The beginning of the school year often followed the same pattern for me and my foster kids:
(1) We started with all sorts of plans and positive hopes.
(2) Something triggered my child.
(3) My child started a fight or talked back to the teacher or melted down or ditched classes or . . .
(4) I scrambled to pick up the pieces and try to get my kid back to paying attention to school again.
I have heard this pattern countless times from foster parents and stepparents. It’s become almost a foregone conclusion that kids who have suffered childhood trauma will also struggle in school. When I first started working in foster care back in the day, the professionals and I had no idea how these responses were related to the traumatic events that my kids had gone through before coming to my home. We just had a vague notion that children from “troubled backgrounds” had developed a lot of coping strategies that caused disruptive behavior in school. Now, we know that much of this problem behavior is actually a trauma response to adverse childhood experiences, and our strategies have to start from that point.
Explaining trauma and the impact of trauma to teachers and school administrators can be a challenge. Few of them have had any training in the effects of trauma on student learning, and they may not understand what’s happening with our kids. It will be our job to explain it to them. If our children come to us with a history of traumatic experiences, some of the following principles and techniques may help.
• Understand the teacher’s perspective. Teachers understandably are focused on keeping the classroom working smoothly. When individual students disrupt the system, the school employees’ focus will be on getting things back on track. Our primary focus, of course, is on what our kids need. This difference doesn’t mean that the school staff doesn’t care about our kids or that we don’t care about a functioning classroom. It just means that our perspectives are different. We need to find a way to combine the strengths of both perspectives. In other words, we need to show teachers how understanding and working with our kids can help the classroom function smoothly.
• Explain our kids’ trauma responses. We now have a lot more research on trauma, and explaining it can be very challenging. It can be particularly hard with young children, who lack the vocabulary to express what they are feeling. We have to explain to educators that many behavioral problems are actually symptoms of trauma, that past trauma usually causes children to feel unsafe, and that chronic stress has trained them to be on constant alert for danger. It’s not a conscious reflex that we can deal with logically. The response is buried deep in the back of a child’s brain, and our words can only reach different brain pathways. So, despite our best efforts, a child whose brain is shouting “danger” has a lot of difficulty focusing on higher-process things such as learning.
The analogy I use is a computer. Trauma is like a program that is working in the background, taking up all sorts of resources. What we see in the program at the front of the screen is slow, glitchy, and highly annoying. Trauma makes children’s brains work sort of the same way. Their subconscious is trying to solve a problem in the background. What we see on the surface is a child who is slow, distracted, and sometimes highly annoying. Until therapy and love and stability can help their subconscious process the trauma, they just don’t have a lot of resources to devote to schoolwork. In the meantime, we have to find ways to use the mental and emotional resources that they can access.
• Help educators understand the need for a safe environment. The main thing our kids need in order to even start learning is to feel safe. Unfortunately, it doesn’t take much for them to feel in danger, at least emotionally. An irritated teacher can trigger memories of angry parents and family violence. Bullying from peers can trigger the same fight, flight, or freeze response. The emotional distress that accompanies that trigger will derail a child’s attention and make it impossible for him or her to pay attention to the day’s lesson. Thus, the first and most essential element of classroom learning has to be a supportive environment. That atmosphere also can be the hardest thing for a teacher to achieve, particularly in middle school and high school when bullying is a serious problem. School counselors may be a good resource, or other sympathetic teachers can provide a safe place to learn. Our kids, particularly elementary students, also will benefit more than most from clear expectations and clear structure on a daily basis. Knowing ahead of time what the schedule will be, what homework is expected when, and how the teachers expect the work to be done can be essential to counteract the impacts of trauma. Whatever the solution, until we find it, trying to get our kids to learn will just be an exercise in frustration for everyone.
• Look for educational resources. Trauma-informed education is a relatively new discipline, but there are publications that we can send to teachers to explain trauma’s impact on our children. Of course, we have to be careful about telling teachers how to do their jobs, but we can help them find education-focused resources. Fortunately, many of those resources understand the teachers’ perspective and show how relatively simple techniques can help create a trauma-sensitive learning environment. Other resources offer a child trauma toolkit designed for educators and professional development courses. Some excellent authorities that I have found include:
The fact that trauma-informed education is now a thing can help us advocate for our kids. Point educators to sources that they recognize as authoritative, and ask them to help you figure out ho to put those principles into practice.
• Think outside the box for accommodation. The usual route for accommodation for our kids in public schools will be through Individual Education Plans (IEPs) and Section 504 plans. Private schools may not be as formal, but many of them are beginning to realize the need to help survivors of childhood trauma. In both schools, we may need diagnoses from mental health professionals to get access to those accommodations. The usual diagnoses will be anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Unfortunately, a lot of trauma responses don’t show up in traditional mental health diagnoses, and we need to encourage teachers to think outside the box. To use the computer analogy, we need to find accommodations that lessen the resource demands on our children’s brains. Sometimes, we may need to get a child extra help for a school assignment or get permission for them to listen to soothing music on their headphones during projects.
Other accommodations may seem like a good idea but can actually be counterproductive. Extending a project deadline, for example, may help some children. But for others, it simply extends the time that they have to be anxious. For those kids, we need to negotiate fewer requirements or a more streamlined process.
• Keep our eye on the big picture. Part of our job as parents is to focus on the whole child. Schools see only part of our child’s day, and their job is education. We are the ones who see more of the whole child and the big picture of what our child needs. So, sometimes, helping our children find success in the long run may require us to insist on some temporary accommodation. For example, if homework is becoming a power struggle with your child, consider whether the homework is important in the overall scheme of things. Maybe establishing a relationship is a higher priority at that particular moment. Certainly, the difference between a C and a B is not worth creating additional stress and compounding trauma.
At the same time, being trauma sensitive doesn’t require that a child’s past trauma become an all-encompassing excuse. Our kids need to learn how to overcome the trauma, not get trapped in it. Empowering them is hard work, both for them and for us. But if they don’t learn life skills to move past the trauma, then they will never feel that they can succeed. So, we have to keep our eyes on the overall goal – helping our children realize that they are not trapped in their trauma and that they can accomplish great things.
Whatever we advocate needs to keep that overall goal in mind. Education is important, and school is an important part of our kids’ lives, but it is not their whole life. Our job is to keep that important part of their life in perspective as we help them work through all the many things that they have going on in their heads.
As we advocate for our kids to make their educational experience as positive as possible, let’s remember to look at things from an educator’s perspective and help them find a flexible framework for integrating our children into the classroom. There are many different ways to support childhood trauma survivors. Keeping these principles in mind will help us give our children a good foundation for academic success.