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How do we support traumatized students while still protecting those who aren't?

My youngest daughter is adopted. She was brought home as a 10-month-old baby from Guatemala all chunkiness and big brown eyes. We were in love the second we saw her. She, on the other hand, was not so smitten. We were originally told that when babies are adopted young that they don’t suffer as much trauma because they don’t understand. We now know this isn’t true. The second that her birth mom decided to give her up for adoption that decision could already cause trauma in utero from the stress. Then the moment she was given to her foster mother was another opportunity for trauma. Then from her foster mother to us - while we saw this baby we had been dreaming about she only felt stress and saw strangers taking her from the only environment and people that she was attached to. We weren’t prepared for the trauma behaviors that stemmed from this. And in this case, none of it was anyone’s fault as in there was nobody who abused her, no specific incident that caused the trauma, and basically, nobody to blame. But, trauma ensued nonetheless.

Part of my daughter's struggles reside in creating relationships. Because her trauma is connected to connection, she struggles to engage with the people she loves the most. That means that her family takes the brunt of her trauma behaviors. That means that because of her trauma behaviors (not because of her) we have cried and questioned everything. We have watched our other children cringe at her behavior, sometimes hiding when she would have a meltdown. I’ve watched the negative way she interacts with my eldest daughter in particular and the impact that her actions and words have on her. How my eldest has cried after my youngest has been particularly cruel, or at best turns her red face away and tries her hardest to shut out the world.

I love my youngest through her trauma. I love my daughter without trauma. I don’t know how to navigate my youngest’s trauma while also not allowing her to cause mental health issues in my other daughter. I try. I usually suck at it and always get blamed for favoring one over the other.

The fact is that my youngest doesn’t deserve to have trauma and it’s nobody’s fault. Even at her age, she has taken more responsibility for her needs and behavior than I have seen most adults take. She has made significant progress and is mentally healthier than I have ever seen her because she has put in the work. It’s truly remarkable.

It is also not the fault of my other daughter who has suffered because of the trauma of someone else. I feel like I can never be proactive in these situations. They just happen and then I’m trying to play clean up and pray that what was said or done didn’t cause too much damage.

As a mother, I have two sides of the coin. I have a traumatized child who struggles with her emotions and sense of control and that manifests itself into undesirable and hurtful behavior. I also have a child who is being impacted by the behaviors of the traumatized child.

When I look at what’s happening in education right now, I think about this situation. I think about how we have a situation where we have students with trauma behaviors in schools that - let’s be honest - we have very little knowledge and few strategies to address. We also have students who have, thankfully, not experienced trauma. Both groups of children are equally important.

So when I think about trauma in schools, I’m left with so many questions. Some of the same questions that I have as a parent. And before having this conversation I need to make a few things clear for the people reading that are not familiar with my work.

  1. I know that trauma causes changes in our brains and nervous system that make it difficult for the traumatized child to be able to function normally. I am not placing blame on anyone but instead looking for answers.

  2. I support trauma-responsive practices and trauma-informed teaching. However, I think that it is only one part of the solution and providing teachers and everyone else in the school with a wider knowledge base and more concrete strategies is an important part of changing the narrative. This isn’t a space that we can just dip our toes in. We need to jump into the deep end.

The Mixer Effect

I think of trauma in schools as similar to using a hand-held mixer. I think that most people have made brownies or some sort of batter and while the mixer is still on, you lift up the mixer and batter sprays everywhere. Some of it goes onto the walls, onto your shirt, onto the counter, and the floor. The trauma behaviors in school have an impact on the students and adults around the child who is exhibiting them. Whether it’s secondary traumatic stress or compassion fatigue or just a vague feeling of anxiety when a student melts down - the emotions connected with the behaviors can be anywhere from mild to debilitating. Similar to my youngest daughter and how her trauma impacted my eldest daughter. So, my question is, how do we stop the Mixer Effect? How do we stop students who do not suffer from trauma from being impacted by the trauma behaviors of other students? When do they have as much right to not be traumatized as the other students have to be supported and ultimately heal?

Right about now, people are going to throw out three phrases: “trauma-responsive practices,” “trauma-informed teaching,” and “social-emotional learning.” Obviously, I am a huge proponent of all these things, but there are some barriers that we can’t seem to get around. First, having a trauma-responsive system is a complete, holistic view of trauma and practices that are grounded in supporting those in and around trauma. In some places, I’ve heard trauma-responsive practices as “what is done in reaction to the behavior that seems to be related to trauma.” This is not only incorrect but even having this view in place doesn’t protect the students from the behavior mainly because in order to respond the behavior has to happen first. It is a reaction to a situation. And when responses related to trauma are implemented like this, they rarely address the children who witnessed the behavior.

The issue with trauma-informed and SEL is that we often subscribe to it in theory. We send maybe eight out of eight hundred teachers to a two-day workshop on trauma and expect that somehow that knowledge is being transferred to every other person in the district. Or we purchase an SEL program and say “We practice SEL” when it’s a 15-minute lesson that we do when we were able to finish math or ELA early. Again, we need to dive into the deep end. Immerse ourselves in these things so that when we go to support students these things are second nature. It also means that we, as adults, need to address our own trauma and triggers so we are better able to support students (see the Wounded Healer post here).

If you have more questions about these terms, I like this resource here and this resource here.

So, I am not against these phrases. Not at all. But my question is, do we know enough about these practices to protect ALL students? Both the ones who need healing and the ones who are impacted? Or are we just mildly focused on the deficit of the few who cause us trouble? (that’s sarcasm)

The Brain Can’t Learn

As long as I have been a mental health advocate I have been fascinated by the changes in the brain from trauma. I’ve seen the impact on myself and my own thinking/actions when I’m triggered. When I read some of the quotes out there about the brain not being in the space to learn when traumatized I believe them. I know them. I understand them. I am not arguing.

However, what the heck do we do about that as teachers? Learning? That’s literally a major part of our job. And what do we do about the few whose brain is not ready to learn in relation to the students who are ready to learn?

This, to me, is about recognizing the difference between a school that has jumped into the deep end and one that has not: How much flexibility (when properly trained) do teachers have in their teaching and curriculum to address both the trauma brain and the brain-is-ready-to-learn students?

Can they be a day behind while they take time to meet needs? A week? Do they have someone they can call into the room to support the varying needs? Do they have multiple behavioral experts that they can call into the classroom to either support or even model the strategies that they have learned? What is the plan for implementing consequences to students when we know that they are not in the space to learn and some of the behaviors, when looking from a brain-based perspective, can be nearly impossible to control, and yet their behaviors could have negatively impacted another student’s mental health? Do teachers have support to understand their own mental health?

And of course, the question of the hour, how do we control this when most of the trauma students experience does not happen in school and we don’t have the resources to fix all of humanity?

What can we do? What do we need?

There are some of these pieces that are out of our control. Until society starts taking any kind of responsibility for what happens in our schools it’s going to be difficult to create complete change, but not impossible. We can do better. And when so many other societal entities are busy saying they can't change, we definitely have the opportunity to show them how it's done.

Add SEL and Trauma studies to every pre-service teacher coursework: I increasingly push back on post-secondary who say that these concepts should be a master’s certificate or something beyond the most foundational knowledge that a preservice teacher knows. By not providing this learning to pre-service teachers we are undoubtedly setting them up for either complete failure or to feel like a complete failure. They aren’t surviving because they are new to the profession and we are expecting them to be able to run when they haven’t learned to walk and they’ve chosen a profession where we don’t embrace advocating for ourselves because we are so busy advocating for others.

Immerse ourselves in SEL and trauma knowledge: Create sustained, consistent support and opportunities for teachers to learn about SEL and trauma in a holistic and practical way so it becomes second nature. This will take tens of hours of time (at least) and yes, it may mean that the new ELA or math curriculum or latest tech integration tools may need to take a backseat temporarily while people are trained. This does not mean that I don’t value these things, I can both value them and feel like right now SEL and trauma are a higher priority. I can do both.

Give teachers strategies that may work for most students, and then give them a procedure for what to do when they don’t work (at what point do they call the multiple behavior specialists that should be available to them? Do they have a PLC to problem solve with?). I’ve worked with so many districts that claim they have adopted trauma practices and SEL and yet I have never met one at this level. I believe that most if not all would recognize that these practices are important but they don’t follow through on what really needs to be done to change the way they operate. If you’re unsure ask yourself this question: What would staff and the community say is important to the district only based on the actions of the district (not considering what they say)? Because you can spend all day branding yourself as an SEL-focused district but if the actions don’t align and people don’t know without a doubt that these concepts are the ultimate priority, then there is not integrated into the system enough.

Create consistent, reasonable policies: One of the top five reasons that I hear from teachers as to why they are emotionally disengaged would be because there is no follow-through on poor behaviors in the classroom. We have a lot to be nervous about. Parents, in general, seem to be less supportive and the helicopter and lawnmower parents are abundant. I know that when I was a teacher I had one particular student who if I made angry would attack me with sharp objects and it scared me, and I can’t count the number of times that I’ve seen classes removed and classrooms destroyed by students in meltdown mode. It makes discipline a tough and oftentimes a sore subject. When you add trauma to the mix and begin talking about dysregulation and the brain and what students can and can’t control, there’s a very fine line between correcting behavior and making a decision that ends up being detrimental to the student’s mental health. Many times, when we don’t know what to do, we do nothing or we take the path of least resistance. This is another reason why understanding trauma-responsive practices and social-emotional learning on a very deep level is so crucial - because if you did, you would know that implementing trauma-responsive practices and trauma-informed teaching does not equate to doing nothing. It doesn’t mean allowing behavior in a classroom that is harmful to other students. It doesn’t mean making a teacher feel like they are all alone and at a loss of what to do about protecting all their students.

I recognize that there is a lot going on here that we, as education professionals, have little control over, and blaming schools for really bad things that happen is like the worst kind of victim-blaming. We can’t control what the students come into our classroom with and their lived experiences. However, there are things we can do to be sure that we are protecting all students. All students have the right to feel safe at school. All students have the right to be met where they are emotionally. And all teachers have the right to be provided with the foundational knowledge they need to make the right decisions in their classrooms so both students and adults are protected.

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1 Comment

Deanna Nelson
Deanna Nelson
Jun 01, 2022

Mandy, I agree with you wholeheartedly. I feel we desperately need a pilot school that is willing to dive in and create a model that can be scaled. There is much work to be done before we can ever hope to get the attention of the decision makers. The enormity of this need makes me step back and remember that big change starts with small deliberate actions. Count me in to help.

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