When disaster strikes, like floods and tornadoes, children can seem like they are coping well. Although most children recover with appropriate support from their parents, for some, the cracks of trauma start to appear down the track. Their resilience to such tragedies depends on how well the adults around them are coping - teachers included. In this post, I write about my experience of of working in a school community impacted by the floods. I also share my learnings about the different types of trauma and its impact on students and teachers.
“We’ve all been through trauma - why does this boy deserve special treatment? We’ve all lost things in the flood - you don’t see the rest of the children acting the way Daniel does”
It was frightening scenes - rising waters, entire suburbs washed out and the lives of adults and children put at risk. The school community - teachers, students and families- were all rallying to pick up the pieces from the worst natural disaster the city had experienced in several decades.
Following the influx of funding and support services, it seemed the world had moved on and everyone was expected to get back to the way things were before the floods. Although some families and children seemed to have the material and social resources to pick themselves back up, there were several families that continued to struggle.
Some children, like 9-year-old Daniel, seemed to be still reeling from the impact of such a traumatic event. He was throwing explosive tantrums in class and was disruptive on a daily basis. Daniel was certainly not a model student before the floods. But it was as if the flood had thrown a spanner in the works - amplifying misbehaviour and agitation. It made life incredibly hard for the teachers.
Daniel’s teacher, Tania, had been having a particularly difficult time. Tania was in a job-share with a fellow teacher - teaching Daniel for three days a week. “I know what everyone is thinking - why does he muck up with me and not the other teacher?” Tania was feeling blamed for Daniel’s behaviour - with reports from the other teacher of Daniel’s behaviour being mostly unremarkable. She felt judged for managing Daniel’s behaviour poorly, and didn’t feel supported by the school. All my initial meetings with Tania seemed to end with her in tears. She felt frustrated and defeated.
I began to work closely with Tania and Daniel. I set up several observations of his behaviour in the classroom and organised times to debrief with Tania about what worked well and what didn’t. I also met with Daniel’s parents to understand what else might be contributing to his behaviour. The family had been under an enormous amount of strain since the floods. Their entire house went under water and they couldn’t afford to replace what they had lost. The family were living with Daniel’s aunty in a small two-bedroom house. Daniel’s father spoke of losing his temper more often with Daniel and admitted to infrequently hitting him when he misbehaved.
On requesting a review of Daniel’s school history, I learned that child protective services had been previously involved with the family, with concerns about physical & verbal abuse of Daniel and his two younger siblings. Given these risks, Tania and I designed a trauma-informed classroom management plan, and negotiated for her to get extra teacher aide support in the class - focused on relieving some of the pressures of prompting and redirecting Daniel.
As we came to implement the plan, Tania seemed reluctant and preoccupied. It seemed like she was trying to make sense of how trauma could be impacting Daniel. “I’m no expert on kids being traumatised or physically abused, but my family, my kids, we lost everything in that flood. At one point, we were convinced my husband was going to drown. But you don’t see my kids yelling abuse and throwing chairs!”
Truth be told, I was intrigued too. How did the floods affect Daniel compared to the other children in the community? There were other families who had lost everything, and children who didn’t seem to be displaying the behaviours that Daniel was. How was the trauma from the physical abuse different to the trauma experience from the floods? Did one cause more “trauma” than the other? How did they interact?
On speaking with my colleagues in mental health, I learnt that not all children exposed to the floods developed trauma. In fact, most students in the school community displayed an incredible amount of resilience in their recovery. However, for some children, those for whom the floods had been the first truly frightening, life threatening experience, they went on to develop post-traumatic stress disorders or PTSD. Trauma caused by such single events, linked to external / natural causes, is described as Type 1 trauma. Despite its distressing effects on children, Type 1 trauma has been shown to be treatable with the right kind of psychological support - through individual therapy and parental guidance.
In contrast, the trauma experienced by children exposed to multiple incidences of life-threatening interpersonal violence, physical abuse and neglect, is referred to as Type 2 or complex trauma. Compared to Type 1 trauma, children experiencing Type 2 trauma have a harder time feeling safe, calm and in control of their bodies, surroundings and relationships.
The cumulative harm experienced by these multiple incidences is often harder to treat and support. Think of Type 1 trauma being like breaking your arm once, in one place. Perhaps it takes your arm 3 months to heal in a cast. Now imagine Type 2 trauma being like shattering the bones of your arm in several places. Such injuries would require a more intensive, long-term approach to healing and recovery.
Daniel seemed to be experiencing a toxic cocktail of both Type 1 and Type 2 trauma. Daniel seemed to lack the adults in his life to help him feel safe. Adults that could manage their own fears of the flood, and provide him with a safe, supportive and reassuring presence. It seemed like his parents were not meeting this need, and neither was his teacher. As the term ticked over, Tania was becoming increasingly frustrated with Daniel, and progressively less responsive to the support she was being given. “I just don’t think anything will change his behaviour. Some kids like Daniel are angry about what they lost in the floods. He just taking out his frustration on me because he doesn't like me. But that's ok - because the feelings are mutual”
As I drove home one afternoon - feeling both furious at Tania, and completely helpless, I recalled a quote from one of my favourite authors, Viktor Frankl from his book, ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’. ‘When you cannot change the situation, you are challenged to change yourself’. Instead of focusing on Daniel, I began to wonder about what it might take to help Tania feel calmer within herself and feel more supported. I remembered the first axiom of behaviour support: the teacher must survive. I began to ponder the numerous references she made in regards to the floods each time we spoke about Daniel. How had the floods impacted Tania?
Talking to Tania about the floods felt like a risky move. I worried about overstepping my professional boundaries and wondered if Tania would get defensive discussing this with someone like me - someone she perceived as being critical of her practice. But I realised that I had to understand how Tania was feeling, and what she really needed to be able to carry on as a teacher. After much thought and planning, I decided to speak with Tania in private. “I’ve heard you speak about your family in the floods. It sounded really frightening. How are you coping now?”
As Tania began to confide in me, I realised that the floods had affected her a lot more than I had realised. The stress of life at home had made her more sensitive to challenges at school. Tania went on to tell me how Daniel seemed to remind her of her own father - an alcoholic who often yelled and frightened Tania and her sisters. Tania spoke of how she thought she had dealt with her relationship with her father, but that the traumatic losses from the floods had brought back memories of her childhood and frightening events involving her dad.
“Watching Daniel go off like that, I just can’t bear it. I know it’s my job. But the thing is, I shouldn’t have let my father yell at me like that, and now, I certainly won’t have some 9 year old doing the same thing to me again”
It’s easy to judge Tania’s attitude towards Daniel harshly. I recall a part of me thinking at the time “But he's just a 9 year old! You’re the adult! You should know better!”. The more I’ve worked with teachers like Tania, the more empathy I have for their struggles and emotional reactions towards students like Daniel. A trauma-informed approach involves a compassionate approach towards both students, as well as teachers. Teachers like Tania need colleagues, mentors and school leaders to support them both personally and professionally in their work. To understand the impact traumatic events have on both students, and teachers.
After several meetings with Tania, she had decided to take stress-leave to help her family. The school were remarkable in their supporting her in taking a break. Daniel continued to have difficulties with the new teacher. We began to implement the trauma-informed management plan by leveraging Daniel’s relationship with his other teacher - to build a network of safe adults in the school environment. This included the school psychologist, who worked with Daniel on a regular basis.
Despite our best efforts at getting Daniel’s parents to seek professional help, child protective services removed Daniel from the care of his parents, and placed him with foster carers. This change seemed to lead to dramatic improvements in Daniel’s behaviour. Despite being more emotional, Daniel wasn’t throwing tantrums like he used to.
Many attributed the change in Daniel’s behaviour to him being moved into foster care (although in my experience, this isn’t often the case - I have found that children’s behaviour gets a lot worse before it gets better when they are removed), or Tania going on leave. However, I believe that the trauma-informed interventions and relationships that we had built for Daniel in the school environment were a significant protective factor in Daniel’s gains.
As my time at the school with Daniel came to an end, I recall the day when Tania returned to school after her leave. Daniel spotted her walking through the school gates and he ran over and gave her a big hug. Tania looked clearly surprised - this wasn’t the response she was expecting after their difficult times together. Daniel told her about how much he missed her and how happy he was to have her back. I asked Tania what she thought of Daniel’s welcome.
“Initially I thought he was playing me again - manipulating how I felt so I would let him get away with being cheeky. But then I thought about what a tough time he has had this year. First the floods and then being taken away from his family. The teachers at school probably felt like family to him. I think he realised that we actually care about him. I guess sometimes it takes a flood for us all see clearly what is important in our lives”
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