Teachers as trauma-treatment professionals

Happy New Year to all of the teachers and school counselors out there! I hope your classes are full of bright shiny faces smiling contentedly as they work. However, my years of experience (and the data) tell me that most of you will have at least one kid in your class who’s just capable of driving you nuts before Thanksgiving.

You know the kid. The one who:

– can’t sit still, ever.

– doesn’t listen to you unless you shout.

– can’t finish a worksheet or project, even with extra time.

-clings to or actively avoids adult visitors to the room.

– freaks out during fire drills.

– won’t go in the bathroom alone, OR won’t come out.

– has a full-blown, toddler-style temper tantrum at least every other week.

– you can’t ever predict the tantrum, or the cause.

– won’t share.

-steals things.

-lies about really obvious facts.

-smells bad and/or comes to school dirty.

-manipulates and/or terrifies the other kids.

-but is really very bright.

Sound like anyone you know?

I’ve known scores of kids who fit that description. The behaviors vary from individual to individual, year to year, but they’re always angry, distracted- and smart. You know that IF you could just get underneath all that anger and bluster, you could really actually teach this kid. But getting there is so, so, so hard. Every time you think you’ve made a little progress, the kid will change things up and do some new annoying/terrifying/destructive thing. How do you teach this kid without totally loosing your own mind?

In short, it’s not easy. But teaching really tough kids is also not impossible. With the caveat that every difficult kid is different, here are a handful of ideas to try:

1. Shift your own internal dialogue about the child and his/her behavior. What I’ve described here are classic symptoms of complex trauma in early childhood. You’ll see the same things, with a few modifications, in adolescents. Simply seeing these behaviors as symptoms of a traumatic past (or present) will help you be more effective in your approach. The kid isn’t bad; he’s in pain, he’s scared, and he needs you to understand.

As a teacher, it’s certainly not up to you to make any sort of diagnosis. However, you can become more aware of the common symptoms of childhood trauma, and learn how to intervene in effective ways to help the children impacted by trauma to learn more effectively. It’s not important for you to know the details of what happened (unless it’s ongoing, in which case you need to make a child protective services report). What IS important is controlling your reactions to the behaviors you’re seeing. If the child is in foster care, there is a trauma history.

2. Set up classroom routines and keep to them. Kids who come from chaotic, violent homes and neighborhoods do not like surprises. Part of what you’re seeing is that the kid’s flight or fight defense system is stuck in the “on” position. Your job is to find ways to bring down their levels of arousal and vigilance. If you’re planning a surprise celebration, tell these kids ahead of time. Vary the day to day routine as little as possible. Write or draw the schedule for the day on the white board, every day, even if ¬†you’re a high school teacher.

3. Minimize distractions, especially noise. Kids with trauma histories often have great difficulty screening out background sounds. Essentially, they’re always scanning the environment for danger, and hearing is a key pathway. They have a particularly hard time screening out the noise of all of the other kids in the room when you’re trying to talk. Make quiet a priority. If the noise level remains high, pull this kid(s) over to your desk and re-explain what you said, holding his/her hand and making eye contact (if it’s ok with the child, these things can also be scary, so ask first). Touch and eye contact help them focus on your voice. If you’re a male teacher, this will be easier, since the lower frequency sounds are less likely to get screened out (I learned all of this from Dr. Stephen Porges, who is brilliant – you should all read his book). Yelling, from you, is totally off-limits. Educate your colleagues about auditory hypersensitivities and help them learn to speak in less shocking tones if needed.

4. Encourage movement, especially with a beat. Kids with a variety of learning problems, as well as kids with trauma issues, will benefit from this one. Take 10-15 minute breaks throughout the day to sing, dance, and move. Songs that are highly rhythmic and use clapping or stomping to go with the words are wonderful for this purpose. Kids and adults with trauma issues are often disconnected from their bodies in many ways, which contributes to problems with attention regulation and focus. Moving and especially singing (or playing a wind instrument) helps relax critical neural circuits, lowers the heart rate, and helps broaden a sense of safety. Hand-clapping games are also good, but be sure to do some breathing in there somewhere.

5. Incorporate explicit activities to build a “tribe” in your classroom. If the students can learn to trust each other, the whole room will be remarkably more relaxed and much more learning can happen. Avoid activities that require students to compete, replace them with activities that help the kids learn about each other and learn to care, rather than scorn, blame, or exploit each other. There are tons of resources available online for accomplishing this, just do some google research. Lou Cozolino discusses this in his book, “The Social Neuroscience of Education”, which I think all licensed educators should be required to read. It’s a quick read, ¬†packed full of interesting ideas.

Beyond these basic steps, keep working at it. Don’t ever give up on a kid. You may be the last hope he/she has. And, of course, make referrals to mental health professionals as needed.


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