By Julia Steiny
Today we’re in the brightly painted library of an urban elementary school. It’s the last day of professional development before the summer officially ends. The faculty are still in shorts and sandals. While they sigh over how quickly the season passed, the vibe among them is jolly and warm.
Up next to help prepare this group for the new school year is a presentation called “Helping to Reach and Teach the Traumatized Child.” Amy Simpson, Clinical Director from Family Services of RI, starts us off by having teachers build a list of the sorts of things considered traumatic — death of a loved one, divorce, loss of employment, medical procedures, natural disasters and sexual, verbal and physical abuse, among many others. The list was long. “Unfortunately long,” Simpson called it. But in truth, it was just a list. Perhaps we mused a bit on the tough experiences identified by the list that we’ve actually had.
But without a palpable taste of what trauma feels like, it’s just an abstraction.
Then, with sincere apologies, Simpson introduces her audience to a YouTube recording. Listen to “Lisa 911 Call” only if you’re ready for three memorably upsetting minutes. Or take my word for it:
A girl, presumably Lisa, sounding 7 or 8ish, has called 911 because her stepfather is beating her mother. She’s crying so hysterically it takes a while to get the basics of the situation. Subtitles help you understand that the man goes drinking at “the club” and this happens, according to her, “forever and ever.” You can hear the fight in the background. Terrified, the child barely holds it together to work with the 911 operator.
The operator is super calm and all business. Her tone implies she’s taking a serious problem seriously, but not emotionally. She assures Lisa that the police are on their way and that she will stay on the phone with the girl until help arrives. Lisa is only nominally calmed by the promise of help. The operator asks if the front door is unlocked. “Oh, no,” cries the girl, because she doesn’t think it is. So she just puts the phone down and runs to give the police access. Her end of the line now has only the sounds of the fight, so for an agonizing 10 seconds my mind raced to all manner of horror, including Lisa getting caught by the her stepfather.
But she comes back, and says she unlocked the door. But her hysteria crescendos again, because the man “knocked out” her little sister. Finally, Lisa’s cries rise to a piercing crest because “he’s got the baby.” She’s frantic to see what happened and puts the phone down. The operator calls after her — “Lisa!” The line goes dead. The operator swears.
Oy. We’re all shaken. The point is, as Simpson says gently:
“It is conceivable that this child will be in your classroom the next day.”
Okay. Point taken. But now a whole room of adults are fairly upset. They let Simpson know they did not appreciate that experience. Empathetically, she honors their experience. Without a hint of dismissing their feelings, she explains that “As adult professionals, we can re-regulate. Kids have a far harder time. And when they are traumatized or an old trauma is triggered, their brains go into survival mode and they stop learning.”
So the big take-away is that brain research has shown definitively that trauma shuts down the brain’s ability to learn. The traumatized brain becomes consumed with fight-or-flight and shuts down learning. Multiplication tables? The life cycle of rivers? Greek myths? Forget it. The kid can’t think.
So educators themselves need to become, as the presenters call it, “trauma-informed.” They need to know it’s ubiquitous and to begin collecting techniques to avoid triggering it at a minimum. Trauma might be as fresh as Lisa’s if she goes to school the next day. Or it might have happened in the past, perhaps on a prolonged basis. Either way, it can be triggered in the present time by a seemingly innocuous story, a certain gesture, a harsh tone of voice, or who knows?
Adults have their own feelings and can react in ways that escalate.
Teachers naturally expect cooperation from their students and work to discipline unruly kids. Misbehavior may seem like a choice, and sometimes it is. But it could well be a reaction to unmet needs resulting from trauma. Still, a flare-up of unwanted behavior can feel defiant, insulting and disrespectful to a college-educated adult who’s trying to manage 30 kids and a lesson plan. Still, anyone can trigger a traumatic flashback quite accidentally, and angry responses are known to make matters worse.
The school’s principal summed up the palpably painful lesson, “Getting in a student’s face is never appropriate. But it’s especially inappropriate with traumatized kids. You might feel attacked or the child is defiant, but in truth the child is reaching out. It’s not about you.”
That’s hard to remember when a kid is lashing out at you. And while trauma is better understood, classroom responses to it require time and training, both of which are in seriously short supply, especially in urban schools. Still, knowing how to avoid triggering is a great start.