Many families are in the middle of summer break enjoying swimming pools, watermelon and staying up late. With the advent of the balanced calendar though, some families whose schools start in late July or early August, may already be thinking ahead to the next school year. For foster and adoptive families, school and the difficulties their child may experience at school, can cause stress and worry as summer comes to a close.
As a life coach who works almost exclusively with foster and adoptive families, I have a very special message to share with teachers. I hope you will take a few minutes to read my blog article to gain understanding about adopted and foster children, and the effects of trauma at school. (If you work with other populations of children who suffer from traumatic stress please continue to read the article and substitute your people group in the place of foster and adopted children.)
Some children who were adopted or in foster care seem to bounce back and not experience effects from their early beginning. Other children, even children who were adopted at birth, have significant struggles.
Many of the problems these children experience are related to traumatic stress. Trauma impacts all aspects of a child’s world including learning and the classroom environment.
What is trauma? Trauma is something that threatens the life or physical integrity of a person. It causes an overwhelming sense of terror, helplessness, and horror. It also produces intense physical effects on a person and the effects of trauma can last a long time. Getting over trauma is not a quick process.
Children who were adopted or fostered may have experienced significant pre-birth stress or they may have been abandoned, neglected or abused after they were born, perhaps by those who were supposed to love and care for them.
A baby and young child’s nervous system is not fully developed and this early trauma has significant long term effects on the child. The problem is you cannot SEE the child’s early trauma like you can see a cast on a child who has broken an arm. You may, however, notice its effects on behavior.
It is confusing for teachers, parents and others to see a beautiful child who may look healthy and “normal” on the outside but has odd, unusual and even out of control behaviors.
Trauma is hidden deep within the brain, body and cells of a person. Imaging studies have shown that the brain of a traumatized child is organized differently from a child who has not been exposed to trauma. The body (including sensory processing systems), the biology (including hormone regulation), and the belief system (about self and others) is affected by trauma.
What does trauma look like in the school environment? A few examples of behaviors that traumatized children exhibit at school are (the effects of trauma are specific to the individual):
• The child may have much younger behavior than their age. They may cling to their parents, whine, cry easily and get disappointed over small things.
• They may ask for help and demand attention often.
• They may have difficulty with school work and not complete homework.
• They may act out and have aggressive behavior, even over something seemingly small.
• They may withdraw when they get upset, pout, not talk or disappear.
• They may be tired often and fall asleep in class.
• They may be super impulsive and talk too much.
• They may have difficulty getting along with others, get bullied or not have many friends.
• They may have sensory processing issues.
When you read this list you may say, “yes, a lot of students have some of these issues and these difficulties may not be caused by trauma. Why do I need to understand or consider the effects of trauma”?
There are several reasons why you should consider that traumatic stress is the underlying cause of school difficulties. The biggest reason is that the strategies for dealing with students who are traumatized are different. These strategies not focused on behavior management but instead, they are focused on getting to the root cause of the problem and helping the child feel safe so they can learn.
As a teacher, what are some things you can do to help the children who are in your care? I’ve listed a few ideas below.
Strategies teachers can use at school to help children:
1. Learn all you can about traumatized children and the classroom- a great place to start is by searching the Scholastic website for articles written by Dr. Bruce Perry.http://teacher.scholastic.com/professional/bruceperry/ Dr. Perry has also written a fascinating book The Boy Who Was Raised As a Dog which I highly recommend. Also, if you can, attend a live Trust Based Relational Intervention (TBRI) training.
2. Learn de-escalation techniques- traumatized children go into fight or flight mode very quickly. Learning to effectively deal with a child who is upset by not making things worse will help bring order and calm back to the classroom. https://www.crisisprevention.com/Resources/Complimentary-eBook
3. Allow for food and water breaks- keeping blood sugar stable and the child well hydrated is very important.
4. Have an emotions chart in your classroom. Children often don’t know what emotion they are feeling when they are upset. Keeping an emotions chart handy to help a child identify and name how they are feeling in difficult or upsetting situations will help calm their emotions. Here is one with characters from the movie Inside Out.https://jamonkey.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/Inside-Out-Emotions-Wheel-1.pdf
5. Ask the parents what triggers the child- A trigger is a thought, feeling or event that transports a person back to their original trauma. The more you know about what upsets the child, the more you can plan. You may be able to prevent or lessen difficult behavior.
6. Work with the child and child’s family to make a plan for when they get upset- some ideas are: providing a cool down corner for younger children or a plan for older children that may include allowing them to go to the nurse’s office to draw or listen to music for a few minutes. Remember, helping a child who is out of control learn to self-regulate is not rewarding their out of control behavior. You are teaching them self-control, which is a necessary life skill.
7. Keep schedules posted – be patient when you have to repeat routines and rules over and over again. When children are stressed they can’t learn or remember easily. Traumatized children feel safe when they know what is going to happen throughout the day.
8. Allow for movement and sensory breaks- many traumatized children have sensory processing disorders and allowing them to get up and move will help their bodies stay regulated.
9. Work with the parents- having home and school environments that both support the child and help him or her feel safe will go a long way in the health and healing of a child.
10.Be encouraging, patient and supportive- living in a body that is constantly on high alert, notices everything, and is frequently out of sorts is exhausting. The encouragement, patience and support of the teacher for both the child and the parent will help the child overcome their trauma.
My children have had some amazing teachers over the years, and I know I speak for many families when I say thank you to teachers, administrators and other education professionals for your influence and impact on students. Positive relationships with teachers can be a healing factor in helping a student overcome the effects of traumatic stress. Thank you for taking time to begin learning about trauma and how it may affect children in your care. Your instruction, care and direction, combined with knowledge, will be a powerful force in influencing and helping children overcome the effects of trauma!
Share each other’s burdens, and in this way obey the law of Christ. Galatians 6:2
Renee is a life coach who specializes in working with foster and adoptive families. She is based in Louisville, Kentucky but she works with clients all over the US through internet coaching. She helps families identify areas of concern, provides training to help them understand the root cause of their struggles and through coaching, helps families apply the proven tools and techniques needed to address their underlying difficulties. You can find more information about her services at https://www.facebook.com/empoweredcalling/videos/1535462483248676/or you may contact Renee at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her Facebook page is https://www.facebook.com/empoweredcalling/