As human’s, our strong survival instincts link our bodies ability to fight or flee from a perceived threat. Our incredible desire to survive is completely primitive, and begins to develop as our brain begins to develop in utero. This part of our developing brain regulates all of our bodies systems that appear to us to be automatic like our breathing, heart rate, body temperature and yes, even our desire to preserve and prolong our life.
I talk a lot about physical effects of our various emotional states, and inquire about what my client’s notice about their various bodily systems as they felt intense emotion. I do this because these aspects are so incredibly intertwined, and we often skip past our bodies warning signs that an intense emotional response is building, in a way foreshadowing a need. Let’s think about our desire for survival from an infant’s point of view. When baby is hungry, their stomach is empty, maybe grumbling, baby will cry right? Why? To get adults attention, so that adult will feed them. When baby is frightened, baby will cry, suddenly, probably loudly, their muscles will become tense as they wail. Why? To get an adults attention, so that adult will hold them, and soothe them. In both of these examples, baby’s survival instincts kick in, and baby reaches out (in the only way baby can) for help surviving. They need an adult that loves them, to show them ways to soothe; a bottle, a cuddle, a blanket, a song etc. This way of thinking extends into a child’s early and school years…some might argue, rightfully so, that these needs extend into adulthood to some extent.
Now… what happens when baby does not receive soothing from an adult that loves them, or baby is not reassured and therefore repeatedly emotionally overwhelmed to the point where they cannot cope? During situations where there is extreme stress in a young child’s life, their brains are being flooded with intense stress hormones. These hormones are much needed in times of perceived threat (do I need to fight or flee from this danger to survive?) but are not good to have lingering in the body for long periods of time. Situations like domestic violence, absent caregivers, unpredictability of care, and abuse can leave a child traumatized, unable to shut down this primitive brain that keeps reporting to all body systems must survive!
As school staff, we must be informed of the effects trauma has on our students and create a trauma-sensitive framework for our interactions with all students. What is incredibly stressful and overwhelming for one student, may not affect other student at all. I keep the following in mind when discussing trauma with others; Trauma is not the event itself, but rather a response to overwhelmingly stressful events where a student’s ability to cope is unsuccessful. The first step in creating a trauma sensitive campus, is to understand this fact. Adverse experiences in our student’s lives are more common than we think, and trauma can have a tremendous impact on learning, behavior and a student’s ability to build relationships with others.
Protecting our student’s physical, psychological and academic safety involves building a campus culture that supports appropriate social and emotional development. This begins with helping students feel safe in the gym, on the playground, walking to and from school, on the bus, in the hallways etc. Children that feel academically supported in the three areas mentioned initially take appropriate risks in their academic lives. If we show our students through consistency and modeling that it is safe to build relationships with us, trust us and rely on us, we maximize their inherent ability for resiliency through all kinds of life’s obstacles.
Students need support in building emotional regulation skill sets. Therapeutic interventions from the school counselor or social worker do not need to focus specifically on talking about or understanding experienced trauma. To support our students in this area, encourage connection between emotions and behaviors and emotions and physical feelings in general. For example: when I feel scared (emotion), my body feels tense (physical reaction), my mind becomes Velcro and I can only think about ____ (mind’s reaction), and I behave quietly, not wanting to talk to anyone (behavior). This helps generalize the feeling, normalizing it. Everyone has felt scared at some point in their life, not everyone can understand a traumatic response, as they are incredibly unique person to person. Providing student’s tools to better understand the way that they feel, and how to change their behavioral responses is not meant and should not completely ignore trauma they have experienced. These exercises are meant to help them focus on aspects of their world that they have control over; their behavior and healthy connection with others.
Helping students who have experienced trauma grow academically is the responsibility of an entire school campus. Many students who present with behavioral issues on campus fall into this category. Working with the adults in these children’s lives to wrap them in love and support vs. punishments and consequences can make the world of a difference when it comes to outcomes for them.