The beginning of last week’s entry began to discuss, in a way, the beginning of our development as social and emotional individuals. If you’ve never heard of Erikson’s Eight Stages of Development, find a great article here that explains each stage. Fascinating (maybe only to a mental health counselor) how each stage is characterized by a psychological crisis that needs to be resolved before graduation into the next stage of development. Trust vs. Mistrust, for example is the first stage a person goes through beginning at birth through their second year of life. As infants, we begin to develop early on a sense of trust (or mistrust) for the adults around us. Early on in our lives we begin to categorize information about our caregivers, building strong connections between the way we feel and what is going on around us.
We can imagine, even without knowing Erikson’s stages of development, or even believing that there is such a long, that traumatic experiences in a child’s life, especially experiences that are habitual like abuse or neglect, can take a drastic toll on their ability to develop a healthy outlook. Remembering from last week’s post that Trauma is not the event itself, but rather a response to an event where a child is unable to cope or their attempts to cope are unsuccessful. Therefore environmental or community related disasters can be overwhelmingly traumatic for a child. The death or illness of a teacher, peer, neighbor, a car accident, the restructuring of a family due to divorce, separation or remarriage…and the list goes on.
As educators that work with children every day, there are a few key classroom behaviors that we can watch out for to assist in identifying students who may be struggling to cope with a traumatic experience the best they can.
Physical Illnesses - Somatic
The perpetual anxiety, fear or other unpleasant emotions that are often coupled with the after math of a traumatic experience often cause physical symptoms like nausea, racing thoughts, muscle tension etc. This constant state of arousal can cause all kinds of physical concerns – gastrointestinal issues, panic attacks, and exhaustion. Student’s may miss a significant amount of school, spend an abnormal amount of time in the bathroom or nurses office or often complain of illness.
Having your body in this type of heightened state is exhausting, mentally physically and emotionally. Zoning out as a means of self-soothing is quite common. This withdrawal, or “zoning out” looks different from a kiddo day dreaming or a kiddo who has trouble maintaining focus/concentration. This behavior is a survival strategy, way to shut down the connection between what is going on and the corresponding feelings. Specifically, students may hide or isolate themselves from situations where they feel unsafe. A student may suddenly become non-verbal or immobile. Because of this sudden withdrawal from peers, teachers, administrators, this behavior can appear to resemble non-compliance or outright defiance.
Again, behavioral manifestations post trauma connect to our innate need for survival. When a child regresses they are often feeling neglected in some way. Regressive behavior is also common with the birth of a younger sibling. Caregivers often spend a lot of time feeding, burping, cooing over a new baby. An older sibling may begin to act more like a baby, refusing or exclaiming that they are unable to do activities they have previously done independently like putting on their shoes or reading books on their own. Requesting help, regressing to behaving immaturely increases a child’s chances of increasing the amount of attention they receive from adults. This type of behavior is seen in the classroom quite often, where a student appears to all of a sudden need more and more attention from the teacher, appear jealous when a teacher provides help or support to other students.
Heightened Emotional Responses
Being in a constant state of internal arousal, with stress hormones saturating the brain perpetuating the fight or flee state of mind can cause a student’s behavioral responses to appear heightened and dramatic as well. Have you ever gone to a park, or mall with a younger child in your care, and had them let go of your hand for a moment and run off…disappearing into the crowd? That panicked feeling that rushes over you suddenly as you scan the crowd searching for them, calling their name, pushing through the sea of people etc. is what a person stuck in their survival brain experiences on a consistent basis. This can cause their behavioral responses to everyday “minor” stressors to be intense, aggressive, or dramatic. A child may cry more readily, and appear to be inconsolable. This out word expression of emotion is not attention seeking behavior, it is an attempt to express a feeling that originates so deeply and causes immense pain and discomfort.
I empathize deeply with my students, trauma and grief are incredibly difficult topics for me personally to support in therapy. I cope with this by focusing on ways I can help empower children’s teachers, parents and other caregivers to assist them process and cope with the emotions they feel in appropriate ways. Ways to support trauma effected kiddos is a difficult subject, and one that I believe should be talked about on each school campus K-12 in order to find interventions to help each student feel safe and loved.