Trauma-Informed Care Tip of the Month

September 2021 ~ Teach Strategies to “Change the Channel”

Traumatized students often engage in inaccurate thinking, tending to focus on the negative. Common classroom management strategies may exasperate this tendency. How many of us have seen “frequent breaks” on a student’s IEP or student behavior plan? It is one of the most common accommodations that we offer to students who seem dysregulated. Unfortunately, during these breaks, students may experience repeated angry thoughts, worries, think about negative memories, and current stressors that they can’t turn off. If we ask a high school student who is getting angry and becoming agitated to take a walk, he may ruminate the whole time and return just as angry. Sending a 1st grader to a “calming chair” can leave her to perseverate on worrying thoughts. Although taking a walk or the calming chair may be beneficial for some students, we can also help them learn to “change the channel.” 

When adults can’t sleep, we often read a book or watch TV, which distracts us from uncomfortable thoughts so we can fall back asleep. Teachers can use the same principle for kids with trauma and anxiety: Teach students that their brain is like a remote control that they can use to “switch the channel” to help them calm down (Minahan & Rappaport, 2012). These switching activities are called cognitive distractions or thought breaks and are incompatible with negative thinking. A listening center or “find the picture” activity can be helpful to young children. For older students, you might try Mad Libs, trivia, or more abstract strategies such as counting all the green items in the room, saying the alphabet backwards, or thinking of the first 10 lines of a favorite movie. 

The Tip of the Month was modified from an October 1, 2019 ASCD article titled Trauma-Informed Teaching Strategies by Jessica Minahan.