It was the third day of school when Jeremy threw his first chair across the room. Although truthfully, even for the third day of school, it was a long-time coming. From the first day of school he was becoming unravelled, overwhelmed and easily frustrated. By day three, he blew. September was extremely difficult for both Jeremy and I. Each transition was challenging, each new task. Every time another student interacted with him, he responded aggressively, with tears or in anger. Even the most innocent of exchanges were interpreted by Jeremy as a form of attack. Physically, or emotionally. A student bumps him in line; another student laughs at a joke across the room; he’s asked to find his spot on the mat – all end with some form of explosion. 30 to 40 times a day he blows and I find myself losing patience with the frequency, and notice the other children beginning to avoid him and become fearful.
But this is something I have seen before. I remind myself of the behaviours being exhibited, and what this likely means. Trauma. As a teacher with a professional interest in trauma-informed pedagogy, I know that Jeremy is the perfect example of a child that needs a different approach.
Jeremy’s behaviour is representative of a child who has been through difficult times. I don’t have to know the details or history to see how it has impacted him. It’s also not atypical in today’s complex classrooms. He lacks the coping skills to handle but the simplest of transitions or social situations. He is quick to cast people aside or yell “I hate you!” to everyone around him, including me. He doesn’t trust any of us. He has lost trust and faith in everything and everyone because of what his life has taught him thus far. Jeremy’s brain has learned to respond to implicit memories of fear the way his body has responded to threats or perceived threats before. It doesn’t distinguish between them. And when his body reacts in fear, his prefrontal cortex goes offline – relying on his limbic system and reptilian brain to take hold. Here, we see a fight, flight or freeze response, but no ability to reason or organize his thoughts.
Therefore, Jeremy struggles with every part of his day, and his brain is not operating at a level that allows him to learn. Not only does Jeremy likely have deficits in his development due to early trauma, but his brain is so heightened with arousal, he is nowhere near his optimal learning zone for the majority of the day. I know that before learning can take place, I have to meet Jeremy’s needs from physiological to safety, relational, and more.
I begin with the key in supporting children with traumatic histories, the relationship. Jeremy needs to know he can both trust me, and be safe with me. I am cognizant of my response with him and to his explosions, I show him love and caring every chance I get. I am consistent and predictable. I show him that his blow ups do not fracture my love for him. When he explodes, I am calm and lower my body. I remind him he is safe and wait for him to come through. Slowly, he begins to trust. He seeks me out for affection and praise and when sad or frustrated. I teach him that a hug can help calm his body and he takes me up on it. I spend time with all the students learning mindfulness, body sensations and breathing techniques. They engage in mindfulness “belly breathing” to calm music three or more times per day. We talk as a class about the importance of community and caring for one another and I model a caring and nurturing approach to all students each day. They take it on in supporting one another with care. I am careful of my language and what I choose to praise. I praise mistakes as learning opportunities. I praise grit through the frustration. I praise reparations following a hurtful comment or action. I teach them all about a calm down space – how to use it, when we need it.
Jeremy wasn’t without consequences for behaviours that were unacceptable in a classroom community. But those consequences didn’t have to be or seem punitive. There needed to be boundaries, and I needed to hold the line. I also needed to remember however, that when Jeremy blew, he was likely unaware of why and how. I therefore focused more on repairs so Jeremy could learn that relationships mean mistakes, and fixing and moving on. Jeremy could find ways to “make it up to” a classmate that he was aggressive with in a way that made the other student feel better, and Jeremy too. He also learned about feelings and predicting and how to know what his body’s sensations meant.
It wasn’t always smooth sailing with Jeremy. Even with his gradual improvement over time, there were days or weeks that seemed to fall back to old ways. Oftentimes these occasions were predictable, such as long weekends or before or after holidays. Sometimes I didn’t know why. I also noticed that if I wasn’t on my game, Jeremy let me know. If my patience was less than normal because of illness or fatigue, Jeremy knew. He mirrored me, and those feelings of instability would come back. I had become a rock for him, and the moment that foundation seemed at all shaky, he felt it. It was a reminder to me of the great responsibility I have as a teacher, especially for children like Jeremy. He needed me at my best more than I realized.
Jeremy continued to improve with how he handled transitions, disappointments, and social situations in the classroom. He learned to function in the classroom environment, make and keep friends and meet the grade level outcomes for grade primary. He still had his moments, but they became few and far between and when he blew, the turnaround was fast. He also learned strategies for when he felt himself becoming upset – to take a break, to run for a hug, to take deep breaths.
Jeremy’s story is a lesson about the importance of being trauma-informed. Children like Jeremy are in every classroom in schools from every community across Canada. Exposure to adverse and potentially traumatic events and experiences is surprisingly prevalent. Because of this, every school needs to become trauma-sensitive. Every school teacher should have the access to professional development and education to fully support all students. School health programs should include trauma sensitive mindfulness practice and techniques. We need to pay closer attention to the crucial needs, and incredible strengths of these little learners and certainly change our thinking around maladaptive behaviour. We can develop a common understanding about trauma, and its effects on the brain and learning. As teachers and school communities we can change our practices to reflect more trauma-sensitive approaches to teaching, school climate, and discipline. So, beginning with teacher education, small classroom changes and then school-wide approaches, we can meet the needs of these resilient and deserving children. For children like Jeremy, school won’t only be a place for authentic learning, but it will also be a place of safety, love, and hope.
*The student’s name has been changed to protect his privacy