Childhood trauma is an event that causes a child physical, emotional, spiritual, or psychological harm. The traumatic events have a long term impact on a child’s social, emotional, and behavioral health.
There is much discussion about how childhood trauma impacts brain develpment in young children. As the young brain is developing, in particular the frontal lobe; the section that controls inhibitions and judgement, does not function properly and as a result there will be difficulties with impulse control, emotional thinking, building healthy relationships. Current studies have shown how the impact of childhood trauma affects the adult (they become) in long term presidence of illnesses, stress induced medical issues, and shortening their life spans.
So what does this look like for the child in the classroom? What does this child look like to the teacher or other adults in the school setting? Let’s explore this scenario first with a child’s trauma implacted story followed by a trauma informed teacher’s response.
Meet Robert; age 11 who had been identified with significant emotional/behavioral issues and referred to my special education program (working with children with behavioral/emotional issues). He had significant difficulties controlling emotional charged “meltdowns”. The episodes would be mild to severe involved and durations of 10-60+ minutes. His overall goal was to disturb the learning environment as well as take control of teacher. He had put into play, behaviors that put him in position to be removed from the general education class. Once removed to my class we spent time deconstructing the situation and behaviors involved. What were the “triggers”, antecedents, and reinforcing reactions blocking this child’s path to adjusting and reinforcing new reactive behaviors? What was the adult’s stress responses to the behavior breakdowns and how did that look to the child?
Understanding the child and his responses to an adult’s request is often seen (by the child) as a threat to their being, “who they are”. Most often kids with trauma experiences usually respond in 1 of 3 ways; fight, flight, or freeze. In Robert’s case; fight/flight was his response to the given class assignment; perhaps due to anxiety of failing, or feeling there were emotional “triggers” set in play. So, with that in mind, I approach his serious emotional/behavioral breakdowns as a chance for him to share the reasons for his reactions. Armed with mental note taking I LISTEN to the story he shares in regards to directives given by adults. One story he shared was when his dad (who was the primary emotional abuser) would come home from drinking, he would often experience verbal abuse, physical abuse, and emotional abuse for hours on end. His mother was involved with drugs/alcohol as well as attempting to hold a part time job as a hotess at local resturant. The “toxic stress” he endured for hours and days on end “wired a new emotional response highway” in his brain and from that “highway” he would react. To help reset a new “highway for emotions” we spend a great deal of time building vital relationships which will allow the child to feel; safe, secure, trusting, and willing to take chances with “safe adults” (those he trusts with his emotions and stories). We discuss how adults interact with children facing toxic stress and prepare a plan to interact with teachers by feeling safe to “share their stories”.
By our third nine week period, Robert began to practice self-talk, being asked to leave class for a refocus with myself or school admin, and asking for coping behaviors when faced with the trauma environment in his home. He began to smile more, assist other students, and eager to share “good news” about himself, something he was unable to do. Although he left my program and moved to middle school, he attempted to practice our shared tools of coping, but his home life imploded to point parents split, home was lost, and Robert stopped attending school.As with so many of my students, Robert faces an uphill battle of self discovery and purpose as he navigates his world of trauma. For this reason, we as the adults in our children’s lives must develop the mindset of; “how can I help this child discover their life of being a child while being mindful this same child is affected by the ongoing adverse childhood expriences that create toxic stress in their young life.” How can we “pour good into a child’s life?”