Rhoda Williams is a teacher and adoptive mother. Rhoda, a member of the peer support group POTATO (Parents Of Traumatised Adopted Teenagers Organisation), is passionate about keeping a creative conversation open between professionals and parents or carers in regards to supporting children living with complex trauma – knowing this is not always easy. Rhoda shares her thoughts about complex trauma in schools in this article, which we hope will be of interest to professionals, parents and carers:
Students who have suffered multiple traumas often present with certain behaviours that adults can find challenging. The greatest protective factors in school are those adults who genuinely like the child and feel able to keep their traumatic experiences at the front of their minds. This may feel difficult because students can have a model of relationship suffused with conflict and an expectation that all relationships should and will be the same.
This article does not excuse disruptive or rule breaking behaviours that disrupt school life. But it does seek to generate understanding about why so many young people who have been through the care system feel and act like they / school is a failure experience. Even those who have gone on to be adopted into caring, secure families continue to view the world through the lens of complex trauma. For these children to stand a chance of succeeding, they need patient adults committed to convincing them that they can believe in compassion, kindness, trust and mutual respect. Adults who apply limits not as a punishment, but as a way of communicating their dedication to keeping them feeling and being safe. We do our best for these children by offering them a thoughtful mixture of care and safe limits, allowing them to begin to believe that they are not to blame and that they are worth the care that we show them.
Some starting points for trying to understand…
Having lived under high levels of threat, they struggle to believe that there is no threat now. This means that they are likely to arrive in your classroom already having felt under threat just by walking through the school corridors. If you are now cross with your class, they are likely to ‘over react’; in fact they may ‘over react’ to less than this. They are already on high alert. A chaotic cohort of children or simply a room where the activity is less structured than normal will place them immediately on the defence.
The best way to mitigate this is to warn the student before the lesson if it will be different or louder than normal; and as they arrive in the lesson, make genuine verbal contact with them so they sense that you are in control and you see them. Where you can, tell them you will check in with them during an unstructured activity; and make sure that you do.
A child brought up with ‘good enough’ parenting, is taught how to regulate their own emotions. They begin by relying on the regulation provided by their significant adults and then begin to believe it is safe to start trusting their own ability to self-regulate. A child who has spent their early years in an abusive background does not even recognise that it is possible to regulate themselves and continues to need the support of the adults around them to do this. A disregulated child is likely to be described in a school environment as ‘hyper’. If this background is recognised, this should not be confused with hyperactivity disorder. This child can become regulated but needs support, not medication, to gradually learn to do this for them self.
If a child with complex trauma behaves ‘hyper’ or ‘erratically’ in your classroom then you should aim to keep your own response regulated (allowing for the fact that we are all human). They may need to have some distance placed between them and the source of stimulation (the activity/ noise/ content of discussion etc). Anger on the part of any adults is likely to exacerbate their terror and therefore their behaviour. Acknowledge the link between their behaviour and their disregulation and state your own desire to help: ‘I can see from your calling out/ choice of language/ running round (etc) that you’re finding this situation tricky and I would really like to help.’ If the student is so disregulated that they can’t respond ‘positively’ to your support, then, for the sake of your class, you may not have time to give a therapeutic response. But you can aim to stay calm with them. You can aim to keep a connection/ relationship between you. And you can speak to them later in the day to ensure that they know that you care.
Young people who have suffered complex trauma are likely to have a very low sense of self-worth. To not be cared for in your early years can be interpreted as not being worth the care. If your student does not believe they have any worth, then they will find it very difficult to give any worth to anything, because to do that makes them feel worse. If you ask this student, ‘Don’t you care that….’ their self-protective answer has to be, ‘No.’
If you want them to care about your subject, then you will have to show more care for it than you might have to with other students. These pupils are unlikely to invest in homework that is never taken in or books that are not marked. If you do not demonstrate worth in your subject, then they will never learn to either. They do not have the inbuilt capacity to attach worth to things without support. You will need to go the extra mile to make them care, because every act of caring for something else may be a reminder that they were not worth that care.
The over-riding emotion for these students is shame. Check that your teaching practice does not use shame in any form to try to coerce students into better learning or behaviour. When you praise the student, give them clear, specific reasons why they should find some pride in themselves. If you need to give a student a consequence for their behaviour, however they present, they may be drowning in shame. Make contact with them before the end of the day so they don’t fear their next contact with you. Try to find time for even a short discussion on how you wonder what their behaviour was about. This teaches them that they are not automatically being blamed but that there is room for an explanation that does not mean that they have to wipe themselves out as an individual. Again.
Students who have suffered complex trauma are likely to seek to re-create what they know. They ironically may feel more able to respond to an angry, shouting adult than to a calm caring one. They may seek to create chaos in a quiet classroom because silence means space to think about who you are and this is too terrifying for them. You may start with every intention of staying calm and wonder why you feel so easily provoked. It is an intentional and self-protective act on their part. After years of practice, they are often very good at it. To help them recognise different options, you will need to recognise and comment on your own response. ‘It feels like you’re trying to make me angry. I wonder if you know that you can get my attention without me being angry at you. Let me help you with question 7 because that’s what most of the class is finding difficult.’
It is so frustrating in school to have students who continually lose books or turn up without equipment. A child with complex trauma often does not have the basic skills to keep track of their belongings. Think of the last time you were grieving, or the last time you were under extreme stress: nothing mattered, maybe you knew you were going to fail to get it right, maybe you just didn’t care in the light of what you were suffering, maybe you couldn’t remember basic things in your ordinary time schedule. These students live in this state and they need whatever support you can give them to help them succeed with organisation.
There are so many other things that we can think about when trying to open up the world to a child with complex trauma. We might wonder about how young they seem sometimes (often in contrast to their developing teenage bodies) We might wonder why they put themselves in situations that seem risky or even re-create the abuse of the past. We might wonder why they have such a strong reaction to ‘normal’ hormonal teenage experiences or seemingly innocuous conversations about boyfriends. We might wonder about the times when they seem vacant or unable to recall an event that has taken place. We might wonder why so much of their behaviour feels counter-intuitive. This wondering is good. It is far more important than trying to reach definitive answers. Hopefully they will one day learn to wonder about themselves with gentleness and kindness.
These children have genuine, valid reasons for their behaviour
As teachers it is easy to recognise the validity of the reasons for our own behaviour. We need the children to behave in order for us to do our jobs. But we can forget that these children are equally certain about the validity of their reasons too. If you don’t understand why a student is doing something then first tell yourself that it’s ‘because they have to’. Then try to work out why they have to. For an abused child, it’s almost certainly about self-preservation. Just knowing that and having compassion is a great starting point if you’re not keen on the psychobabble.
However good our intentions, we will sometimes get it wrong. If you show these students that you care, they will try to prove to you that you don’t. It takes long term dedication to stick with a child who has suffered abuse. They will pass on to you any emotions that they can’t cope with. You may be a calm teacher who finds themselves angry – that may be their anger. You may be a hopeful, caring teacher who suddenly wonders what the point is – that may be partly their hopelessness. You may be an energetic teacher who suddenly loses the ability to think your way creatively through the lesson – how have they impacted you here? An ability to recognise and adjust our own responses to traumatised behaviours will go a long way to modelling to the student what is possible and allows us to be kinder to ourselves.
Finally, when you get it wrong, which you will, please model that getting it wrong does not mean an ending. These students have had powerfully painful endings in their lives already. Even the vaguest threat of endings will cause them to give up any hope or effort. This is not the end of a document on complex trauma…. it is the start of wondering if there might be a different outcome for that student in your class than the one they believe is inevitable…