Trauma is universal. It extends across color and socioeconomic lines. I highlight this fact at the risk of being labeled as “colorblind.” I highlight it to remind everyone that trauma can impact us all.
Trauma negatively impacts the brain. And still, this profound truth doesn’t make it acceptable for traumatized children to misbehave in a school setting.
Instead, we can frame this behavior differently. We can view this as scientific evidence proving why some children may have a harder time excelling in school, as the National Child Traumatic Stress Network tells us.
It means that we, their teachers, principals, counselors, social workers and support staff must show them how to cope. It is an invitation to notice how children react to stressful situations. An invitation for us, the adults, to react accordingly.
Since trauma impacts the fight-or-flight response in the developing brain, we might see a big reaction from a traumatized child for what we would consider to be a small, slight or seemingly inconsequential trigger.
When I started teaching
During my second year in the classroom, I taught a girl who I absolutely adored, but who struggled. Looking back I can now see she was clearly traumatized.
The information we have today about ACEs, an acronym the Centers for Disease Control and Preventions uses to describe Adverse Childhood Experiences, and the trauma-informed approach wasn’t readily available and talked about as it is now by organizations such as the Partnership for Resilience, so I blindly felt my way through all of our interactions.
One day I miscalculated. I sidled up to her while checking in homework, and asked if she had her reading log assignment ready to show me. I know I was kind. I know I was calm. I may have even whispered, because that was usually the way I asked – since typically everyone else reads independently while I checked in reading responses.
This sixth grade girl looked at me, and it was like something out of a movie; she snapped. She started screaming at the top of her lungs that she was going to tell her mother that I hated her. And just wait until her mom came into the school and saw how terrible I was. The already quiet, focused room turned pin-droppingly silent.
I stood there aghast, slack-jawed, stunned. This was a zero-to-100 reaction. I had no idea what to do. Remember, this was my second year teaching; I was new and pretty much clueless.
At first, I started talking back to her. I told her she needed to calm down immediately, and that was NOT how you talked to teachers, and what was even happening here, and where was this reaction even coming from? I felt my anger rising, my shoulders stiffening.
That is when I noticed the tears in her eyes, and it hit me like a slap across the face. Something way bigger was happening with this little girl, and I needed to calm down. I needed to take my ego out of this interaction in order to defuse and deescalate the situation.
I waited. Everyone in the class stared, shifting their gaze between me and this girl. I took a deep breath and allowed the blood to drain from my face.
Flight or fight
This child’s reaction displayed the perfect example of a fractured flight-or-fight response. Me asking for her homework? That was a trigger. She didn’t have her assignment, clearly. And knowing what I know now about this child and her family, there was probably a heartbreaking reason as to why she had a difficult time completing work at home.
Before I continue, I want to reiterate a point from earlier. I am not making excuses. I am not making an argument that this child should be held to a lower academic or behavioral standard, or that perhaps she shouldn’t have to do the work that I assigned.
I’m saying she needed additional assistance and resources. She needed the powers that be to come together and support her with time management and executive functioning. She needed a scaffold. She needed someone to work with her on how to appropriately react in a crisis and to practice these reactions.
She needed a place to complete her work that was both quiet and non-judgemental.
And then she needed me to be kind and understanding. To hold her with loving accountability.
To say to her later, after the situation was over and she was calm: sweetie, I am so sorry that what I said made you upset. But, you cannot, under any circumstances, talk to me like that. We will continue to work on monitoring and noticing your reactions and big feelings.
In the meantime, if you feel like you can’t control your yelling, we need to practice taking a break. Is there anything you’d like to say now? Maybe about how you felt when I spoke to you? Or how you felt when you yelled in front of the entire class?
The impacts of trauma are not equally felt along color lines. And empathy from adults towards children in crisis is not equally distributed along color lines, as we see again and again of kids of color who are not always extended the benefit of the doubt in our public school system, especially when it comes to their behavior.
It is proven that students of color are more likely than their white peers to be given punitive and severe consequences in a school setting.
According to a comprehensive data report by the Moran Center, even though Black students made up just under 25% of Evanston Township High School’s student population from January 2017 until December 2019, these particular students of color made up for 77% of the in-school arrests.
If this was the child’s first time having such a severe reaction, an appropriate consequence would be a restorative conversation. These conversations consist of the adult and child processing together the events that led to the outburst.
Administering consequences is the trickiest and most time consuming part of this entire equation. This is when administration should offer support. The most impactful consequences, in my experience, result from teachers and administration working in tandem.
For example, if I wanted to administer an appropriate teaching consequence to this student, the administration could watch my class for 15 or 20 minutes while I assisted the child in processing or writing a letter about the impact of the outburst.
Then she could read it to me or to a peer that may have been impacted. I might even ask her, what would she consider to be an appropriate consequence to accompany her action? But this interaction between teacher and student is vital. This is how the child brainstorms how to repair the harm caused to the learning environment.
All of this is lofty. It takes time, which takes RESOURCES. A teacher’s time is so precious; our days so tightly packed that we often do not have an extra minute to go to the bathroom let alone have a restorative conversation with a student. That is why we ask for support and assistance.
Restorative conversations and the administering of restorative consequences takes buy-in from intelligent, respectful, and strong staff: teachers, counselors, social workers, support staff and administration. It takes love and patience. It is not the easiest path. Personally, I think our kids are worth it.
A version of this column was previously posted on Simone’s newsletter: Simone Says
- The National Child Traumatic Stress Network
- Partnership for Resilience
- Reimagining School Safety – The Moran Center
- Paper Tigers: This documentary film, about an alternative high school’s success story, is powerful. Please consider streaming it. So much about this film stayed with me years after my first viewing.