Educator 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. Click on the picture below to check the book out on Amazon.com. Keep reading for a summary of chapter 3 of the book.
Chapter #3 of 20: Looking into the Brain: The Neuroscience Revolution.
I have a confession to make: I love reading about neuroscience. I am repeatedly saddened that despite being in the business of shaping minds as educators, we are taught so little about the brain. This is a fascinating chapter. I have to start with the script used by Dr. Van Der Kolk during his research to simulate episodes of traumatic re-experiencing in his study participants. Its a vivid description of the horrors of living with domestic violence as a child.
"You are six years old and getting ready for bed. You hear your mother and father yelling at each other. You are frightened and your stomach is in a knot. You and your younger brother and sister are huddled at the top of the stairs. You look over and see your mother's arms while she struggles to free herself. Your mother is crying, spitting, and hissing like an animal. Your face is flushed and you feel hot all over. When your mother frees herself, she runs to the dining room and breaks a very expensive Chinese vase. You yell at your parents to stop, but they ignore you. Your mom runs upstairs and you hear her breaking the TV. Your little brother and sister try to get her to hide in the closet. Your heart pounds and you're trembling"
Educator Insights: As a teacher, hearing such stories often felt me feeling helpless. Much like the child in the story. These children often cannot find the words to describe such experiences. I have learnt to become 'attuned' to such students' non-verbals, energy levels, interactions and engagement in school. Tuning in to these signs gives me clues to their distress, and the impact of the horrors they may have witnessed.
This 'attunement' is something that seems to build over the year, as I came to become more acquainted with the student. It was not until I began the practice of writing such observations down regularly that I found I was more deliberate in using this information in the accomodations in the classroom. Instead of playing a guessing game and expending energy in trying to guess if it was going to be a good or bad day, writing down these clues helped me think on my feet - quickly responding to the students depending on their mental state - while also allowing me to reflect on my practice at the end of the day. I used postcard sized cards. In one column, I wrote the verbal and non-verbal cues to when the student was engaged and at baseline; and in the other column I wrote signs of when they are beginning to get agitated. I updated these regularly. It found this to be a powerful strategy - one that averted several incidences.
I was struck by the description of one of the women Dr. Van Der Kolk describes who suffered from PTSD.
"Overnight Marsha had changed from a cheerful woman who was the life of the party into a haunted and depressed person filled with self-blame. She moved from classroom teaching into school administration, because working directly with children had become intolerable - as for many parents who have lost children, their happy laughter had become a powerful trigger. Even hiding behind her paperwork she could barely make it through the day. In a futile attempt to keep her feelings at bay, she coped by working day and night"
Teachers give so much of themselves to their profession. We all do it for different reasons. But the stress, pain and trauma of our personal lives often clouds our intentions - pushing back our own needs to serve others. As a team leader of a special education team, my most important job was to make sure that 'the teacher survived'. Without the teacher, there is no learning, no relationship and no healing for the students. Sometime doing too much is just as harmful as doing nothing at all. We simply do not make enough of a deal of teacher self-care. Its a responsibility we must all share - to look out and care for ourselves and our colleagues.
"Sooner or later most survivors, like the veterans in chapter 1, come up with what many of them call their "cover story" that offers some explanation of their symptoms and behaviour for public consumption. These stories, however, rarely capture the inner truth of the experience. It is enormously difficult to organise one's traumatic experiences into a coherent account - a narrative with a beginning, a middle and an end"
Educator Insight: This paragraph eloquently describes what several professionals describe as "compulsive lying" in traumatised children. Although these students are often deft at the art of deflecting blame and not taking responsibility for their behaviours, it is common to hear these student construct elaborate lies about their lives, their past and their future. Although such attempts may seem deliberately misleading, it sometimes also represents the inability of these children to build a coherent story of their lives, given their chaotic, unpredictable and frightening past.
Such "lies" are perhaps a reflection of the child's wishes for the way things could have been, rather than a factual narration. Such storytelling is sometimes a playful escape away from the sad and shameful reality of their lives. I have found punishing such behaviours teaches these children little about how to make sense of their fragmented memory, their identity or their emotions. The next paragraph explains more clearly the role of memory in child trauma.
"When something reminds traumatised people of the past, their right brain reacts as if the traumatic event were happening in the present. But because their left brain is not working very well, they may not be aware that they are re-experiencing and reenacting the past. They are just furious, terrified, enraged, ashamed, or frozen. After the emotional storm passes, they may look for something or somebody to blame for it. They behaved the way they did because 'you' were ten minutes late, or because 'you' burned the potatoes or because 'you' "never listen to me". Of course, most of us have done this from time to time, but when we cool down, we hopefully can admit our mistake. Trauma interferes with this kind of awareness, and over time, our research demonstrated why"
Educator Insight: I am often asked if traumatised students are being deliberately defiant and manipulative or if they are, indeed, experiencing the symptoms of trauma. For several years I struggled to answer this question. I have often pondered the motivation behind such questions. It seems to come from the frustration of not being able to use traditional behaviour management strategies successfully with traumatised students, while also feeling powerless and at a loss about knowing what to do.
The impact of child trauma is pervasive. It changes everything about how a child experiences stress in their bodies, to how they conduct themselves in relationships to how they see the world. There seems to be an element of trauma in all of their behaviours. Teachers enrolled in the TIPBS coaching process, who come to understand what it means to be trauma-informed, discover opportunities for new ways of intervening with such seemingly impossible children. I recall a teacher say, "once you learn to understand why the student is doing what they are doing, you realise how to change your approach. Its not just about 'what' strategy you are using. Its also about 'how' you use it and 'when' you use it". The "when" of using strategies is intimately linked with the understanding of how the stress response of traumatised children operates. A strategy used successfully when a student is relatively calm can escalate a situation when the same traumatised student is upset or heightened.
Dr. Van Der Kolk describes the 'toxic stress response' seen frequently in children subjected to abuse and neglect.
"Under normal conditions, people react to a threat with a temporary increase in their stress hormones. As soon as the threat is over, the hormones dissipate and the body returns to normal. The stress hormones of traumatised people, in contrast, take much longer to return to baseline and spike quickly and disproportionately in response to mildly stressful stimuli. The insidious effect of constantly elevated stress hormones, include memory and attention problems, irritability, and sleep disorders. They also contribute to many long-term health issues , depending on which body system is most vulnerable in a particular individual"
To learn more about the 'toxic stress response', click here to check out this video from Harvard's Center for the Developing Child.
Finally, Dr. Van Der Kolk describes the need for an integrated, learning experience. One that combined language, and cognition, with emotions and bodily experiences.
"I am continually impressed by how difficult it is for people who have gone through the unspeakable to convey the essence of their experience. It is so much easier for them to talk about what has been done to them - to tell a story of victimisation and revenge - than to notice, feel, and put into words the reality of their internal experience"
An educational experience consists of thought, behaviour, and emotion. No teaching is effective without a deliberate management of the emotional experience of learner - of feelings of interest, inspiration, stress or worry. The best teachers I know are mindful of such emotional reactions in their students.
Helping traumatised students make sense of the now - what happened, how they felt, the intentions behind their behaviour - all helps in putting feelings and words to the events that are similar to those they have experienced in the past. This "supported processing" of events at schools has a long lasting effect. Teachers engaged in such listening aren't necessarily communicate that you are condoning any of their behaviour. Some have argued with me that such strategies simply reinforce these behaviours in these student by giving them attention.
With an understanding of trauma, however, such incidences provide us an opportunity to help the student build a narrative about who they are and where they belong, and where they are headed in the future. By integrating elements of their own emotions and intentions, such conversations leave students with a template to feel hopeful for the future, while helping them make sense of confusing events of the past. To help them slowly learn build a sense of safety in their relationships in the school community - and see its contrast to the unsafe & frightening relationships they have had in the past. To believe that, "that was then and this is now".