Complex Trauma and How it Looks in the Classroom

One of my 8th grade students has significant difficulty regulating his emotions, more than other students at the school anyway.  Thankfully, this is a student who receives special education services and who attends an alternative school, yet, his behavior even stretches our abilities to effectively work with him sometimes.  This is the start of his third year at our school, so his pattern of behavior is quite well-known and predictable now.  We also have been trained in complex trauma (there is lots of information here) so we are better at addressing the behavior.

This student comes to school every day and is able to start each day being appropriately social with peers and staff.  During our morning meeting (where we use the Responsive Classroom model) he is an active participant and has a positive attitude.  But anything unpredictable or unstructured can trigger him;  he has even told staff (when he is calm) that his thoughts can intrude and trigger him. Once he is triggered, he begins his downward spiral. What he shows outwardly at first is loud sighing or groaning about the school work or the class expectations, or he might start calling himself stupid because a task is hard for him.  Then he will yell at peers (even though they are using normal voice tones to ask questions and complete their work) to quiet down because he can’t concentrate, and when they respond to him, it’s to tell him to quiet down.  This causes him to lash out with threats and name calling (which might then trigger trauma responses from them, and then everyone escalates).  His language becomes inappropriate for school. Then he becomes extremely oppositional, refusing to leave the room to regulate, continuing to openly challenge students, roaming the hallway, calling people names. When he finally gets into a separate space long enough to work with someone to regulate, it takes quite some time for him to get to a point where he can return to class and meet expectations.

Sometimes he walks out of the school building and goes home before the end of the school day; other times he is able to make it to the end of the school day even though he didn’t complete much work in any of his classes.  When he is on task and participating in class he is focused and can ignore little distractions in order to complete his work.  Sometimes this focus will last all through the morning and into the afternoon; sometimes it lasts only for a few minutes of a class.  Sometimes his oppositional behavior lasts through consecutive class periods; sometimes he goes through this behavior cycle within the span of one class period.   This behavior in a mainstream school would end up getting him sent out of the classroom or suspended; he would also probably be referred for a risk assessment.

Staff usually intervene once he begins his loud sighing or groaning, but there are many factors throughout the day that can affect how quickly we teachers respond to this student:  we may be helping other students with their school work; we may be helping other students regulate their own behavior and work through their issues; we may be introducing a lesson and giving instructions.

This is a quick fact sheet that provides good information about how to help a student like this.  Here are some pointers that are included on the fact sheet:

  • Model respectful, non-violent behavior and relationships.
  • Provide many genuine choices to increase sense of self-efficacy and self-control.
  • Be clear about expected behaviors; teach rules and expected behaviors explicitly. Remember, repetition is key. Children who have experienced complex trauma will likely take longer to generalize a skill than their peers.
  • Avoid using words when a child is disregulated. Consider walking, rocking, etc. as an intervention until the student is regulated.
  • Develop a system for consequences that is not punitive. Consequences should be logical and designed to teach, not punish. Avoid power struggles.
  • If behavior is a consistent problem, consider having a functional behavior assessment conducted to determine triggers and develop a behavior intervention plan.

There is a lot of information here about this type of behavior and how to respond; it’s not information that most teachers readily have because it’s not something that they usually need.  I am a special education teacher working in an alternative school, so this information has helped me do my job better.  I share it because it is useful to know, and it can help all teachers decode the meaning behind some outrageous behaviors they see (no matter how rare they might be in a mainstream setting).

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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.

Creating a PBIS-based Behavior Program

imagesWhen the alternative school at which I work was formed in 1981, it was really just an experimental program begun by the University of Vermont (UVM) in order to work with at-risk teens.  Over the last 30 years it has evolved into a separate school for students in special education who need intensive behavior management and social skills training as well as school work at their academic level that serves to improve their basic skills.  I have been teaching at the school for the last 17 years and we’ve made many changes to the behavior management program that we use.  Last year we began working on becoming a trauma-informed learning environment.  It opened our eyes to some of the major causes of significant behavior patterns and social skills deficits (for more information on this, go to StudentsFirst.org).  We had been working to implement more PBIS interventions (though, by definition, we were already a tier 2 placement), but after training on the brain and trauma, we completely re-vamped our entire behavior management system.

PBIS, or Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, is a buzzword of late.  Educators have been finding that zero tolerance policies and harsh punishments are not serving to help students or to improve behavior.  This article by Russel Skiba and Reece Peterson, this article by Stephanie Martinez, and this article by Richard Vertugo all reinforce the fact that zero tolerance policies aren’t in the best interest of students.  PBIS is one way that schools can work to improve student culture and, therefore, behavior.

We have only three rules, or expectations (as we call them) at our school:  be safe, be respectful, be productive.  We decided to dissolve our number coding system of behaviors and work to encompass our coding system in a positive way.  We decided to make our three categories:  safe, respectful, productive.  Here is how we have worded our new behavior system:

Safe:

1.  Use strategies to calm down

2.  Stay in your own personal space

3.  Keep a neutral or relaxed posture when problem-solving

4.  Use non-threatening words and body language

5.  Take a break when needed or directed

Respectful:

1.  Follow directions

2.  Give feedback

3.  Accept feedback

4.  Use public-appropriate language with peers and staff

5.  Motivate and support yourself, peers and staff

6.  Respect property

Productive:

1.  Follow specific class expectations

2.  Be on task

3.  Listen and participate in class

4.  Give your best effort

5.  Follow your schedule

On our data collection sheets, each student has a chart of intervals marked out in 10 minute increments.  When a student is doing something on that list above, they receive a code in their chart (for example, an on task student would receive: P2).  Likewise, if a student is not doing something in that list above they would receive a code as well.  When teachers use the behavior management system appropriately, they will shape behavior with something like:  “thanks for hearing what I had to say; that’s nice accepting feedback,” or when they have to give negative feedback, “I’m counting on you that next time you will take a break when directed to.”  We try to frame things more positively rather than emphasizing the negative with something like, “you never take a break when I tell you to.”  When we meet with parents (every 2 weeks), we are able to talk about the mostly positive things their son or daughter has done–which is very different than what they’ve experienced in past parent-teacher meetings.  It serves to create a positive and lasting influence on the students and their parents.