Actionable Insights breakdown theory and research to give teacher practical advice and strategies. In his book, The Body Keeps Score, Dr. Van Der Kolk, one of the leading researchers in the area of psychological trauma, uses recent scientific advances to show how trauma literally reshapes both body and brain compromising suffered capacities for pleasure, engagement, self-control, and trust. He explores innovative treatments - from neurofeedback and meditation to sports, drama and yoga - that offer new paths to recovery by activating the brain’s natural neuroplasticity. Click on the picture below to check the book out on Amazon.com.
Chapter #1 of 20: Lessons from Vietnam Veterans
The chapter starts with a nice quote that aptly captures the place of trauma in children’s lives:
“Some people’s lives seem to flow in a narrative, mine had many stops and starts. Thats what trauma does. It interrupts the plot…it just happens and then life goes on. no one prepare you for it” - Jessica Stern, Denial: A Memoir of Terror.
In the chapter, Dr. Van Der Kolk outlines his contact with vietnam veterans as a psychiatric registrar. This leads to his own personal story with trauma - describing his relationship with his father and uncle growing up in Holland.
“My father never talked about his war experiences by he was given to outbursts of explosive rage that stunned me as a little boy. How could the man I heard quietly going down the stairs every morning to pray and read the Bible while the rest of the family slept have such a terrifying temper?”
This is a great insight into the confusion experienced by children confronted by frightening parents who are traumatised themselves. Dr. Van Der Kolk goes on to describe his mother.
“Somewhere in the back of my mind there must also have been my memories of my frightened - and often frightening — mother, who own childhood trauma was sometimes alluded to and, I now believe, was frequently re-enacted”
We are introduced to the concept of re-enactment.Trauma can be repeated on psychological and biological levels. Frightened children, unable to properly make sense of the strong emotions and sensations linked to traumatic experiences, start to become frightening to others - in a bid to gain control over their environments, and themselves. So why do these traumatised children and adults become so stuck in the past? What happens in their brains that keep them frozen, tapped in a place they desperately wish to escape? These are the questions that Dr. Van Der Kolk attempts to answer in this book.
Educator Insight: It is useful to keep in mind that traumatised students anticipate the adults around them to either be frightening, or frightened of them in some way. Traumatised students who are prone to becoming frightened or anxious, often require reassurance that you are not going to punish, humiliate or shame them for their mistakes.
Students who try to be frightening and controlling of adults around them, on the other hand, require teachers who can stay calm, non-confrontational but firm in their stance towards them. This provides them with a new relational experience of a adult who can stay calm, and in charge, while also being kind and compassionate. This relationship dynamic, or 'relationship dance', avoids the re-enactment of a adult who may normally yell, abuse or even hit the child.
Ironically, when confronted with a adult who is confident, calm, in control and not afraid of the child, these traumatised students begin to feel safe. Like testing the safety net, such incidences communicate to these children that the teachers can keep them safe and have their best wishes at heart. Slowly, usually after several such incidences, traumatised children learn to trust their teachers, and begin to learn a new 'relationship dance' - one that doesnt involve them being frightening or frightened.
This balance of firm and kind can be hard at the best of times, and with traumatised children, our skills are put to the test. Our capacity to stay calm, as best as we can, is our greatest asset in successful classroom management.
In reviewing the research and literature, Dr. Van Der Kolk reminds us of the importance of needing to rely on our self-knowledge when supporting children with trauma. The ability to be empathetic to the plight of traumatised children, requires us to confront aspects of humanity, and ourselves, that we would rather not acknowledge.
“The greatest sources of of our suffering are the lies we tell ourselves….We want to think of families as safe havens in heartless world and of our own country as populated by enlightened, civilised people. We prefer to believe that cruelty occurs only in faraway places like Darfur or the Congo. It is hard enough for observers to bear witness to pain. Is it any wonder then, that the traumatised individuals themselves cannot tolerate remembering it and that they often resort to using drugs, alcohol or self-mutilation to block out their unbearable knowledge?”
Educator Insight: There is no doubt that traumatised students challenge us not just as educators, but as human being. When faced with students expressing such strong emotions, I found myself feeling an incredibly strong feelings towards them of fear, rage and frustration. It was as if I would have traumatic reactions myself - painful memories from the past would come flooding back and images of people who had treated me poorly. At times, these feelings frightened me and made me feel guilty. How could I be feeling this way towards these students? Is it time for me to stop teaching? What sort of person had I become?
Having spoken to several other educators and professionals, I have come to understand that such experiences are common in those trying to help these children. I have learnt that it is important to allow myself to experience these feelings, while not acting on them. I can feel angry towards a child, but not yell at them or humiliate them. To feel frightened of a child, but not ask them to leave the class because it makes me feel less afraid. Learning not to act on such strong feelings comes with practice. It was really important for me to be able to debrief and seek support from colleagues and fellow teachers. This process is referred to as 'processing' ones emotions - figuring out why we feel the way we do, what our personal reactions may teach us about the student and ourselves, and finally, how it might inform what we do differently next time. By talking about these reactions and feelings, traumatised children have helped me grow, not just to be a better a teacher, but as a stronger, more empathetic human being.
Dr. Van Der Kolk discusses the central role of shame in the experience of trauma. Shame is the emotion experienced in the face of feeling inadequate or not worthy. Traumatised people can have their shame triggered by a variety of interpersonal situations where they are reminded of their behaviour during the traumatic incident and are left feeling flawed, bad or worthy of rejection or abandoned by others.
“One of the hardest things for traumatised people is to confront their shame about the way they behaved during a traumatic episode, whether it is objectively warranted (as in the commission of atrocities) or not (as in the case of a child who tried to placate her abuser)……..The result is confusion about whether one was a victim or a willing participant, which in turns lead to bewilderment about the difference between love and terror; pain and pleasure.”
Educator Insight: When talking to traumatised students about their misbehaviour, it is common for them to adopt one of these two roles: they were either the 'justified aggressor' - with valid reasons for why they had to stand up for themselves and be aggressive - or the 'misunderstood victim' - subjected to unfair treatment and not being fully listened to. Although most children adopt one of these two position when trying to avoid taking responsibility for their behaviour, for traumatised children, adopting these roles reflects a fundamental confusion about the abuse and neglect they have experienced.
Having spoken to several of these children following incidences of misbehaviour, I have come to learn that each accusation of misconduct feels to them like a re-enactment of the abuse and neglect they have experienced in the past. When being made to constantly feel like the circumstances in their lives is their fault, each of these incidences becomes an opportunity for them to demonstrate their innocence & vulnerability to the adults around them.
Instead of becoming angry with these students for not taking responsibility for their behaviour and lying about what had happened, I have found instead it is useful just to listen and empathise with these students first. Empathising and communicating to them why you think they are both the 'justified aggressor' and the 'misunderstood victim' often takes them by surprise. It dampens their defensiveness, calms them down and makes them more receptive to any suggestions you have of what they can do differently next time.
Interestingly, when done well, I have found that these children are also more accepting of the consequences imposed on them. The consequences communicate to the children that you do not condone their behaviour, but you understand and forgive them for their actions.
The experience of trauma has pervasive impact on all areas of a child’s life. It is as if they are wearing ‘trauma lenses’, viewing the world as dangerous, and others as untrustworthy and relationships are a source of pain.
“…traumatised people have a tendency to superimpose their trauma on everything around them and have trouble deciphering whatever is going on around them…….A rape victim, however, may see a person who is about to molest her and go into a panic. 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”
Educator Insight: This quote nicely illustrates the need for a differentiated behaviour management approach with traumatised children. While authoritarian expressions of disapproval and threats of punishment may help most students fall in line and do the right thing, traumatised students may require a different approach. One that minimises the risk of the student feeling emotionally triggered and frightened. This is the challenge of supporting traumatised children in inclusive classroom. It is living and practicing the belief: what is fair is not everyone getting the same treatment, what is fair is everyone getting what they need. It sounds like a tall task, but let me assure you, there simply isn't a better feeling of accomplishment when you learn how to do it.
The chapter ends with a spotlight of the impact of childhood trauma, and the impact of trauma on the brain and the body.
“…for every soldier who serves in a war zone abroad, there are ten children who are endangered in their own homes. This is particularly tragic since it is very difficult for growing children to recover when the source of terror and pain is not enemy combatants but their own caretakers….trauma is not just an event that took place sometime in the past; it is also the imprint left by the experience on the mind, brain and body….it changes not only how we think and what we think about, but also our very capacity to think”
Educator Insight: Frightened and frightening students have difficulties learning, and engaging their capacity to think. By building safety and predictability in through the classroom environment, daily routine, and teacher-student relationships, traumatised students learn to regulate their emotions and attention enough to being learning.
In chapter 1, Dr. Van Der Kolk explains his journey from working with veterans to working with childhood abuse. He identifies the similarities in these experiences, and set out the key questions & challenges to be addressed in the upcoming chapters.
“For real change to take place, the body needs to learn the danger has passed and to live in the reality of the present. Our search to understand trauma has led us to think differently not only about the structure of the mind but also about the processes by which it heals”
Educator Insight: Giving a traumatised child a education helps them recovery and heal. Learning a new way of relating to an adult, that isn't just a re-enactment of the past, is a powerful lesson in itself. Teachers, in our humility, have desperately under-estimated the impact we have on children, and the lessons we teach them. The social-emotional lessons they learn from watching how we conduct ourselves, even in the most stressful circumstances, models to them the social-emotional skills they require to navigate the ups and downs of life. By staying calm, listening, empathising and being firm, we leave a lasting impression on students, and especially on the children who need us the most.