The role of trauma in student behavior

We’ve all been there, you’re in the middle of class, things seem to be going well, and then you notice what one student is doing.  Maybe they have completely shut down, maybe they are talking to a neighbor, or maybe they are acting out in some way that draws the attention of other students from the current activity to the student who is misbehaving.  The natural (and often simplest) reaction is to redirect, sign a behavior card, raise our voice, or maybe even submit an office referral.

In my personal opinion, a lot of the time that acting out behavior stems from something that has absolutely nothing to do with you, your class, or the students in your classroom, but from something that we as teachers have no influence over.

A couple days ago, I was at a PBIS (Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports) training with several other members of the PBIS team in my school, as well as some of the other PBIS teams in our district.  We spent a portion of time discussing the role that trauma plays in student behavior and learning.  So, as a working definition, here is how we’re going to define trauma for this post:

Trauma refers to extreme or chronic stress that overwhelms a person’s ability to cope and results in feeling vulnerable, helpless, and afraid.  The event(s) that led to trauma may be witnessed or experienced directly.  Trauma often interferes with relationships, self-regulation, and fundamental beliefs about oneself, others, and one’s place in the world.

the-hurt-that-troubled-children-create-is-never-greater-than-the-hurt-they-feelTrauma can occur from lots of different things – there is simple trauma (serious accident, disaster, one-time physical assault); complex/developmental trauma (witness domestic violence, death of a parent / caretaker, ongoing physical or emotional abuse, ongoing neglect, homelessness, living with family members with untreated mental illness or substance abuse, or having a family member deployed in the military); and finally historical / generational trauma.  Children who have been through traumas like those listed above can have various levels of stress, but those who are living with high levels of stress spend much of their life in the fight, flight, or fright mode.  These children respond to the world as a place of constant fear.

All this stress leads to issues with brain functions and development, and make it very difficult for students to focus on learning.  Oftentimes these students fall behind in school; fail to develop healthy relationships with peers; and/or create problems in classrooms and at school because they are unable to trust adults.

So now that we know a little about where this trauma and stress comes from, we need to examine what it may look like in the classroom.  Let’s first look at the development of the brain.  For typical children, who do not have toxic levels of stress in their lives, they are able to spend very little of their time focused on survival, and as a result are able to spend much more of their time devoted to cognition and social-emotional functions.  For the children who have experienced developmental trauma, the majority of the brain’s attention is focused on survival skills (the fight, flight, or fright reactions), which means there is little time or energy to devote to cognition or the social-emotional functions.

When students have experienced trauma, you may notice some of the following traits:

  • Day dreaming
  • Impaired social & emotional function
  • Difficulty retaining information
  • Labeled as learning disabled
  • Can sit in classroom and not learn
  • Less mature problem solving
  • Use violence as a tool
  • Feel the need to control their environment

These traits can lead to various effects on learning, including the ability to: acquire language & communication skills; understand cause and effect; take another’s perspective; attend to classroom instruction; regulate emotions; engage in the curriculum; and utilize executive function (make plans, organize work, follow classroom rules).

So now we’ve talked a bit about what trauma is, what may have caused trauma in our students, and some of the traits that may happen as a result.  Next week we will look at how our responses can play a role in student behavior, especially those who have experienced some form of trauma in their lives.

In the comments below share your thoughts on this topic.  Have you had experiences working with students who have lived through trauma?  What worked?  What didn’t work?

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2 thoughts on “The role of trauma in student behavior

  1. So everyone knows my daughter Mara. This article fits her perfectly. She has been labeled , mislabeled and misdiagnosed for years. Trauma from her birth is the root of her problems. It took years for us to understand the effects of trauma on the brain. The neuroscience behind it is amazing. The research is fairly new and very interesting. One point I would like to make is that students who have had trauma, and who are behavior problems, do not respond to the traditional cognitive behavior discipline that most of us as teachers have been trained in. If you would like to learn more about how to reach these students I can help. I have learned so much from Mara and would be happy to share with you.

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