Erin Price, Perkasie, PA
Erin Price, Perkasie, PA

Trey is a new student to your general music classroom this year. From speaking with his teacher, you learn that Trey is currently not living with his parents and his recent placement in foster care is the cause of his relocation. Immediately, you notice that Trey struggles with maintaining relationships with his peers, often misinterpreting meaningless interactions to be threatening. Trey jumps each time he hears a loud sound or the lights are turned out and often glances over his shoulder at the peers sitting behind him on the carpet. He oscillates between fearful interaction with you and outright defiant behavior, sometimes blatantly baiting you. Trey struggles during transitions and will frequently flee the room. When upset, Trey quickly escalates and engages in high levels of physical aggression. Other times, you wonder if Trey is even listening to what you are teaching. Trey’s peers are afraid of him and you often overhear your colleagues venting about how difficult he is to both reach and teach. You’ve done everything you can think of to build trust with Trey, but end up always feeling drained and frustrated after his class comes to music. Trey’s social worker informed you that he has a trauma history, which may be the reason for much of his challenging behavior. Now the question is what can you do to help him become successful?  

Defining Trauma

Findings from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicate that one in five Americans has been a victim of childhood sexual abuse and that one in four children have been “beaten by a parent to the point of leaving a mark” (van der Kolk, 2014, p. 1). Not surprisingly, we as music educators find similar percentages of children with trauma histories in our school population. Traumatic experiences overwhelm the victim’s sense of self-defense and involve feelings of helplessness and intense fear at the threat of personal annihilation (Herman, 1997). These experiences interrupt typical processing patterns and can potentially turn adaptive responses into maladaptive ones (Sar & Ozturk, 2005). In addition, when threat is directed at a close personal friend or family member, the experience is dually experienced as self-shattering and also one of great grief (Rubin, Mallkinson, Koren, Yosef, & Witztum, 2012). This leads to a “complex symptom set, which includes both PTSD symptoms and a disruption in interpersonal and affective regulation abilities” (Santiago, Raviv, & Jaycox, 2018). Because of the complexity of the experience, the resulting sequelae, defined as pathological after effects of a condition or injury, can be very diverse and often manifest in ways that can be confusing for music educators.

Trauma Response

To understand trauma reactions in students, educators should frame the resulting sequelae in the following three categories: hyperarousal, intrusion, and constriction. The categories, outlined by Judith Herman (1997), encompass the myriad of reactions to traumatic experience that may pose a barrier to musical instruction.


            When a frightening experience occurs, a person’s brain initiates a fight-or-flight response. Typically, after the experience, a person’s elevated levels of arousal can begin to return to a normal level. However, in a student who has experienced trauma, the body is unable to return to its normal baseline and remains in a state of hyperarousal. This state can contribute to hyper-vigilance, impatience, verbally or physically abusive behavior, short attention span, and somatic complaints. For students like Trey, who are trapped in a state of hyperarousal, the slightest interaction can be perceived as life-threatening. Because students expend the majority of their energy scanning their environment for threats, engaging these students in learning for long periods of time can become difficult. Ensuring safety becomes the priority of both the student and teacher. Without this constant reassurance, students cannot focus on the activity. Experiences requiring eyes to be closed, sudden changes in lighting, loud sounds, or games where students are physically trapped by their peers (i.e. circle games or games that require students to walk under bridges made by the arms of peers only to be “caught” in a basket when the music stops) can be particularly terrifying. In addition, deviation from routine can be perceived as dangerous.

Teacher response to trauma sequelae can increase or decrease levels of arousal in students. If teachers allow for the personalization of trauma responses, a power struggle between teacher and student may occur. By engaging in this struggle, teachers perpetuate the cycle of trauma for the student and force the student back into a role of powerlessness (Jennings, 2019). Framing the experience in a mindset of “what has happened to you,” as opposed to “what is wrong with you,” enables teachers to provide support and understanding for students and avoid being personally triggered by trauma reactions, and eliminate the shaming and stigma that often comes with being a victim of trauma. While students are escalated, a safe space within the classroom where they can move to safely calm down is essential. Where possible, keeping the student in the classroom is preferred. This ensures that the student has access to class content and conveys the message that the music classroom can contain the feelings of the student and that the teacher wants to be with the student, even when they are escalated, preventing internalization of feelings of unwantedness.

How to help a student who is in a hyperaroused state:

  • Above all else, establish safety expectations and explicitly state these expectations. Remind students that they are safe when they are in the music room.
  • Maintain a consistent routine. If deviation from the routine is necessary, prep the students in the music class preceding the one where deviation is anticipated.
  • Allow students additional time to transition to or from the music room.
  • Do not engage in power struggles, raise your voice, or engage in intimidating posturing in your classroom. Angry reactions from teachers do nothing to help students and compromise the safe environment of the music room.
  • Remember that physical and verbal outbursts are rarely personal.
  • Keep expectations consistent and make sure all adults are in consensus regarding procedures.
  • Arrange your classroom to allow students to sit with their back to a wall.
  • Never approach a student from behind.
  • Give countdowns and verbal warnings before changes in lighting or loud noises.
  • As much as possible, limit distraction in your classroom. It is nearly impossible for a student in a state of hyperarousal to tune out excess noise, visual, and physical stimulation.
  • Create a space reserved for time away within the classroom. Clearly define the space with colored tape on the floor and fill the area with a sand timer, fidget toys, and a pillow. Develop, explain, and post time-away procedures using text and pictures.


Sienne scans the music room hesitantly each time she enters, apt to point out even the slightest differences. You might be flattered that she notices each change in your décor or materials if not for her wide, fearful expression. Today, she appears eager to engage with a güiro, until she hears its sound during a playing demonstration. As the güiro is played, Sienne’s pupils dilate and she begins to shake. When you approach Sienne, she does not hear your gentle reminders that she is safe and in the music room. You are eventually able to help Sienne ground herself by switching to a steady-beat activity using hand drums and decide to forgo the use of the güiro for the remainder of the class.

For students who have had traumatic experiences, intrusion, or the inability to keep memories of the event from recurring, causes the student to relive the experience with the same intensity long after it is behind them. Minor details may trigger students, making new experiences or environments that are typically harmless seem terrifying. Class content may also trigger students (McCord, 2017). Students experiencing intrusion are in constant fear of being reminded of the trauma and live in an overwhelming state of dread or dysphoria. The need to avoid such environments is so powerful that children may physically run from new experiences or challenges, missing instructional time.  In extreme cases, students may dissociate. In dissociative experiences, students may appear unresponsive, engage with stimuli that are not actually present, or experience dreamlike interactions with their surroundings (Herman, 1997; Swallow, 2002; van der Kolk, 2014). During the initial traumatic experience, dissociation may be a vital coping mechanism in helping children survive unspeakable violation and pain (Levine, 1997). However, when dissociation becomes a coping mechanism in life following the trauma, opportunities for learning may be prevented. The traumatic experience is such a shock to the system that language coding systems often shut down, leaving only memories coded in visceral experience. These visceral memories can overpower children at any moment and may interfere with patterns of sleep (which are already jeopardized due to hyperarousal) or feelings of presentness (the ability to remain mentally present to experience music making alongside their peers) and engagement in classroom activities, making it difficult for children to be ready to learn.

Traditional practices in music therapy utilize the nonverbal quality of music to allow for expression of inexpressible emotions (McClary, 2007). While outside of the scope of practice of music educators to engage in counseling or music therapy-style activities, one must understand the importance of realizing that music allows students to access feelings that lack verbal context. This non-verbal release may emotionally trigger students at unexpected times. This could even be during performance, which is a time traditionally challenging for students with trauma histories. Trauma causes an increased likelihood of performance and general anxiety (Santiago, Raviv, & Jaycox, 2018). These increases are also complicated by the way performance environments cause elevations of stress hormones and hyper-arousal (Swart, van Nierkerk, & Hartman, 2010). These bodily responses are closer to the individual’s physical state during the initial traumatic experience than normal experiences.

Music has the incredible capacity to entrain the pulse, and steady beat excises can assist students in remaining mentally present (Swallow, 2002). By physically engaging students in the repetitive movements required to play percussion instruments, music educators can help children remain present. The grounding qualities of ostinati are particularly helpful. Repeatedly generating sounds can also be soothing (Frank-Schwebel, 2002) as can focusing on resonance (Robarts, 2006). Generating soundscapes that can be used for meditation or sound painting can also encourage students to remain present in the activity.

How to help a student prevent or cope with intrusion:

  • Model calming/ mindfulness techniques.
  • Engage students in physical activities that utilize repeated patterns and steady beat.
  • Tap into the grounding effects of rhythm instruments.
  • Prepare students in advance for performance. Consider holding multiple dress rehearsals for concerts, which increase in scale (i.e. perform for teacher, perform for teacher and classroom teacher, perform for building administrator, perform for class-decided special guest/favorite support staff member, practice in the performance space, perform for teacher in performance space, perform for peers, actual concert).
  • Develop a policy that allows for multiple tries during in class or graded performances.
  • Use text and visuals to display a schedule that not only allows students to anticipate the schedule of the day, but also includes a marker to help students get back on track when their mind wanders.


Matthew is new to your kindergarten class. Unlike his peers, who are eager to try new instruments and activities, Matthew avoids engaging with the myriad of instruments you have presented. You notice that during group activities, the other students stop reaching out to Matthew to include him in their groups, as each previous time, he refused to participate. Matthew rarely speaks during class discussions and struggles to remember concepts from week to week. It is only after seeing Matthew smile for the first time, three months into the school year, that you realize that you have never witnessed him experiencing a state of joy.

            Constriction is categorized by the state of absolute surrender and powerlessness that accompanies trauma. Children experiencing constriction may feel emotionally numb, experience a distortion of events, or relinquish all initiative (Herman, 1997; van der Kolk & Saporata, 1991). Constriction primarily impacts memory and integration. Because of the degree of horror associated with traumatic experience, and the likelihood that the victim knows the perpetrator of abuse and trauma, there are irrevocable changes in the child’s perception of their world (Sutton, 2002) and the trustworthiness of others. Because of these changes, children may appear hopeless, detached, and withdrawn. In extreme cases or in moments of high stress, children may appear frozen in place. Children are further disempowered by alterations to neural pathways during traumatic events, which result in memory and learning problems (LeDoux, 2003; Sutton, 2002), often causing academic struggles that place them well behind classmates. Encoding and retrieval are also impacted by exposure to traumatic events (Craig, 2008), referred to as the “de-skilling” effects of trauma (Smyth, 2002). This causes difficulty for student as they struggle to remember concepts from week to week, draw connections between concepts, and engage in higher-level thinking.

Students are also “de-skilled” when their ability to integrate experiences and reactions is compromised. Atypical emotional reactions may result in ostracization by peers and teachers. For example, students may receive bad scores due to genuine inability to identify the general mood of musical pieces or may struggle to associate mysterious or melancholy qualities with minor modes. Students may need to expend excess energy on accurately discerning the moods of teachers and peers. While this additional expenditure of energy may seem unnecessary to the teacher during moments that do not involve group work or interaction, constantly surveying the expressions of the teacher is essential to the student. This adaptation is rooted in hyper-vigilance and stems from the need to be prepared for the vacillating moods of previous abusers, however, this distracts students from receiving the information the teacher is presenting.

Students’ inability to integrate emotion with experience may compromise relationship building and place them outside of the classroom community. This feeling of being an outsider can begin to be healed through the synchrony of music and movement often present in elementary general music lessons. Here, shared song, playing, or dance can be a practice in community, connection, and happiness. This reclaiming into a classroom community can offset feelings of betrayal and abandonment and can allow students to experience authentic emotions, previously numbed by constriction.

Experiences in creation or composition may combat feelings of powerlessness among students with trauma histories. Composition or group performance allows students to experiment with alternate options, reinforcing ideas of the possibility of new solutions other than withdrawal. In creation, children can master and redirect emotional energy (Loumeau- May, 2002). It is especially important during this stage for teachers to validate the feelings of children, who may, without adult validation, further withdraw and internalize (Mishna & Sawyer, 2012).

How to help a child out of constriction:

  • Present information visually and aurally, using text and pictures. Speak slowly.
  • Slowly progress demands of movement. Consider beginning movement seated in a chair or on the floor and then slowly expanding movement to include the whole body.
  • Honor alternative points of view, ideas regarding musical/emotional intent, offer ideas which contrast with common perspectives.
  • Offer opportunities for creation.
  • Value student offerings.
  • Do not cast judgment on the way students choose to express themselves.
  • Always state that you are happy to see students, try to avoid appearing visibly upset, and leave personal baggage at home. On the rare occasion that you are upset from prior experiences in the classroom that day, express explicitly that you are not upset with any of your new group of students and are still very happy to see them.
  • Encourage unison experiences for community building, even if it is just for a warm up or centering activity.
  • Praise attempts to experiment with other solutions or emotions.


Positive relationships with teachers can assist students in developing resiliency (Craig, 2008). The music classroom provides unique opportunities to support the healing process of students with trauma histories. By understanding the impact of hyperarousal, intrusion, and constriction, and employing strategies to offset the negative effects of these trauma sequelae, music educators are able to help students remain present, experience feelings of safety and community, and experiment with alternative behavioral reactions.

“The greatest hope for traumatized, abused, and neglected children is to receive a good education in schools where they are seen and known, where they learn to regulate themselves, and where they can develop a sense of agency” (van der Kolk, 2014, p. 353).


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Erin Price is an Educational Consultant and Psychiatric Special Education Music Director in Perkasie, PA. She is currently working on her D.M.A. at Boston University.

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