The clusterwink snail is a yellow and brown snail that can be found in Australia. When disturbed or knocked around, the clusterwink snail starts flashing with a blue-green light - as if it had a bulb or L.E.D light inside of it. It’s kind of like a burglar alarm. The shell of the clusterwink diffuses light better than any man-made material ever. It has a light-emitting organ, and the shell’s scattering effect is so good that every part of the shell lights up. The crystalline structure converts a pinprick of light into a beacon. In the film industry they use diffusers to scatter light to illuminate shadows. Scientists are now looking for a way to duplicate this effect so that we can have ultra-efficient lampshades.
So why does the clusterwink flash its light? Is it trying to scare away predators? Or maybe it’s calling to the predators of the predator that’s threatening it. Or it could be communicating to its fellows with some sort of snail Morse code. Despite several studies on the snail, no one is exactly sure what the flashing accomplishes though. The scientists don’t really know - but they have many theories. Theories that can offer insights into supporting challenging students in the classroom.
Theories about the flashing light of the clusterwink snail relate to its adaptation to its environment. Adaptation can protect animals from predators or from harsh weather. Many birds can hide in the tall grass and weeds and insects can change their colour to blend into the surroundings. This makes it difficult for predators to seek them out for food. Adaptation is a modification or change in the organism's body or behaviour that helps it to survive. An animal may adapt to its habitat in different ways. It may be a physical or structural adaptation, just as the limbs of birds have modified into wings or the way the cheetah is shaped for running at a fast speed.
So what does adaptation have to do with students in the classroom?
Like the clusterwink’s mysterious flashing light, we may not always be able to make sense of a traumatised student’s behaviour. But what we can be sure of, is that their behaviour is an adaptation to their environment - a way to survive and have their needs met in adverse environments. That is, students experiencing childhood trauma have often encountered home environments that are more threatening and painful than most other children. Such repeated experiences of abuse and neglect, hijack their normal stress and survival responses beyond its adaptive, evolutionary purpose.
When something terrible happens, humans go into the mode of attributional reasoning—trying to figure out why and how this terrible thing could have possibly happened. In the face of such threats, like in times of war or natural disasters, this form of thinking goes into overdrive. We become hyper-vigilant, constantly scanning our environments for cues of danger or imminent threat. For maltreated children, the experience of toxic levels of stress pushes this response one step further. So convinced of the presence of danger, these children begin to actively misinterpret safe and benign situations as potentially threatening.
While maltreated children are trying to understand what happened to them and why, their brains are still desperate to provide them with a sense of control. In an effort to do this, the primitive parts of our brain - are working overtime to spot early signs of danger. Like moths to a flame, our brain cannot help but look for cues of rejection, abandonment, humiliation and anger, in a desperate bid to regain a sense of safety. That is, even subtle cues in the physical environment or people, that even remotely resembles the traumatic event, become cues of imminent threat. Due to their recurring preoccupation with why the traumatic events occured, and their desire to control such events from not occuring again, benign events come to represent danger.
The clusterwink snail responds to danger with the multi-colour flashing light - hoping to scare away its predator. Similarly, traumatised children who perceive danger in the form of physical aggression, humiliation or social rejection, respond in aggressive and escalated ways to control and ward off threats. In fact, with their bodies constantly geared ready for fight-flight or freeze, these children often find themselves looking for cues of threat in their environment all the time. Often, they only find relief when they have found one or have reacted to it pre-emptively so as if to avert danger. In this way, challenging students may come across as creating chaos for themselves, or relishing being in trouble.
Trauma wires kids to feel & respond according to a precedent, rather than to the present. They follow emotional tracks laid down in the past – when they were victims of deeply painful experiences, from which they continue to have pessimistic expectations.
The key as educators in helping these children is to not fall victim to becoming triggered and feeling triggered ourselves in the face of threats - threats in the form of the disrupted and escalated behaviours of these students. In these situations, we feel triggered as teachers - feeling angry, frightened or worried. The triggering often happens very fast. Our minds are simply flooded with panic, we lose our bearings, the rational faculties shut down and we may feel paralyzed - perhaps for days or perhaps even for weeks.
Often, the best way to protect ourselves from being so triggered is to challenge and question most of what immediately frightens or angers us. We must learn to adopt a robust suspicion of our first impulses. It isn’t that there is nothing scary or worrying about the student or their actions, simply that our initial responses are liable to be out of proportion to the reality of our own capabilities, resilience, and resourcefulness as teachers. We can get perspective on such situations, and our strengths in being able to manage them, by speaking with other educators who have our best interests. Friends and family who can provide fair but support feedback on who we are. We can question our impulses by allowing ourselves to feel these emotions, and allowing ourselves time to reflect on these experiences. The knowledge and practice of trauma informed practice plays a critical roles in supporting such personal and professional development of educators.
For both students and teachers, it is a milestone of maturity when we start to understand what triggers us and why – and to take steps to mitigate the most self-harming of our responses. Whatever our past seems to tell us, perhaps there won’t be a catastrophe, perhaps we’re not about to be hurt or humiliated unbearably. Perhaps we have already have dormant, the capacities to survive and thrive such challenges. Too much of our past is inside us in a way we don’t recognise or learn to make allowances for.
The challenge that both students and educators might face together is to have the courage to be calm, and not reactive in face of triggers, in the form of student misbehaviour and conflict. Unlike the clusterwink, we are not helpless in the face of such adversity. As trauma informed educators, we have the knowledge of our training, the wisdom of our experience and the support of our school community.
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Reference: Morgan, A., Pendergast, D., Brown, R., & Heck, D. (2015). Relational ways of being an educator: Trauma-informed practice supporting disenfranchised young people. International Journal of Inclusive Education, 19(10), 1037-1051.
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