You have a student, let’s call him Jack, who seems to always be defiant and refuses to follow directions. So you’ve done your best work – you chased the why and you found the trauma in hiding.You have identified that he is actually showing you the turmoil he is experiencing inside. Great job! You have done a wonderful thing to help him.
But… now what?
You found out that Jack’s parents got divorced and he and his mom had to move into a new apartment. Then they got evicted, and now he’s living with his grandmother in a one bedroom apartment. You know that he doesn’t have his own bed, or a desk to do his homework on, and he is home by himself a lot while his mother and grandmother work. But you’ve provided a great environment for Jack, and despite his chaotic home life, he has really thrived in your stable, nurturing classroom. Then, a couple of months after the parents’ divorce, Jack starts talking about it.
Jack starts saying things like, “I think my dad left because he didn’t want to be with us anymore.”
You get that feeling in your throat. You don’t know what to say or do. Ask him follow-up questions? Send him to the counselor? Change the subject?
This is a hard one. But fortunately we have neuroscience to help us navigate the way! We’ll keep this very simple, but allow us to explain how Jack’s brain is handling this experience. His right brain, the part of the brain that is emotional and intuitive and handles how we make sense of our experiences, is processing this traumatic event. His left brain, the part of the brain that is logical and forms coherent thoughts, isn’t accessible to him. So we need to access that left brain to help get that right brain in control. The left brain loves logic and sequential storytelling, and Jack has indicated that he’s trying to make sense of his situation with language, so the best thing to do is engage. Allow him to talk it out.
The most important thing is that you let Jack lead the way. When Jack opens up to talk about his feelings, you don’t want to redirect him and change the subject. It seems counter-intuitive to some – we don’t want kids to feel sad, so when they start talking about sad things, we should remind them of happy things instead. But the thing about kids is that they’re holding these feelings, whether they talk about them or not. And when they don’t talk, they’re having to make sense of it all on their own. If there’s no one to talk to, they start filling in the gaps with their limited understanding of the world. So Jack might start thinking, “I guess my dad left because I wouldn’t follow directions that morning. This is all my fault.”
Letting Jack lead the way means that you go as far as he takes it. If he wants to talk about his experience, you allow him to. And when he’s ready to stop, you allow that too. You can say, “I can tell these are some really important feelings you are having. Thank you for sharing that with me. If you want to talk about it again, you know that I’m always available.”
Sometimes we get tricked into thinking that a kid’s behavior could not possibly be trauma related. Even when you know a kid has experienced trauma, as in Jack’s case, you might think that he’s moved on because he’s been really good in your class. Then one day his behavior starts bubbling up, and you think, “I know Jack has experienced trauma, but this behavior is defiance. This couldn’t be trauma. That was months ago, and he’s been so good. This is simple defiance.” Even when we do our best work to uncover trauma, we can still be tricked by it. It is important to know that trauma, particularly for children whose brains and bodies are constantly changing, can bubble up at unexpected times, and it can be weeks or months after an event, long after you’ve thought it was resolved.
A caveat: of course there are times when it’s not appropriate to talk things out, particularly traumatic experiences. If you’re doing a group activity about feelings, and Jack shares that he felt sad when his dad left because he thinks it is his fault, then it’s not really appropriate to ask him to elaborate. Instead, you can acknowledge the importance of what he said and politely redirect, by saying something like, “Wow, Jack. It sounds like you have some really big feelings about that. Thank you for trusting me with that. Right now we are talking about smaller kinds of feelings. Can you tell us about a time when you felt just a little bit sad? Like maybe a time you were sick on your birthday, or you didn’t get to do something you were excited about?”
Sometimes we think that when a child brings something up, we should redirect immediately, and that the more they talk about it, the more salt we’re pouring in the wound. But we know from neuroscience that this isn’t the case. Our kids are trying to make sense of the world, and they need the adults in their lives to help them. We also know these can be difficult stories to hold. Just as we don’t want children carrying these big worries by themselves, you should also invite caregivers in the child’s world (e.g. school counselors, caregivers, therapist) to help you support you and your student during this important time.