In last week’s post we discussed the role of trauma in student behaviors we see. Each one of us can think of one or two students who manage to get under our skin and push our buttons. What we have to remember is that for some of these students, they are acting out due to something that we cannot control – they have been through some type of trauma in their life. It leads to behaviors we don’t understand, and that makes it difficult for us to respond in the appropriate way. The goal of this post is to think carefully about how we respond to those students so that we are intervening in a way that offers support.
Imagine for a moment that you were to look up from your computer right now, and see this:
What would you do? How would you react?
For our students who have been impacted by trauma, every adult that they meet is a bear like the one you see above. That includes their teachers! For these students, they are constantly watching for the dangerous bear. They may not be able to interpret an innocent or neutral look, action, or touch from their teacher or others at school as being benign. The brains of our traumatized youth lose the ability to understand the difference between safety and danger, and will falsely signal danger and hostility EVERYWHERE. As a result, these students behave in ways that are not considered appropriate in the normal school environment. They lack the language skills to be able to describe how they feel, so they act out in ways that we might describe as reactive, impulsive, aggressive, withdrawn, or defiant. These challenging behaviors have become coping skills that help them survive in abusive or neglectful situations. Remember from last week’s post, children who have dealt with trauma are living with their focus on the survival portion of the brain (fight, flight, or fright). Since all of life is about survival for these students, they generalize the behavior to all other environments – even school where we think they should feel safe.
So when students are acting out, especially students that we believe (or possibly even know) have lived through one of the traumas addressed last week, we need to shift our perspective in how we react. Oftentimes we see this behavior as willfully acting out or disrupting class, or consciously refusing to engage with learning. Instead, we need to see that:
- These responses are based on personal experiences
- Students are seeking to meet their needs
- They have difficulty regulating emotions
- They lack some of the important skills to be successful in school
- They believe that adults cannot be trusted
We need to put into place supports and other interventions to address these issues. Instead of seeing the behavior and asking (or even thinking) “What’s wrong with you?” we need to shift our mindset to “What happened and how can I help?” In order to be sensitive to trauma, we must recognize the prevalence and impact of trauma in our students’ lives and create a framework that provides support, is sensitive to the unique needs of students, and is mindful of avoiding re-traumatization. I’m sure that some of you are looking now for a list of exactly what to do in each situation. It doesn’t exist. Each child is different, their needs are different. You must take the time to offer your support, your help, and let these children know that you truly care for them. You do this through paraverbals (tone of voice, body language, volume, and cadence of speech). Deliberately slow your speech, soften your voice, choose a kind tone, and be supportive of the student. Students who feel supported are more likely to feel safe.
I think we can all agree that when students feel safe, they are more likely to act in ways that are safe, so how can we support that? First, we need to ask ourselves if the student is fearful, anxious, frustrated, or tense. Next, our responses to inappropriate behaviors need to be predictable, and our students who struggle need to have an agreed upon safe haven (maybe the resource room, maybe the counselor’s office, maybe with another teacher) where they can go to work through their complex emotions. Finally, when that student is ready to return to class, we must find an opportunity to rebuild rapport with that student (this step is quite possibly the MOST important in helping students to feel supported). Continue to let them know you care, and that you are here to help. Ask them to let you know how you can help. They may not have an answer today or tomorrow, but eventually they may have an idea that will support them. We also have to remember – for students to behave appropriately, we must model and teach the behavior we want to see (this is not the same as telling students what we expect).
In order to help students feel connected in schools, we should work hard to build relationships – especially with the students who struggle the most. Greet each student at the door of your classroom every day. Be aware of your student’s likes and interests (these can be used as a distraction in times of crisis). As I’ve said before, know your kids and love them for who they are.
While we can’t protect our students from all the evils of the world, we can be allies, mentors, and role models. The relationships we build with our students will help them as they grow, recover, and begin to heal from their trauma.
What experiences have you had with students who have been through trauma? Have you found strategies that seem to be successful? Let us know what has worked for you in the comments below.