Complex Trauma and Mental Health in Students

The students I work with have significant emotional and behavioral challenges.  At our school, the staff has been getting training in being a trauma-informed learning environment.  Our local mental health service providers have worked with us and been a good resource for us in this endeavor.  We also were given a good web resource with tons of information about how mental illness affects kids, and how it looks in the classroom.  Further, there is an entire resource on complex trauma; those are the kinds of kids that I work with daily.  Now that I can see behavior through a trauma “lens,” it helps me remember that behavior is a message, and I need to figure out what the behavior is telling me.  

Complex trauma is when children are exposed to a traumatic event multiple times; this is different than a one time traumatic event which may cause Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).  Complex trauma means that a child has been exposed repeatedly, over time, and some of these events include:  neglect, bullying, physical and sexual abuse, chronic mental or physical illness, chronic family fighting, an incarcerated parent, the effects of poverty, homelessness, and maternal stress during pregnancy.

The effects of complex trauma on the brain are staggering.  There can be attachment problems; that means that these children can have a hard time making and keeping friends, or they can have a hard time with social boundaries and cues.  There can be self-regulation problems; this means that they can have a hard time managing emotions, or they can have problems knowing when they are hungry or full, or they have difficulty self-soothing and controlling their impulsivity.  There also can be problems with their competency which means they may have difficulty planning and organizing; they can have a lack of an ability to problem-solve, difficulty processing language, or they may have low self-esteem.  

What we are coming to learn is that complex trauma affects the brain and its growth.  When children who are affected by complex trauma are “triggered,” their primitive brain is activated which puts them into “fight or flight” mode; the part of their brain that allows them to think and act is “turned off.”  It is nearly impossible for a child in this state to think rationally.  But you can help. There are many strategies that you can use in your classroom. The following excerpt comes from the Students First Project: “Helping children self-regulate is a primary goal for work with children impacted by complex trauma. A key strategy to support the skills necessary for self-regulation is adult attunement to the child’s emotional state. Attunement is the ability to accurately read and respond to the child’s emotions rather than behavior. Adults also need to mange their own feelings and responses to children’s behavior and model the affect we want the children to learn. Establishing a safe and supportive environment (home, school and community) is critical. Consistency, predictability, and establishment of routines will help develop this sense of safety. Also, it is difficult for children who have experienced complex trauma to generalize skills so repeating interventions and strategies is critical to success.”

The Students First Project has listed many of the most difficult behaviors that students exhibit, with links to information and strategies for your classroom.  Becoming “trauma-informed” has really helped my teaching practice because I’ve been more patient and understanding with students.  Even if you don’t work with students with complex trauma, you probably have students with ADHD, depression, anxiety, or one of the many other issues that affect children and make it difficult for them to achieve their best in the classroom.

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