Teaching Students With Trauma
Note: This blog is large departure from the games and whimsical stories that populate most of this website but I thought it was important to share what I have learned about the topic. All incidents discussed are true but the names have been changed to protect students' privacy.
Reina arrived ten minutes late on the first day, well after everyone else had already settled in. She stood in the doorway looking suspiciously around the room. There was only one seat left in my crowded classroom - center seat, front row. I said, "Hello Reina, would you prefer to sit in the front or the back?" She frowned and dropped her thin tense body in the last available seat. Inwardly I exhaled and continued to teach. Every teacher who had seen my class list had something to say about this child. "You'll have fun with that one," an aide had said. "Watch out," counseled her English teacher. "She has a mouth." The assistant principal warned me to call him immediately if she didn't come to class. "She cuts," he said. However, this year, I noticed something that would have escaped me in years past. This little girl with the big reputation was carrying trauma. I could see in her shoulders and in the in clench of her hand around her pink phone. Two years ago, I might have given her a detention for showing up so late without a hint of a reason. Today, I just gave her the papers I had previously handed out and kept on teaching.
I was taught in teacher training to start strict and loosen up later, apply the same rules to everyone. Conventional class management dictates that If you have established rules and routines, you can relax them later but its difficult to do the opposite, And there is truth to that - but not when teaching kids with trauma. In fact, the opposite generally applies.
I have no formal education in counseling or professional training in identifying students with trauma. What I have learned is from talking to people who have suffered from the consequences of childhood trauma, reading, and working with traumatize students in my classroom. Its not enough- I admit, but what I have learned has changed my teaching for the better. I feel a bit like Aeneas surveying burning Troy after Venus lifts the veil from his eyes. Now I see more of what is really going on even if I lack the power to change it.
How does a child become traumatized?
Unfortunately - there are a myriad of ways: students who live with an alcoholic or drug addicted parent or a parent with mental illness very often suffer traumatic affects. Students who live with domestic violence, or have experienced sexual abuse will most certainly be carrying trauma. Students who undergo a great deal of verbal abuse can be victim of trauma. Trauma can be created at school as well. Students who are consistently bullied either physically or online can become victims of trauma. This is not a definitive list but perhaps some of the more common circumstances. Poverty certainly plays a role here as well. Fear of physical instability and food insecurity are also traumatic. However, do not dismiss trauma as something that "only happen to poor kids." Sexual, domestic violence, drug abuse and bullying know no class or racial boundaries. If you teach in the United States, you have taught students suffering from trauma. The common denominator in all of these situations is that their environment is physically or emotionally unsafe over a period of time. The longer the period of time, the more significant the trauma.
What happens to a traumatized child?
This subject both fascinates and depressed me. It's important to understand because your reaction as a teacher is very much tied to a understanding of what is happening in the child's brain who is living with trauma. At the end of this blog, I have some resources if you want more than this summary. When a person is afraid, an automatic response originating from the amygdala, the primal part of the brain is sent. This message can be "fight, flee, freeze or faun." Whichever message is the one that is most facilitates survival in the moment gets sent. For a child in a safe environment, this message rarely gets sent but for a child living in traumatic circumstances - the message gets sent - a lot. Neural pathways are a lot like trails in a forest - the more they are used, the wider and deeper they become. Eventually, that well-worn path neural pathway from the Amygdala starts to replace more thoughtful, more circuitous routes and the "fight, flee, freeze or faun" reaction is engaged even when it is completely unwarranted. For more information about how this manifests in adults, see resources below on C-PTSD.
What does this look like in class?
Identifying the signs of trauma has been an enormous benefit to helping me to form relationships with students who otherwise may have been unreachable and at the very least has given me patience with students I can't reach since I now better understand their behavior. Below are five ways that I have both and seen how trauma presents in the classroom. It is not an exhaustive list and it is not unusual for students to exhibit several of these kinds of behavior. I have labeled them in terms of how they are likely to be described by other teachers and administrators.
Oh... that kid is bad news
A child carrying trauma may act much more aggressively to a small slight. They may physically push other kids away or otherwise lash out at threats that seem trivial or non-existent to the teacher. Conversely, they may swear a blue streak or verbally attack the teacher or other kids for similar trivial reasons. I think its important to understand that the subtext to this behavior is "Stay away from me or I'll l f--ing kill you." It is as you have no doubt figured out, the "fight" response.
While the first behavior and its reason is pretty commonly understood, there are other reasons why a traumatized student may be so eager to fight or push everyone away. A close friend of mine who suffered from sexual abuse growing up described his own behavior this way. "I think I often acted up in school because if I was a "bad" kid, it made it easier to cope with what was happening to me at home. If I was bad, I deserved it."
I think he has ADHD...
A student who fears for his or her safety may appear very distracted. This isn't distraction - it's anxiety also described as "hyper-vigilance." They are listening or looking for changes in the environment that indicate a lack of safety. For example, let's suppose you are watching a horror movie (a good one not a cheesy one) where you along with the protagonist are doing that intense listening because you both suspect that something awful is about to happen. Now picture someone trying to explain the uses of the genitive to you while you are watching and you see my point. Hyper-vigilance doesn't leave a student much brain room to concentrate on school. This student is bracing for a "flight" response even if they never actually flee - they are preparing for it. In other cases, these students can erupt aggressively as described above.
She's so quiet. You'll be lucky to get her to speak
A student who is unusually still and quiet may be hiding because that is their safety. They are listening, may even appear to be concentrating on what you are saying. However, they tend to startle easily and often.This student is experiencing to a greater or lesser degree the "freeze" response. Their stillness is a tense one. They don't laugh much or contribute often to class discussions. In the faculty room, this student may be described as " well-behaved but very shy."
That Kid is in La-La Land
A student who always seems to be "in their own world" may be disassociating. Disassociation is be most easily summarized as a sense of feeling disconnected from one's body. It happens naturally to all of us - the most common instance is when you "tune out" while driving. If you have ever driven, usually a familiar route and suddenly realized you have no memory of how you arrived at your destination, you have disassociated. For students undergoing trauma, it is is a protection response from the emotional affects of abuse. It fluctuates and there are mild and more severe manifestations than the one I have just described. See resources at the bottom of this article for more information. Other teachers may describe this student "a nice kid but really spacey sometimes."
He is so polite, so helpful. He won't give you any trouble.
Conversely, the student who is doing the best in your class may be doing so out of a trauma response. This student has learned the key to safety is to be as nice and as kind as possible - to do their very best to please people. This is the extremely polite kid, the kid who is always checking to make sure he or she did it right, and make comments that sometimes sound like something out of a 50's sit com.
One of my students who I believe exhibits the "faun" response is gay. He has the stereotypical gay speech pattern and mannerisms. In a large urban school, this makes him a prime target for bullying. He manages this threat by being extremely nice to everyone. If anyone needs a pencil, Greg has one. If someone looks sad, Greg will inquire and offer to help. He begins all interactions with me with "please" and 'thank you very much." In other words, by constantly checking to see if anyone is mad or even displeased with him, he is trying to deflect possible harm. It works - but it's exhausting.
OMG Do All Students Have Trauma?
No - they don't. A quiet student may simply be shy and there are other reasons why students pick fights with other kids. That really spacey kid may have just fallen in love for the first time. Trauma is most often found in the extremes of these kinds of behaviors. The other thing traumatized students have in common is that they are tired - a lot. Being on edge all the time is exhausting.
So What Do I Do?
Well first let me tell you what yo don't do - you don't assign a "consequence" which is the of course the thing we have all been taught to do. We are expected to establish clear rules and consistent consequences. Often we are required to post them. But here's the problem - a behavior problem resulting from trauma wasn't made with the rational part of the brain. The behavior was not a decision but a reaction from a more primitive neural pathway. Assigning a consequence will do absolutely nothing to prevent it from happening again. In fact, its likely to exacerbate the situation.
For example, my student Reina showed up ten minutes late to my class every day for the first month. This kind of lateness is usually not something I let slide but consequences and confrontation had already been tried by previous teachers with no good effect so I decided to ignore it and see what happened. After the first month, she started showing up only five minutes late and then gradually started sliding into class right after everyone sat down.
The most important thing a child suffering from trauma needs is safety - In the classroom, safety is built on trust. Trust is a slow process and it can't be hurried. Students suffering from trauma want to establish a connection with teachers but they have learned to be wary. The first month working with Reina, I tried not to come too close to her desk which was tricky because she was always about three feet away from me. I would often move to the other side of the room just to give her a little more space. Body language is often a tell. Her posture which was often tense and tight radiated, "back off." So I did. Eventually, she relaxed, started coming to me for help and did every piece of work I gave her.
If that "distracted" student is not actually distracted but hyper-vigilant, he or she might do better in the back of the room where they can survey the classroom more easily. This again is counter-intuitive because we have all learned in teacher school to keep kids who have difficulty concentrating up front and under our thumb. A hyper-vigilant student may be aware of feeling "keyed-up" but its unlikely that they can verbalize why they can't concentrate. They will probably tell you exactly where they want to sit. Let them sit there. The safer they feel, the less anxiety occupies their brain and the more easily they can learn.
And then there are traumatized students with the exact opposite needs. I had a different student, one very likely to "fight" but given enough coaching and encouragement would calm down and get to work. I am going to confess - this one was not a success story. One day his penchant for picking fights ended in a verbal stand-off between the two of us. As the assistant principal led him out of the room, he hurled his Latin binder against the lockers while he described my class in less than glowing terms. If juggling all of this is sounding exhausting - it can be. I'm not going to sugar-coat it except to say that it is important work. I really wish I had a formula like many of the games I have described here to handle and identify and handle the myriad of ways trauma presents in the classroom but I don't.
What exactly are triggers and how can I avoid triggering my traumatized student?
Well, first let me say that a trigger is an event or even a memory - that causes that neural pathway from the amygdala to be reactivated - a student who is truly triggered may blow up, disassociate, freeze in their seat or go on "high alert." No learning is happening when a student has been triggered. This word has been co-opted by social media where more often it means "I was uncomfortable when" Being uncomfortable is not remotely the same thing as being triggered. There are also many well-meaning educators who have long lists of "triggering words and phrases" to avoid. While the intent is good, triggers are different for each student and often not predictable even for the them. There is no list. The best thing to do is to watch the student's body language and learn the signs.
Here is an example of one such incident. Ethan joined my class a month into school. He was always tired and when he wasn't tired, he was distracted. I had heard that he had "melt-downs" in other classes. His worried little body always wrapped up in his puffy parka radiated trauma. One day during a round of Kahoot, I could see the tension building as he selected wrong answer after wrong answer. I was on my way to his seat to ask him if he needed a break when he slammed Chromebook shut, screamed "FUCK THIS!" and started sobbing.
What Do I Do if it Happens?
While a student sobbing over a break-up with a boyfriend or an argument with a friend may benefit from a hug or a talk in the hall, students crying, wailing or otherwise in distress because of trauma generally need to be left alone. This display of emotion is not "drama." They are nearly always deeply embarrassed about the scene and confused because it was not their "decision" to react this way. I have found the best tact is to simply instruct the class calmly that "Jon needs a minute" and carry on with whatever you were doing. Just leave them alone. It may seem heartless because your instincts may tell you to come close, give them a hug - don't. Their brain is radiating "Danger..Danger" and approaching them is almost certainly going to make it worse. When you see the meltdown subsides, wait some more. When the student appears composed, then approach them calmly. Ask them if they would like to use the bathroom, give them a tissue. Tell them it's okay - re-establishing safety is key. Now is not the time to discuss the incident or gush about how terrible you feel for them. In all the times that I have observed this, the student desperately wants to fit back into the class after they have calmed down. Let them. Talk later.
Myth and the Traumatized Student
Another misconception is that discussions of mythology and Roman history should be avoided because so much of the stories contain the stuff of trauma - rape, abandonment, imprisonment, violence etc. and will "trigger" a traumatized student. And again - the truth is that triggers are not predictable. If they were, the treatment of childhood trauma would be a great deal simpler. That of course does not mean that discussions of mythology and history should not be age-appropriate and contextualized but I would not avoid talking about them in the off chance that a student might be "triggered."
In fact, I have had the opposite experience telling myths. My seventh graders relate especially well to the story of Perseus. (My 7th grade version has no rape) Many of them are immigrants and being sent away from your home to live with a stepfather you dislike is something some of them understand too well. They love the part where Perseus turns the wedding party to stone and often spontaneously act it out in class after I describe it. In my class, telling stories is a community building event. Students always interrupt the flow of the narrative to ask questions, suggest actions the hero SHOULD have taken, make jokes or relate their own stories. If I could get through the story without interruptions, the telling might take 10 minutes but that never happens and it shouldn't. Storytelling in my classroom creates trust and building trust is the bedrock that teaching students with trauma must be built on.
Trauma and Teaching Method
If you have followed the evolution of modern language teaching, you have probably learned about using comprehensible input. It is a theory that I ascribe to as well, and it is the foundation of many of the language based activities on this blog because it is the best way to reach the widest swath of students.
However, if you have attended any CI based professional development, it may surprise you to learn that many of the stock activities that are taught to teachers as a part of this method can fail dramatically with students suffering from trauma. For TPRS or circling to work effectively, there must be a large element of trust from all of the participants. Students also must do a great deal of listening which is difficult for students suffering from trauma since their concentration is limited. Many of these activities involve putting students on the spot for a response or a story idea. I am not saying that you should not use these methods but you need to build trust first with more "low risk" activities if you want students dealing with trauma to buy in. Diving in on the first day as is often advocated by CI facilitators can cause these students to either completely withdraw or wreck it for everyone. Trust takes time.
How Does it End?
Well in the movies, trauma always ends where the troubled kid confesses his troubles to the hero teacher or counselor. There is usually a big hug, accompanied by swelling emotional music and vast improvements in behavior, and understanding. (Sometimes that's just alluded to - it depends how much of the movie is left) Like this scene from Good Will Hunting:
In reality, it’s unlikely that you will ever know the cause of the trauma because the other unifying feature of trauma is "the secret." A student suffering from abuse of nearly any kind has been coached "never to talk about it." This isn't always a threat, but more often a plea from an adult the child loves as well as fears. Most students are also aware that to tell another adult about the situation will result in some kind of police action and a dismantling of their family. Often the abuser has laid that out that possibility, to further ensure their silence. That isn't to say that students never do tell but most often while the abuse is occurring, they don't.
The other sad reality is that understanding the reason for the behavior doesn't resolve the problem. Several years ago, I had a student prone to getting into fights (never in my class) but often in the hall or outside of school. Eventually, he told another teacher that his step-father was beating his mother. Social services intervened and the step-father was removed from the home. I saw this student a few years later and I asked him how he was doing. He told me that he was still very angry and his temper frightened him. Even though the threat had been removed, and he understood logically why he reacted the way he did but the problem was not "solved." I was worried too - an angry Hispanic teenager doesn't get a warning or a trip to MacDonald's from the police. Retraining the brain to forge new pathways takes a lot of time and therapy. EMDR can help a great deal but there are no short-cuts here.
So What Can I Do?
The best thing you can do is to read more than this blog and learn to develop your own trauma radar. If your school has one, talk to the counselor and get the student on their roster. A good counselor can help a traumatized student understand their own behavior better and at the very least help the student learn to manage some of their anxiety, anger and fear through meditation and grounding. If they can get the student to talk more specifically about their circumstances, they are equipped with the knowledge to help.
The other best thing you can do is be the safe harbor for this student going through hell. You can be that person who tells them they are worthy; they are smart and that they make you proud. We can all attest how important those voices were in our own development. They become those buoys that we cling to in rough times and push off from when we are feeling bolder. Students dealing with trauma don't often have a lot of academic success. If you can be that success - that is huge.
As far as my student, Reina, I knew I had really made it when she suddenly showed up in my room - this time fifteen minutes late. I raised my eyebrow at her and she said, "It's okay Ms. D - I was supposed to be on a field trip." She got out her stuff and immediately went to work. At the end of the class, I got a call from a flustered assistant principal, "Do you have Reina," he asked?"
"Umm, yes- she was 15 minutes late but she's here." He then explained to me that due to some undisclosed behavior, she was held back from the team field trip to a local ice cream stand. (In my school - that itself is an impressive accomplishment.) She had been ordered to stay in his office but slipped out and came to Latin instead. I started to giggle. We had come a long way from that first day when I wasn't sure I could get her to stay in the room. Trauma is tough and the journey is rocky but I'm going to count this one as a win.
Resources for Further Reading
The book that started it all:
The Body Keeps Score: Brain, Mind and Body In the Healing of Trauma by Bessel Van Der Kolk
Internet resources on causes, characteristics and treatment for children dealing with trauma - click for the link
"How to Help a Traumatized Child in the Classroom"
Greater Good. berkeley.edu
"Trauma Informed Approaches to Classroom Management"
by Brenda Ingram, Director of Clinical Services, Peace Over Violence
Understanding Trauma: Learning Brain vs. Survival Brian"
- A video by Jacob Ham
"The Paradox of Trauma Informed Care" by Vicky Kelly TEDxWilmington
More Information About Disassociation
Links between Trauma, PTSD and Dissociative Disorders
About CPTSD and Disassociation
What is C-PTSD? Beauty After Bruises