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We Need to Learn About Trauma to Help Kids Who Need Us Most

Everywhere you look, our schools are filled with traumatized children; children struggling not just to learn and succeed, but to survive. Too often, we think that trauma happens elsewhere. Not in our communities. Not in our schools.

I know firsthand the fallacy that is our collective assumption that trauma and abuse happen to other people, not the people we know, and surely not ourselves.

And, I’ve just finished a book that has changed the way I look at the world. It’s called “The Body Keeps The Score; Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma,” by Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk. This book needs to be read and discussed by every single teacher, school counselor, social worker, principal and pretty much anybody else who comes into contact with students.

Here’s why: abuse and trauma don’t happen to other people, other families, other students, other children, other schools. They happen in the homes of our families, our friends and our neighbors. All schools serve students who have been abused. All teachers teach students with trauma.

For Teachers To Deal with Trauma, We Need to Know the Facts

Van Der Kolk unsparingly lays out the facts, so we can see trauma is everywhere:

  • One in five Americans was sexually molested as a child.
  • One in four was beaten by a parent to the point of a mark being left on their body.
  • One out of eight witnessed their mother being beaten or hit.

These uncomfortable truths become even more alarming when compounded by the mid-1990s study into Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE). Participants were asked a series of questions about their having endured traumatic experiences. Each time they responded affirmatively, they scored a point on the ACE scale. 

Survey questions included: 

  • Did a parent or other adult in the household often or very often swear at you, insult you, or put you down? (10% replied yes). 
  • Did one of your parents often or very often push, grab, slap or throw something at you? (More than 25% said yes).
  • Did an adult or person at least five years older ever touch your body in a sexual way or attempt oral, anal or vaginal intercourse with you? (28% of women and 16% of men replied yes.)

The higher a person’s ACE score, the more trauma that person has, which in turn drastically increases their susceptibility to struggle in school, attempt suicide and use IV drugs. 

Healing Trauma Is Not About Grit; It’s About the Brain

This is not about grit and resilience. And this isn’t about kids nowadays being soft. 

It’s about a very simple fact.

“Trauma, by definition, is unbearable and intolerable.”

For so long, so many of us have collectively written off kids who needed the help the most. We have operated under the paradigm that students who check out or explode need to be removed from those students who want to learn. 

But Van Der Kolk’s work informs us of a powerful, game-changing fact. 

“Behaviors are not the result of moral failings or signs of lack of willpower or bad character— they are caused by actual changes in the brain.”

Our brains are built bottom-up, from what is called the reptilian brain to the limbic system and finally to the neocortex.

The reptilian brain is “responsible for all things that newborn babies can do: eat, sleep, wake, cry, breathe, feel temperature, hunger, wetness and pain; and rid the body of toxins by urinating and defecating.” Thank goodness for the reptilian brain.

The limbic system, or emotional brain, “is the seat of the emotions, the monitor of danger, the judge of what is pleasurable or scary … and preprogrammed escape plans like the fight-or-flight responses.” Thank goodness for the limbic system.

The neocortex, or rational brain, (not to be confused with the prefrontal cortex which doesn’t finish developing until the late 20s,) is located within the frontal lobes. These frontal lobes “enable us to use language and abstract thought, give us the ability to absorb and integrate vast amounts of data and make choice possible.” 

Whereas the emotional brain of the limbic system zaps into action and makes us jump to avoid a snake, our neocortex allows us to understand that the snake is only a rubber toy put there as a prank.

Trauma gets in the way of precisely this process. Trauma “increases the risk of misinterpreting whether a particular situation is dangerous or safe … when the alarm bell of the emotional brain keeps signaling that you are in danger, no amount of insight will silence it.”

Trauma makes us perpetually defend ourselves from threat. “As long as the mind is defending itself against invisible assaults, our closest bonds are threatened, along with our ability to imagine, plan, play, learn and pay attention to other people’s needs.”

Think about what that does to a student at school.

We Need to Stop Punishing Trauma Reactions at School

Here are some very common scenarios at schools across the country:

  • A student in an early elementary school classroom squirms and fidgets on their rug square. They are redirected to sit properly, sit still and pay attention. They become sullen and shut down. They are then escorted from the classroom or banished to the corner.
  • A middle school student is seated in their classroom. The class is having a group discussion. The student explodes in rage, throws a chair and moves to fight another student. They are forcibly removed from the classroom and likely suspended.
  • A high school student is seated at their desk. Their head is down. They are unresponsive to the teacher who attempts to engage them. They are left alone and keep their head down until the bell rings.

For some, these are examples of students who are misbehaving, out of control, disengaged, and taking learning opportunities and teacher attention away from students who actually want to learn. They can also be children crying out for help, trapped in a system that doesn't understand how to help.

Van Der Kolk provides a few salient insights:

  • “For abused children, the whole world is filled with triggers. As long as they can imagine only disastrous outcomes to relatively benign situations, anybody walking into a room, any stranger, might be perceived as a harbinger of catastrophe.”
  • “A stern school teacher may be an intimidating presence to an average kid, but for a child whose stepfather beats him up, she may represent a torturer and precipitate a rage attack or a terrified cowering in the corner.”
  • “Children who act out their pain rather than locking it down are often diagnosed with ‘oppositional defiant behavior,’ ‘attachment disorder,’ or ‘conduct disorder.’ But … trying to control a child’s behavior while failing to address the underlying issue, the abuse, leads to treatments that are ineffective at best and harmful at worst … Children who defy the rules are unlikely to be brought to reason by verbal reprimands or even suspension.”
  • “It is standard practice in many schools to punish children for tantrums, spacing out or aggressive outbursts—all of which are symptoms of traumatic stress. When that happens, the school, instead of offering a safe haven, becomes yet another traumatic trigger. Angry confrontations and punishment can at best temporarily halt unacceptable behaviors, but since the underlying alarm systems and stress hormones are not laid to rest, they are certain to erupt again at the next provocation.” 

This stuff isn’t easy to internalize.

I can empathize with a teacher who’s frustration boils over at these students. I’ve lost my patience with students more times than I care to remember.

To me, though, the bottom line is this. What we’re doing just isn’t working. Kicking kids out isn’t working. Yelling at kids isn’t working. Taking away recess isn’t working. And not only are these methods not working, they’re probably hurting.

So what do we do?

Traumatized Kids Need Us to Stop Yelling and Start Helping

The first thing we need to understand is that there is no single silver bullet solution; there’s no gene to turn on or off, no medication to prescribe, no single intervention to roll out to staff.

Once we know that the process will be long and the work will be difficult, there are a few things Van Der Kolk urges to keep in mind.

  • “If you do something to a patient that you would not do to your friends or children, consider whether you are unwittingly replicating a trauma from the patient’s past.”
  • “Yelling at someone who is already out of control can only lead to further dysregulation.”
  • “Where traumatized children are concerned, the last thing we should be cutting from school schedules are the activities that can help: chorus, physical education, recess and anything else that involves movement, play and other forms of joyful engagement.”
  • “The greatest hope for traumatized, abused and neglected children is to receive a good education in schools where they are seen and known, where they learn to regulate themselves and where they can develop a sense of agency. At their best, schools can function as islands of safety in a chaotic world. They can teach children how their brains and bodies work and how they can understand and deal with their emotions.”

Schools need trauma-informed training and they need it now.

A whole retinue of resources can be found at The National Child Traumatic Stress Network.

If we don’t take action, another generation of children will grow up in trauma and, in all likelihood, continue the cycle themselves as parents because, as Van Der Kolk chillingly tells us, “trauma breeds further trauma; hurt people hurt other people.”

Zachary Wright 
Zachary Wright is an assistant professor of practice at Relay Graduate School of Education, serving Philadelphia and Camden, and a communications activist at Education Post. Prior, he was the twelfth-grade world literature and Advanced Placement literature teacher at Mastery Charter School's Shoemaker Campus, where he taught students for eight years—including the school's first eight graduating ...

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