Children who encounter frightening experiences of abuse and neglect, are often challenging to support in schools. They take up a lot of time of the teachers and school administrators, who become frustrated and defeated. A trauma-informed approach to supporting students requires an understanding of how trauma impacts children and their capacity to learn and engage in the school community. It presents teachers with new opportunities to intervene and make a lasting difference in the student's life. In this post, I present you with my experience of learning about child trauma and implementing trauma-informed strategies in schools.
We were called to an urgent meeting about Kevin, a 9-year-old boy, whose behaviours included climbing out of classroom windows, throwing rocks at teachers and bullying other students. During the meeting, the principal began talking to us about the urgent need to address Kevin’s behaviour. Watching the principal speak to us, flustered and angry, I imagined the meeting he would have been required to attend with his superiors, the senior school administrators who would have said something to the effect of “If we don’t do something about Kevin, we’re going to land ourselves on the front page of the local paper”
Having been a deputy principal myself, I felt for this principal. He had a community of children, teachers and parents to serve. The meeting, however, made Kevin’s teachers and me feel like we had failed and were to blame for Kevin’s behaviour. The team had worked really hard with Kevin all year. It felt like we had tried everything, and nothing seemed to work with him. The meeting ended with the principal saying “I’m sick of needing to spend 80% of my time dealing with Kevin, and only 20% with the kids that work hard, do the right thing and actually make the school look good”
Feeling helpless, I recall sitting in the staff room, looking at a poster of Albert Einstein. The quote on the poster read, “When I have one week to solve a seemingly impossible problem, I spend six days defining the problem. Then, the solution becomes obvious” I had walked past this poster several times that year, but on that day, it made me think. What were the other things that could explain why Kevin acted the way he did at school? I had heard off-handed comments from the administrative staff that Kevin’s mother had arrived at school with black eyes and bruises. I wondered if perhaps she might have some information to help me think of Kevin’s problems differently.
That afternoon, at school pick-up, I invited Kevin’s mother to speak with me. I could sense from her manner that she was preparing for an adversarial meeting - to defend her parenting, defend Kevin and to make clear how the school had mismanaged his behaviour. This made me wonder about our meeting with the principal, and the meeting he would have had with his superiors. I realised then that I didn’t want to repeat this dynamic of being authoritarian and critical with Kevin’s mother. Instead, I chose to ask questions, and express concern. “How are you today? You look tired”. She looked surprised and uncomfortable. After a few expressions of empathy, Kevin’s mother broke down in tears. She told me that she had experienced physical abuse from Kevin’s father and described how Kevin would step in to try and protect her. She explained how she felt afraid to leave Kevin’s father. “I know Kevin worries about me when he is at school. I tell him I’ll be ok. That I can take care of myself. I don’t know what else to do”
This meeting had a lasting impact on me. I recall talking to a colleague who told me that Kevin had learned by watching his father that violence got him what he wanted. Trained in behavioural and social learning theory, I understood this explanation. On reviewing the incidences of poor behaviour at school, I noticed that several incidences involved Kevin coming to the protection of other students. Much like what he did at home with his mother. My colleague proceeded to tell me that “All we can do is refer them to social services and mental health. These are things outside our control - we just need to stick to what we know about him at school” I was still curious. What other ways did the violence impact Kevin’s mental health? What influence did this have on his behaviour at school?
Kevin was diagnosed with childhood post-traumatic stress disorder, commonly known as PTSD. First observed among men and women returning from war, trauma refers to the exposure to a stressful event or situation that is of exceptionally threatening or of a catastrophic nature, which is likely to cause pervasive distress in almost anyone. Imagine a soldier in a war zone, standing on a street. He hears a loud bang. The bang could be one of two things - someone shooting at him, or a car backfiring. Erring on the side of safety, the soldier may choose to believe that the noise was gun fire and duck for cover and protect those around him. We might describe this as a normal reaction to an otherwise, abnormal and life-threatening situation. Now imagine this soldier back home, standing on a street of his safe, suburban neighbourhood. Once again, he hears a loud noise of a car backfiring. The soldier ducks and takes cover, and protects those around him. Given his history of combat, his behaviour is understandable and can be best described as an unusual reaction to a normal and safe situation. I wondered if this is perhaps how traumatic events like domestic violence, impacted children like Kevin.
After my meeting with Kevin’s mother, I called Kevin’s mental health worker. From the call, I began to make the links. The violence, uncertainty and abuse at home may have prompted Kevin to learn behaviours that kept his mother safe and gave him a sense of control in dangerous situations. It was such behaviours that Kevin then seemed to use in safe environments like school. Kevin’s persistent remembering and worry about the violence at home may have been interfering with his capacity to concentrate in class. The fear of getting things wrong and being punished may have been distressing for him, reminding him of times when his father would get angry with him for doing the wrong thing.
From this perspective, Kevin’s problem behaviours seemed to be triggered by his anticipation of the adults at school treating him the way that his father did. It was as if Kevin was anticipating the adults in his world – teachers and parents – to be mean and unreasonable with him. No amount of attention, sensory stimulation or avoidance could capture the uncertainty, anxiety and lack of safety that Kevin felt every day - at home and at school. By punishing, suspending and excluding him from school, we were reinforcing his beliefs about adults being abusive and mean, and the world being unfair and cruel. Like a soldier in a war zone - trapped in a dangerous and unsafe world.
What if Kevin’s problem wasn’t one of deliberate disobedience? What if, instead of thinking about only the function of his behaviour, we thought about his needs too? His need to feel safe, in a place that was not like his home. His need to build trust with adults that didn’t abuse or mistreat him like his father. I met with Kevin’s teacher the next day to design a daily routine that helped Kevin spend time with the people he got along with and trusted at school - the school groundsman, the ladies at the tuckshop and the PE teacher. We modified his curriculum to focus on social emotional skills linked to trust and safety. Finally, I arranged to meet with Kevin’s mother, each week for an hour.
When we presented this plan, the principal expressed scepticism. Despite explanations of Kevin’s trauma and family circumstances, the principal had questions like “Are we just rewarding his bad behaviour?” “Is he actually learning anything from coming to school?” “What will the other kids think of this?” “Are we practising out of scope by talking to his mother every week?” The principal's concerns were legitimate. This focus on needs, rather than function and discipline, was radical at the time. In a moment of frustration, I recall saying “You say you spend 80% of your time disciplining Kevin. What if we are proactive about how we spend this time by trying something different - by giving him what he needs; by giving him what he doesn’t get at home with his family so he can feel calm enough to learn in the class?”
To the principal’s credit, he was open to trying a new behaviour support plan with Kevin. I think he could sense that I was putting my reputation on the line for this plan. We gave ourselves an entire term to see if our new behaviour support plan worked. Such trauma-informed behaviour support practices are common in schools now, but back then it was the first time we had tried anything like this. I remember being nervous. Kevin’s behaviour that term improved slowly. The incidences at school continued but they gradually reduced in frequency and severity. The biggest gain in Kevin’s behaviour seemed to coincide with Kevin’s mother choosing to leave his father after an incident that prompted an investigation by child protective services. After several meetings, Kevin’s mother decided to seek support for her own mental health and her parenting.
The plight of Kevin and his mother was common amongst the students that I have supported. Traumatised students represent the students in schools who require extensive support - behaviourally and academically. They are the ones most at risk of disengaging or dropping out, and engaging in antisocial and criminal behaviours. Research has shown that engagement in school can be the difference between being incarcerated and having a meaningful life, family and occupation. It's true that such children take up a large portion of a teacher's time and energy. They are demanding and make educators and administrators anxious in the risky behaviours that they engage in. They are 80% of time spent. Trauma-informed strategies, like the ones we used with Kevin, are counterintuitive and take time to become effective. I have learnt that the road to success is often bumpy with such students but ultimately the journey is one that is immensely rewarding in the impact it has on the lives of these students. It has made me realise that these students do take up 80% of our days not because they are attention seeking, but perhaps because they need our help the most.
To learn about the Trauma Informed Positive Behaviour Support (TIPBS), visit www.tipbs.com and register your interest in our online course. The first 100 sign-ups can do the course for free. Click here to register your details.