need to know the ins and outs of their trauma if they have? It's helpful if you know that going in, like, okay, I know that this child has recently been placed into foster care. That is very helpful information for you as the educator because you know coming in, okay, this child is coming in with emotional dysregulation. This child is coming in with a deficit in their piggy bank.

Kate: Brain development. Yes. Their attachment, their ability to attach maybe to people.

Megin: Right, there are definitely changes in family dynamics going on. It is helpful to know that. Do you need to know the details of their experience? No, you do not. That is their story. That's up to them.

That said, if you notice a child who is exhibiting some of these behaviors, like this child is four years old and is so easily overstimulated, or this child is so easily frustrated to the point they are becoming physically aggressive, whether that child has experienced trauma or not, as the educator, you pick up on those behaviors, and you can step in and address them accordingly.

If you notice these children or some children are exhibiting some of these behaviors, your CLASS knowledge is going to play a really rich part. I think once you put those CLASS lenses on, it's really hard to take them off, and you will start to see most interactions through those lenses. When you're talking about working with children who have adverse experiences in their background, even more so.

When it comes to things like teacher sensitivity or regard for that child's perspective and helping them navigate through perspective taking, it is likely going to take more times. You will probably repeat those kinds of interactions more often with children who have experienced trauma than maybe with children who haven't. But all of those CLASS interactions, those CLASSy interactions are huge when it comes to working with these kids.

Kate: In terms of the educator sensitivity of being aware of what's going on with this child, responding in the moment in a way that resolves a problem, it builds that sense of comfort and their ability to rely on you as that, like you said, source of trust. You were talking about regard, also in terms of having children understanding their own perspective, what's happening for somebody else, what's going on. 

Earlier you were talking about behavior management or behavior guidance in the ways of maybe not those traditional methods such as timeout and things like that, where we need to keep in mind that children need different kinds of redirections and things and support for understanding the ways that we're building their awareness and their ability to navigate the social landscape and their own emotional landscape. It's self-regulation.

In a situation where a child is really having a tough time, they're frustrated, they are ready, whatever that particular stress response is, their response to stress where they exhibit some sort of behavior, I'm aware this is happening, I want to be responsive, what's a good way for me as an educator to enter into an interaction with a child to support them?

Megin: Once we've established our own regulated state, I think it is great to approach that child. We talk a lot about positive climate. There are some physical affection in a positive climate. However, you may not want to start with that until you have established strong trust with that child. 

However, I think it is a really great idea to come down to their level. That's another really key piece of it. If as an educator, you are exhibiting that awareness in the classroom and you notice, I see little Dylan over there, it looks like he might be getting worked up, I'm going to go see what's going on, then if you can catch the dysregulated state before it really reaches that critical mass, then you can prevent a lot of frustration for everybody.

Once you see a child exhibiting these behaviors, I think approaching them, coming down to eye level, just bending down and getting on their level, and giving them the emotional language, starting to introduce that emotional literacy and the vocabulary that they might need. 

Hi, Kate, I noticed it looks like you're getting really frustrated. Your hands are really clenched, and it looks like you're making a mad face, what's going on? Can you tell me? Can you tell me why you look upset? Introducing the vocabulary of emotional regulation to the child.

They're not going to have the language initially. We already know their brain development limits the regulation skills they're coming in with. But they're also not going to have all of that language to explain. They will be showing it to you in nonverbal ways. I think getting on their level, telling them what you are seeing, this is what it looks like to me, and you tell me, are you frustrated? Are you sad? What emotion are you feeling?

I think having lots of visuals is also super, super helpful. Having pictures that children can point to, yes, this is my face, this is what I'm feeling, this is not it. You may say like, oh, it looks like you're really sad. Are you sad? But the child might point to something else like, no, I'm angry. I think having visuals is really helpful as well because having a variety of ways for children to express themselves, especially if they can't do it verbally.

Kate: Right. We've got to be aware. We approach the child carefully. I personally have gotten down on a child's loved ones and had the fist come straight, so being careful about that. Also you're being a mirror for the child in a way of saying, I'm seeing this happening to you. Is this how you're feeling? Is something going on? Tell me about what's happening. And having other supports, visual supports, pictures of expressions or things that allow the child to share with you what's going on and be there with them.

I've approached, I've maybe named what's going on, and the child's like, yeah, and this happened and whatever. I'm trying to come at it in a regulated manner so I can co-regulate this situation. I can be the calm that helps get us through the storm. Where do I go next then as I'm trying to support this child's emotional wave that they're going through dysregulation to more regulation? What do I do next after I get that figured out?

Megin: I think once you have approached the child and maybe you have figured out why they are in the state that they are in, then you can help them start to get back to a regulated state. Here is where you want them in a regulated state so then you can follow up with problem-solving or perspective taking.

Kate: Okay, we don't jump right into the fixing it yet thing. We can't. Their brain's not ready. Earlier you were talking about when you're in a dysregulated state, you can't make decisions, you can't think, you can't learn. 

Megin: Exactly. Even adults, when we're really upset, we're probably not making the best decisions, or we might say something really impulsively or do something really impulsively, there's no higher order thinking going on when we are in a dysregulated state. For a brain that has only been on this earth for three years, five years, even more so. 

Once you have assessed, okay, this is what's going on. I know how that this child has been able to tell me what it is they're feeling, okay, now we can be like, oh, my gosh. I'm so glad you told me how you're feeling. Let's start working on calming down.

I always think it's great to offer children choices when you can. It's okay to ask them, do you want to sit with me for a little bit? Do you want to take some deep breaths? Should we go walk outside for a little bit? How can I help you? What can I do to help you feel better?

Kate: What would be helpful right now? What would help you right now? That's that regard. It's showing regard. It's letting the child have a say in what happens to them and how they feel that they can. What will be helpful in this moment? What will help you right now? 

You mentioned some choices. We could sit together, we could go for a walk together, we could take some deep breaths. We could read a book or what the different things might be in anybody's classroom.

Megin: Sure. Again, it might be different from one child to the next. Some children may be like, okay, taking some deep breaths with me and I'm good. Other children may need deep breaths. They may need a walk. They may need quiet time. They may need several things. They may need more support from you.

I's great because not only are you helping that child reach a regulated state. You know next time, you've now made a connection with that child, and now you know what's going to probably be helpful for that child if and when they reach a dysregulated state in the future. You know going in, oh, I know that this child really likes going for a walk when they're upset. I can approach that child, hey, I see that you're a little frustrated. Do you want to go for a walk? You've condensed that process a little bit. 

I think that also you're helping build that trusting relationship, and you're helping build that trust, letting that child know that you are a source of trust, you are a source of support. They can come to you. They can reach out to you when they're feeling dysregulated or they're feeling upset because without that trust, nothing else is going to happen. Without that relationship, little else will happen after that.

Kate: Coming at them when they're angry in an angry way and making them feeling bad, feel bad for how they're feeling isn't getting anybody anywhere. It's not building trust. It's not reducing that stress response. It's not regulating anybody. 

Getting to the place of I can respond to this, I can come in calmly, I can respond, I can connect with the child, I can find out what's going on, I can offer some ways to help the child get to the moment.

Do we need to have a moment of talking about it? What happened? Because now if I'm calm, the child that I'm working with is calm, and we're both now more regulated, that's when our brain can take over that thinking process. What do we do then?

Megin: Once everyone is back to a regulated state, I think coming back and navigating that resolution is really, really important. Maybe talking with that child, talking with them through the event that led to the dysregulated state. 

It sounds like you wanted that same book that your friend was using, and you were really mad that you had to wait. Is that right? Is that what happened? Yes or no.

Now, what do you think? Should we go ask if our friend is done with that book and then you can have your turn? Now that everyone is regulated, we can start using higher order thinking, we can start taking perspective from others with the support of the adult, the more competent other in the room. Helping the child take perspective of others because very young children, that's a skill still that they are learning.

They are capable of perspective taking when they're very young. Helping navigate them through the perspective taking process and really, again, giving them that language, giving them that emotional literacy.

Kate: It's helping build their emotional literacy. It's helping them build their understanding of what we could do next time for feeling this way, how we could notice it. 

Sometimes I've seen in classrooms, here is the solution kit, that's the see several words for this, where you have your pictures of, are we going to share, are we going to take turns, are we going to trade, are we going to use a timer, for those things that are problems with materials.

When it's personal space issues, how do we communicate? I need more space. I can't have people all up on me. There are some children that don't like people being close to them. There are children who want to be right up, like you said, those sensory-seeking children, they want to be right up on that kid. That's where they want to live, on top of somebody. Not everybody likes that, so it's how we communicate.

It isn't just the children who may be in this dysregulated state. It's also affecting the whole classroom. Children who aren't necessarily responding out of having experienced traumatic events in their life, but it's irritating to have somebody write on me, or it hurts me when somebody hits me or whatever, and anybody's going to be upset about that. These responses help all children. Every child is supported with these strategies, so that's helpful.

These are specifically helpful when you see something going on with a child that has a dysregulated state. But like you said earlier, we all get dysregulated at one time or another, a traumatic event ramp that up, started at a higher level of potential dysregulation at any one moment. What do you want to add?

Megin: When you're using these strategies, yes, we are talking specifically about children who have experienced traumatic events or adverse experiences, but these strategies benefit everyone in the classroom, children and adults both. I always like to say it's all about the ripples. It's always all about the ripples. The ripple effect of individualizing your response or your strategies to one child can be felt by the other children, good, bad, or otherwise. The way you respond to one child can affect the rest of the children in the room.

Kate: They're all witnessing what's happening. Everyone's learning in that moment. Does this mean that when I see my co-teacher having a moment, maybe we could say, I see, there's something going on. Are you having a moment? What would be helpful to you right now in that situation? 

Sometimes it's time to take a step away from a situation and let somebody else. You've gotten into a struggle with a child and let another adult who's more calm, more regulated, handle the situation. I think as adults in the classroom, we have to be on the lookout for each other too and aware of how each other is feeling.

Megin: Yes, oh, my gosh, 100%. This doesn't just apply to young children. This definitely applies to the other adults in your workplace and in your life. If you see someone who looks dysregulated or what you are saying, having a moment, absolutely, it is appropriate to approach your co-teacher and say, hey, do you need some help right here or do you got it? Do you have this? Because that's fine too.

I think stepping in to support each other, that's huge. Having support as an educator and having support in the room with you is huge. That can make all the difference in how your day goes.

Kate: You have to have a trusting relationship with each other also so that you can communicate in that way, know that you're there for each other, and not to undermine but to support so that everybody's getting what they need.

Megin: When you have that trusting relationship, you also are more likely to ask for support when it's needed. If I'm the teacher having a moment, I can say, hey, Miss Kate, can you help me real quick? Can you help me out for a minute?

Kate: Absolutely. We are coming to the end of our time together. Any big takeaways or last minute things you want to sneak in before our final moment together?

Megin: I would say a couple of things in closing. One is that idea of establishing trust, establishing that relationship with children who have been trauma-exposed or not. Establishing trust is number one so that everything else can happen. 

What we know about children who have been exposed to traumatic events is that as they get older, the one really critical component in resiliency and how they navigate, how they make their way through life post-trauma, is that they had one adult in their life who really got them. 

They had at least one adult in their lives who they really did see as a source of support. Having that in place really contributes to a child's sense of resiliency and into adolescence and adulthood. That adult could be you, it could be another teacher, it could be someone else in the child's environment. There's that one person, they have their person. 

The other thing I would really just reiterate is that just because you've done this voluntarily doesn't mean it's easy. Yes, having supports available to you is huge.

Kate: Teachers are people too. We all have those moments.

Megin: Yes, and it's okay to have those days. It's okay to have those moments. When you are, it's okay to look for support. It's okay to ask for help.

Kate: Exactly. Thank you, Megan. The last thing I want to ask you is, if you had one thing to say from a teacher, like speaking heart to heart, from Megan's heart to an educator's heart, what important message of encouragement would you share to educators?

Megin: I think it would really be that idea of you've chosen this field. You've decided to do this. That doesn't mean it's going to be easy, and that's okay. I also think that loving children, loving to work with children, and be around children is fantastic. That is obviously a huge part of working in the classroom because you enjoy working with children. That will get you through your easy days.

Loving children and loving working with children isn't enough, unfortunately, I think as early childhood educators, by default, we are advocates. We are literally a voice for the voiceless. Very young children cannot speak or stand up for themselves. They have to rely on adults to do it for them.

Loving children isn't enough. In order to really be a card-carrying early childhood professional, you really have to see yourself as an advocate. You really have to own that role as a professional. You really have to own it and be that advocate.

Kate: That's beautiful. Thank you so much. Thank you for joining us today and giving us a lot of really important words to learn and things to understand about the brain and traumatic events, how it shows up in our lives, and how we can help children in our classrooms every day. Thank you, Megin.

Megin: Thanks, Kate.

Kate: Thank you for listening to part two of this understanding trauma podcast. If you didn't hear part one, I invite you to locate that and get the background information that this episode was building on, where we were getting that background so that we could learn about the strategies in this episode. 

From this episode, I hope you're taking away the real importance of our own regulation as the adults in classrooms, how we really need to be ready to be there for the child when they're having that dysregulated moment, to be that calm that gets them through that storm. 

I hope that you are taking away the strategies about how to approach children and connect with children and guide them through that moment, support them in whatever they need, and revisit so that they can learn the strategies that they can use for future moments of stress.

Thank you for joining us and we hope to see you in the future episodes. Remember, educators who thrive support children who thrive. You create the environment where children can thrive. Please take care of yourself because what you do matters.

You can find today’s episode and transcript on our website,