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Tips for Teaching Kids with Trauma
Nearly everyone has experienced trauma at some point in their life — whether they see it that way or not. Often we see trauma as a frightening or upsetting singular event, however, many people experience trauma as a result of ongoing exposure to neglect, homelessness, domestic violence, or community violence. The chronic trauma causes problems with learning and development in children.
For educators, trauma can be particularly challenging. Kids with trauma are often difficult, erratic, and unable to appropriately express what they are experiencing. These kids often mask their pain with behaviour that is aggressive and off-putting. Identifying the symptoms of trauma is key to helping teachers understand these mystifying behaviours. Often the symptoms include:
- Trouble forming relationships with teachers
- Poor self-regulation
- Negative thinking
- Executive function challenges
Trouble forming relationships with teachers
If a child has been neglected or abused, they will experience difficulty forming a bond with their teacher — which is necessary for a successful classroom experience. Through their trauma, they’ve learned to be distrustful and wary of adults. “These kids don’t have the context to ask for help”, says school consultant and associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, Dr. Rappaport. “They don’t have a model for an adult recognizing their needs and giving them what they need.”
They need other adults to help them learn to form good connections. They need someone to show them that they are loveable and that there is someone there to take care of them.
A challenge with our current school system is that when a child misbehaves, they are distanced. The disciplinary system that is currently in place, involves withdrawing attention and/or support — when this is the very thing that those kids need. The way things are currently set up leaves very little patience and grace for kids who push away adults that are trying to help.
Rather than jumping into your current disciplinary plan, when a child misbehaves acknowledge their emotion. Dr. Rappaport suggests trying to identify the emotion they are feeling. Try saying something like “I can see that you are REALLY angry that Andrew took the marker you wanted!” If your identification of their emotion is wrong, the child will usually correct you. When you identify and put words to what the child is feeling, it shows that you ‘get’ them. This is the first step to move the child in the right direction towards finding a more appropriate way to express this emotion.
Expressing big emotions is hard at the best of times. For kids who are traumatized, the difficulty is magnified. Babies and toddlers usually learn to calm and self-soothe from the adults in their lives. However, if there is abuse or neglect, they won’t be able to learn this skill. Without a secure attachment to an adult who makes them feel safe, these kids get stuck in chronic dysregulation.
Teachers can work with these kids to help them learn to manage their emotions. Learn to coach these kids and help them de-escalate the severity of their emotions.
Another symptom of trauma is the inherent belief that they are bad. These kids start to believe that everything that has happened to them is their fault. Because of this, they tend to expect that people won’t like them or treat them well. They also can become paralyzed by the fear of making a mistake. So rather than try and participate in a class activity, they may seem oppositional — but really they are just afraid.
Publicly praise, privately correct. With kids who are traumatized “I made a mistake” can mean ” I am entirely unloveable”. When a child does something well, point it out. Build their self-worth by saying things like “Wow, I love how you sat at your desk for a whole five minutes” or, “Thank you for helping your classmate.” If you need to redirect some behaviour, try to do so privately and in as calm a voice as possible. What we see as neutral, they often see as negative.
Kids who have experienced trauma are often easily startled. They are in constant fight or flight, and so some of their reactions to things can seem exaggerated or over the top. This symptom is often misdiagnosed as ADHD. Also, their chronic agitation can lead to chronic irritability and trouble sleeping.
When something triggers an emotional outburst, teachers need to match the child’s sense of urgency but in a controlled manner. The goal is to try and connect with what the child is telling you. If they feel heard and understood, they’ll probably settle down. You don’t even need to know exactly whats going on, you can guess and they will correct you.
Executive function challenges
This is the child’s ability to remember, focus, and plan things through. Often, a child who has experienced trauma will experience difficulty with these skills. When a child experiences difficulty planning it impacts their ability to complete tasks in school, but it also affects their ability to think through their actions — resulting in impulsivity and poor decisions on how to communicate emotions.
Be patient. These kids are not trying to push your buttons, and their goal isn’t to make your life difficult. They are just trying to do what they think they need to do to survive. Stay positive and work with them on building their missing skills.
Often kids have learned to act out to get attention from adults. They know that the negative attention they get will be predictable and fast. Teachers – or any role model – can work to make sure the kind attention is just as fast and predictable.
Teachers should surprise their students with random acts or words of kindness. This will help wean the child from acting out to get attention, it will also reinforce that they have intrinsic value and are worth respect.
Teachers need to take care of themselves first! If you’re running on empty, you can’t pour into your students. Additionally – set boundaries. You are there to help the child, but you can’t be their only support.
How Trauma Affects Kids in School
The Trauma Informed Teacher – Silent Front Line
How to Help a Traumatized Child in the Classroom
10 Things About Childhood Trauma Every Teacher Needs to Know