Muddled Minds, Battered Bodies and Sinking Spirits
Working with Traumatized Students
It is tiresome watching
the news (24 hours a day), reading the newspaper or just hearing about the
tragedies on the other side of the planet. There was a time when people
were impacted only by the trauma in their tribes, villages or
communities. Now, instant information and shrinking the size of the world
bring so many more tragedies to our table. We know trauma is not new; for
centuries people have struggled with and dealt with its impact on their
lives. What is different today is the increased risk factors and reduced
or absent protective factors.
Today schools deal
regularly with trauma and educators need effective tools and strategies.
Educators wear a tool belt containing their varied and numerous tools
(skills and methods) used routinely. A variety of ways to respond to
trauma are vital tools that need to be added to the belt. You never know
when the right one will come in handy. In this article, trauma will be
viewed from the point of view of the impact it has on grades, attendance
and behavior and will not be an attempt to provide clinical information
about therapy or treatment; this is not the information schools need. We
will take a look at what trauma is, how it appears at school, and
recognize some tools that can be used when dealing with a student who has
Drawing a Picture of
By definition, trauma is the sudden and often unexpected occurrence of
an emotionally staggering or destructive event. Strong feelings are
spawned, quite often without the person's awareness. When the trauma is
chronic (occurs over an extended period), children can develop Post
Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), exacerbating the existing symptoms that
already exist. There is a difference between trauma and PTSD, even if
vague. A divorce provokes different levels of trauma than does repeated
violence in the home, or the witnessing a suicide attempt by a loved one
(which doesn't necessarily result in PTSD). This article will list signs
and symptoms most often seen with trauma and PTSD because both can happen
to young people. However, the main focus is on the trauma students most
often experience and bring to school.
It Gets Most of Us
How many students in any American classroom experience some form of
trauma? The question is somewhat rhetorical since trauma is so common it
doesn't seem to warrant any attempt to prove it with hard data. Those who
work with youth know anecdotally that trauma hits a great number of kids.
But, how many? First we need to establish what is considered trauma.
Physical trauma is apparent and can include a loss of a limb, a major
injury resulting from violence, crushed or maimed bodies resulting from
car wrecks, severe burns or war wounds. But what about emotional trauma?
Issues such as sexual abuse and physical abuse are clearly traumatic.
Absolutely no question there! But is it traumatic to live through the
parents' divorce? After all, fifty percent of marriages end in divorce in
this country. Certainly something as common as a family splitting up
can't be that traumatic; or can it? Those who have survived one (or two,
three...), might strongly argue with this conclusion. Trauma comes in many
forms, sometimes even disguised as something desired.
Choking Gulps, Caustic Sips and Icebergs
We know children need safe homes and communities, structure and
boundaries, healthy role models and a healthy relationship with an adult
other than the parents. They need to be valued by society, to attend
caring schools, to engage in service activities and to be secure in their
surroundings and neighborhoods. More than ever before, the lack of
protective factors and developmental assets makes it more difficult to
handle trauma. It is no exaggeration to say that by the age of eighteen,
most people will experience some level of trauma. The American
Journal of Public Health (Volume 90, Number 1) reports that more than
one in four U.S. children (19 million children or 28.6 percent) are
exposed to a home impacted by the disease of alcoholism; a home where
hopes are often dashed, dreams shattered, promises broken, and trust
destroyed. The American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry
states that sexual abuse of children is reported more than 80,000 times
annually. Experts believe this is the tip of the iceberg. It is
speculated that up to one-third of children in the U.S. will at some time
be touched inappropriately by an adult, very often someone well known.
When we include some of the more toxic aspects of our culture such as
violence, racism, gang war, bullying and road rage, we see that trauma is
sadly a part of our daily lives, taken in either large choking doses, or
small caustic sips. Either way it leaves a bitter taste. These
traumatized students then come to school to learn.
What Causes Trauma?
The table below isn't expected to add new or revealing information to
the reader. Most know about the things that hurt children. It is here to
emphasize the myriad of issues that are traumatic; supporting the concern
that teachers regularly are charged with educating traumatized
students, often without that knowledge.
Loss and grief
Target of Bullying
Parental Rage or neglect
Other (this list could
As educators, including Student Assistance professionals, being
overwhelmed by the recurrence of trauma is very understandable; this alone
is one of the best arguments for using a Core Team model. There is
support by other team members and the weight of concern is shared by
many. There is a tendency for some adults to take the problem and pain
onto their own shoulders. Some self-protect, pull back or develop a
"thick skin". This is not a problem when infrequent and short-lasting.
What can disable an educator's ability to respond well to trauma is when
long-term reactions persist. Caring about someone who has been
traumatized demands emotional energy. Just hearing or being informed
about a person, even strangers who experience trauma can result in being
"mini-traumatized". Incidents on television news shows or in the newspaper
are digested one at a time and not too sour to chew. But these can
accumulate, creating quite a bit more emotional indigestion than
expected. We can burn out, walk away, quit caring or be sad and
discouraged most of the time.
How Not to Kill the
Mule - Self Care
Usually self-care is reserved until the end of an article, almost as
an afterthought. Its importance begs to be included now. Being
overwhelmed or desensitized are good reasons an individual needs to take
care of the mental, intellectual, physical, spiritual and social
aspects that make a person whole. Neglect of any of these seems to
diminish our ability to weather the storms of trauma routinely whirling
our way. There are so many ways people self-care that there will be no
attempt to capture all in this article. They include eating healthy,
exercising, enjoying a hobby, creating an immediate circle of friends for
support, working with a mentor, or taking a vacation (man, this last one
really sounds good). When the burden of someone else's trauma gets too
large to swallow, experience has shown that 12-step meetings provide
relief very effectively. A person needs to be able to detach and let go
of situations beyond control. This is a primary intent of meetings such
as Adult Children of Alcoholics, Alanon, and Emotions Anonymous. If the
pain eventually gets too intense, it is comforting to know these solutions
are available. It seems though that we often wait until the pain becomes
unbearable before reaching out for help.
About Post Traumatic
Stress Disorder (PTSD)
Post Traumatic Stress
Disorder is a medically recognized occurrence to a highly stressful
situation; either physical or emotional. The key is recognizing the child
experiences tremendous fear or helplessness. Post Traumatic Stress
Disorders can occur with people of all ages and has a damaging affect on
school, relationships, interests and mental health. PTSD in children can
occur because of natural disasters (tornadoes, hurricanes, and floods) or
those that are man-made such as war, murder, rape, targeted school
shootings, car or plane accidents, community-based violence, physical
injury such as severe burns, sexual or physical abuse and suicide. For
each, there may be varying degrees on how it affects a person. We are all
different and possess different degrees of resiliency.
Signs and Symptoms of
The signs and symptoms listed below are a compilation of what may
occur when students experience PTSD. The effects of trauma usually appear
within a day to three months after the traumatic event. With some people
it may take years before it manifests. This delay warns us about assuming
that following the trauma the student should be better, no longer
displaying symptoms. The belief that a student is "milking" the situation
or malingering just adds insult to injury by rubbing salt into a wound.
Often the behavior is
similar to other trauma, but PTSD tends to last longer and be more
difficult to recover from without help. Potential signs of a person
suffering from PTSD are:
- Decrease in
activities and other valued enjoyments
- Detachment from
hopelessness about the present and future
- Distressing dreams
or flashbacks about the event
- Distress at
anniversaries of the trauma
- Avoidance of
people, places and things associated with the trauma
- Emotional shut
down with diminished ability to feel
- Regression in
development such as the need for toilet training or engaging in
- Physical and
psychological hypersensitivity (not present before the trauma) with at
least two of the following reactions:
- trouble sleeping
startle-response to noise
reaction to situations that approximate the traumatic event such as:
in blood pressure
- rapid heart
- muscle tension
Spinning Too Many
It is believed that on average, people handle roughly five "bits" of
information at one time. These "bits" are synonymous with our ability to
perceive and process new information (juggling several plates at once).
When these are available, learning takes place. For example, when you
first learned to drive a standard shift car it probably took more of these
"bits" than were available, resulting in confusion, frustration, and
discouragement. Once learned (processed) these bits were restored,
allowing you to eat, drink, talk, search for CDs, tune the radio, and
scold the kids in the back seat while driving. Bits come and go as a
routine part of our day. But, traumatic feelings reduce these bits,
interfering with learning (perceiving and processing information). It is
like being able to spin five plates at one time and three more are tossed
your way. In the attempt to catch them all, every plate comes crashing
down. The ability to learn is restored when the student finds relief from
the feelings; even if only temporarily.
Uh Oh, Here Comes the Anger
Whether resulting from trauma or just a bad hair day, some degree of
anger simmers in a large number of people. At times it boils with those
who are traumatized, scalding those around. Though a real feeling, anger
is secondary, or a result. Other feelings come first and convert to anger
and/or rage. For example, a friend betrayed a secret you entrusted and
rumors spread, it would most likely result in anger. Though anger is
normal and an expected human reaction; preceding it are feelings such as
hurt, betrayal, humiliation, violation, and sadness. These
feelings give birth to anger, nourish it well and sometimes let it
stampede, trampling many. Anger is an effective way to avoid more
sensitive feelings. It deflects those too painful to discuss, or even
think about. When angry, kids often need to vent appropriately. There
are healthy ways of venting that do not have to be hurtful or out of
line. It is best to interact with the student away from peers to minimize
the tendency for him to perform. Pride and ego are right around the
corner, just waiting to step in and inflate. When communicating, it is
essential to use active listening skills and it helps to have a connection
with the student; trust is essential for a student to even attempt to
Being angry doesn't give permission for the student to be rude,
aggressive or combative. There is a difference between expressing
feelings and acting on them. No one should tolerate being abused,
physically or verbally. Everyone's boundaries need to be honored and
respected. If a student steps over the line with aggression, appropriate
action needs to be taken, regardless of the trauma. Having a reason for
the feelings is not an excuse for the behavior.
Using Words, Tone of
Voice, Expression and Posture
Effective interaction at school is not formal therapy or treatment.
It is an attempt to decrease the agitation or distress interfering with
learning. In almost every case, the success of this intervention is based
on dialogue or a verbal transaction. Active listening skills are so
vital; they are summarized as a reminder below:
Most communication is
nonverbal: eye contact, facial expression, posture, gesture, and tone
of voice. This accounts for about 80%-90% of normal communication.
Paraphrasing lets the student know he or she is being heard.
Sounds such as, "uh hu", "go on", "um", encourage the speaker.
Certainly words are important and when poorly chosen can sabotage an
attempt to reach a student. Based on the responses, the student should be
able to tell the other person is listening.
What If Both Could
adults and disruptive or acting out students tend to lean towards the "I
win, you lose" style of communicating, where the adult displays power and
the student submits (or is supposed to.). Some kids do not submit very
easily and would rather go down in flames than give in. Power struggles
leave someone defeated, usually the student. Interactions that are based
on a win-win outcome meet the needs of both. The hierarchy is maintained
for the teacher and the student is appropriately empowered (which goes a
long way towards healing). Below are some examples of interactions
between a teacher and a student.
Scenario: A student in class constantly gets out of his chair,
disrupting others. He refuses to do his assignment and if in the seat
often appears to sleep.
The Reactive Teacher: "I told you at least a hundred times to get
back in your chair. Do you want me to make a referral, or for me to get
Mr. Smith to deal with you?"
response is predictable. A power struggle has ensued; the student is
backed into an emotional corner often with an entire class disrupted. To
resolve, the adult wins and the student loses! Better than the other way
around, but not the only choice. Taking the exact same situation, the
entire interaction can be much more pleasant and effective. Important
needs such as validation, acceptance and respect are vital
ingredients when working with traumatized kids. The conversation might
look something like this:
Teacher: "I noticed you're having a difficult time staying in your
chair today as well as working on your assignment. You seem a bit
agitated, maybe even upset about something. Is there anything I can help
method works to prevent an immediate and automatic defensive posture by
the student. An "I win, you win" approach is beneficial even if the
student refuses to interact. If he doesn't respond well to this style, it
is doubtful the student will respond well to being challenged and
threatened. At the very least, the rest of the class observes a student
being treated with respect and dignity rather than power and control.
Reframing is taking a troubled situation and shifting it from the
"what is wrong" mindset to a "what was done right" perspective. This does
not let the student off the hook; kids do need to be accountable for their
actions. It does promote solutions, rather than failures. Below are
several examples of statements from two teachers contrasting these two
very different styles.
Scenario: A student who has a pattern of being tardy just walked into
the classroom late.
"How come you're always late for my class? Everyone else gets here on
time! What's the problem?"
"When you come to my class on time, what is it you do that gets you
here? I know you figured out a way to be on time. I've observed that you
arrive on time a lot!"
Scenario: In frustration, a student threatens to quit school and
says, "I'm through with this place; tomorrow I'll quit school and get
my G.E.D. This class blows!"
You might just as well quit with that attitude! I'd say it is your
attitude that's a problem around here, not my class! You wouldn't know
anyway; you are always causing me trouble and you never pay attention."
"I can see you are frustrated. You were talking about your hope for
graduation; what changed? There was a time you enjoyed coming to my
class? What do you think made it okay then?"
Scenario: A student makes a physical threat about another student who
betrayed her confidence saying, "I'm sick and tired of her running her
big mouth! I'll shut it for her since she can't do it herself. I'm going
to kick her tail up and down this hallway".
"If you say something like that again young lady, I'll not only send
you to the office, I'll call your parents. We have a zero tolerance
policy here and will call the police. You'll be arrested. Is that what
you want? Huh?"
"It sounds like you are really feeling betrayed by someone you trusted
and are struggling with how to best respond. Other than fighting, what
needs to happen to make things better?"
Reframing may appear to be too "touchy-feely" or syrupy for some, but
it works with many students, not just those traumatized. It takes no more
time to reframe a statement than it takes to control and overpower.
Reframing is not a magic bullet and some students need much more
intervention than a one-on-one interaction. When attempts have failed to
redirect or interrupt a student's behavior or attitude, a referral (identification)
to the Student Assistance Program is appropriate. The student may be
displaying similar behavior in all classes, or just one. This is
important information when screening and developing an
intervention plan. This plan could possibly include participation in a
support group, meeting with the counselor, parent meeting, getting a
mentor or resolution by peer mediation.
Our popular culture has changed dramatically over the last few
decades, resulting in more trauma and tragedy. Traumatic events will
happen whether man-made or natural. Schools are asked to do more today
than at any time in this country's history. It is expected that every
student be reached, including those sinking from trauma. Yet, trauma
interferes with a student's performance, regardless of the quality of
teaching. When ignored, the signs and symptoms of trauma persist,
impacting the student teacher and classmates.
Understanding and effective response to trauma has become a necessity for
educators from all grade levels. Not only do schools need to recognize
and respond to trauma, students need to learn how to deal with the
tragedies, difficulties and disappointments that will inevitably come
their way. By helping the student move past the trauma while at school,
we not only reduce the distress and increase the learning; with a
solution-focused approach we teach life skills that will be utilized for
the rest of the student's life. And, that sounds like a win-win situation
for us all.