During the first week of school, Marcus sits in the back and refuses to participate. By the end of the first week, he has retreated further and further until he’s practically sitting under his desk. The other students have started to warm up to the new environment, joining in on class discussions and learning how to line up and take their seats on the rug. But Marcus never seems to warm up.
What’s going on with Marcus? At first glance, we might excuse Marcus’ behavior as shyness. And to some extent, an introverted child make take longer to warm up to a new environment. But as time goes on and Marcus is not able to engage at all, we might want to chase the why. Why is Marcus acting this way?
Camila seems to get frustrated easily and can be very destructive when things don’t go her way. When her teacher has her share a set of crayons with another student, Camila intentionally breaks each crayon in half and throws them down on the floor. When her teacher gets down to her level and tries to calm her down, Camila throws herself on the floor and cries.
What’s going on with Camila? Most kids get frustrated from time to time and sometimes struggle to find appropriate ways to express their frustration. But what Camila is doing is beyond the range of normal. She’s finding it utterly impossible to navigate the normal social setting of her classroom. If this was a one-time incident, we might write it off as a student who didn’t get enough sleep or who had a bad morning, but if this is a common occurrence, it’s time to chase the why.
If a child has a behavior that falls outside the normal behavior of the other students, we need to start asking why. It might be a diagnosable learning difference or the student might need special assistance with a certain academic or social skill. Or, as our psychologist Dr. Leahy explained in this post, it might be trauma.
Students who suffer from trauma sometimes look like students who struggle academically or socially. Let’s look at the two stories above and see if we can look at them differently through the lens of trauma.
Maybe Marcus has moved a lot in his young life and has a hard time settling in to a new place because he thinks he’ll leave soon. Maybe Marcus has a fear of adults because of an abuse experience. Marcus is in a new place with new faces. He has had little or no experience with this new situation and the behaviors that are expected of him. When he’s confronted with all these new experiences and rules, his instinct is to retreat into a safe place. His brain is flooded with the stress hormone, cortisol. His retreat under the table might have been the only place he felt safe and comfortable.
Instead of punishing Marcus for not participating, a trauma-informed teacher might first identify why he’s hiding in the first place. And once she’s noticed that perhaps he comes from an experience of trauma, she can offer gentle encouragement. She can say, “It is hard when you meet new people and come to a new place. Sometimes it feels safer to hide. When you are ready, I would really like for you to join us.” Although this sounds very simple, the message it is communicating is, “I understand this is hard. I can wait for you. I want you to join us.” What a powerful message of inclusion and respect!
Let’s revisit Camila, our student who struggled with managing frustrating experiences. Before Camila ever entered the classroom, she already had years of experiences, and if any of them were trauma-based, she’s already baked that into how she navigates the world. In Camila’s case, we can sense that she might not have been given the solid foundation of a secure attachment with a primary caregiver. (Learn more about attachment here.) As a result, Camila might be responding the only way she knows how. If no one has ever taught her how to manage frustration, how can she be expected to learn it on her own?
Instead of viewing Camila as a defiant student who is deliberately being disruptive, a trauma-informed teacher might see Camila’s behavior as a cry for help. After chasing the why, the teacher might see that Camila’s home environment is chaotic and Camila lacks the ability to respond to normal, everyday occurrences with calmness. In addition, she might actually lack some of the skills needed to do well academically, further fueling the anxiety and ultimate frustration when things go wrong. A trauma-informed teacher can exercise patience with Camila as she learns how to navigate a new environment. While the teacher can’t follow her home and make sure that all of her relationships with adults are secure and positive, she can create that environment in her classroom. She can offer appropriate guidance and support to Camila to help her eventually improve her behavior.
It all boils down to empathy. Instead of getting frustrated at the students who are difficult (and we know, it can be very frustrating), we need to take a moment to chase the why. Kids very rarely misbehave just for the sake of it. Their behavior is usually letting us know that something else is going on. When we get that call for help, we should be prepared to respond.
When it comes to kids with trauma, it’s not what’s wrong with you, it’s what’s happened to you.