by Diana Andrews, Garfield County PREP Program Manager
Often times when people discuss the effects of trauma on our youth, the trauma is thought to be only sexual or violent in nature. While any child who has experienced this kind of trauma needs support and understanding to make sense of their behaviors, so do children who have experienced all kinds of trauma; violent and otherwise. Teachers and adults who work with children and understand the effects of trauma on learning and behavior can make great strides in reducing classroom outbursts or disruptions by understanding what may trigger such behaviors.
So what is Trauma? Trauma, according to the American Psychological Association, is an emotional response to a terrible event. They cite examples such as rape, natural disasters, and accidents. The Center for Nonviolence and Social Justice further defines trauma to include experiences or situations that are emotionally painful and distressing. It is understood that these experiences can overwhelm someone’s ability to cope.
Estimations suggest that one half to two thirds of children have experienced some kind of traumatic event. However, it is accepted that not all children will be traumatized, and even if they are, they don’t always react negatively. Despite the level of traumatization and subsequent reactions, being a trauma informed adult who knows how to deliver trauma informed care can not only provide much needed support, it can also reduce frustration, misunderstanding and misdirected punishments when behaviors become disruptive.
So what are Trauma Informed and Trauma Informed Care? Those who are ‘trauma informed’ recognize that people often have many different types of trauma in their lives, need support and understanding from those around them and can be re-traumatized by well-meaning caregivers and service providers.
Knowing what I know now, I realize that I may have been one of these ‘well-meaning caregivers’ who re-traumatized a young 4th grade student in my classroom when teaching something as seemingly benign as the water cycle. You see, this young student had been displaced from Hurricane Katrina and relocated to Iowa to live with family.
Not being a trauma-informed teacher, I mistakenly thought that having family, a warm place to stay and food to eat would wrap this sweet thing with enough protective factors that she would be able to successfully cope. I certainly was not equipped to provide her any level of trauma informed care in my classroom. That is, a structure and framework that involved understanding, recognizing and responding to the effects of her trauma.
I was not knowledgeable enough to know how to provide the physical, psychological and emotional safety she needed. I was not helping her to rebuild her sense of control and empowerment over her situation. She did not receive the trauma informed care that she most likely needed. The connections between her traumatic experience and how she may have been re-traumatized by the water cycle lessons were never made.
On those days when she exploded her ink pens in her hand, was she being triggered? If so, then I doubt my concern over what her parents would say when she came home with her skin and clothes stained with ink or my removal of all ink-filled items from her desk and placed out of reach in any way provided her the care she needed. To my credit, I did replace the ink pens with a drinking straw so that her need to fidget with her hands wasn’t completely removed. But likely something happened or was said in the classroom to trigger her need to cut that straw into a multitude of tiny, little pieces. I often wonder what became of this young person as I wish I knew then what I know now.
Unfortunately, I have been reminded of my misguided reactions a lot lately. Two nephews and a niece have recently experienced the death of a young doctor from their parents’ practice, the death of another young man whom they looked up to as a friend and role model while another dear friend fights to regain his life and survive a serious brain injury; all the result of two separate car accidents in one week. The trauma has affected at least one nephew who admittedly struggles to concentrate on his homework and has emotional outbursts.
He tries to process his pain and young understanding of life and death by channeling his negative energy into his wrestling. He is winning his matches, because he wants to honor the young man who is still fighting to live. But what happens when he isn’t successful in channeling this energy with wins? How will his coaches and teachers respond? What kind of additional trauma; such as deep feelings of responsibility, might there be if he loses a match, if the friend doesn’t make it? Similar questions are coming to mind as the town I live in deals with not only the loss of a beloved elementary teacher but now her young daughter who also passed as a result of her injuries. How will her classmates handle the trauma of losing their young friend?
What are the teachers and school staff likely to see if these young people are triggered in their schools? Will they recognize the anxiety, fear, worry, changes in behavior such as angry outbursts, irritability or a change in academic performance, heightened difficulty with authority, redirection or criticism, over and under reactions to environmental stimuli, emotional numbing and/or repetitive thoughts and comments about death that are common responses? Or will they see these as behavioral issues that demand punitive measures or a ‘fix’?
If they are trauma-informed, then they will provide care that has a structural framework in place to support their students with compassion and understanding regardless of the type of trauma that was experienced. Triggers can be anticipated and aversion plans put in place. With a trauma-informed lens to behaviors in the classroom, they may just find a different kind of success with what may have once been approached as classroom management issues.
They may not have to wonder years later about how they missed the boat when faced with a student who had been so seemingly traumatized by her experiences with water.
If you would like to learn more, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org or consult the following resources:
Child Trauma Resources
Trauma Focused – Cognitive Behavioral Training
Child Trauma and Brain Research
Refugee Trauma Information