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).

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.

Evaluating Websites

The University of Illinois at Urbana has an informational web page that outlines why it is important to evaluate a website before someone uses the information it contains.  The internet is not monitored, so anyone can put information out there, and the information is not always reliable or unbiased.  Further, there are no guidelines for what can and can’t be presented as truth.  Students need to be able to think critically about what they find online.   I find that my students will believe almost anything they see on the internet, without question.   I have not had good luck finding a simple way for my students to apply a good process in order to evaluate a website.   

imagesOver the summer I took a course through PBS Teacherline called “Evaluating and Organizing Internet Resources.”  Through this course we studied different ways to evaluate a website and its information in order to develop our own evaluation tool. The evaluation tool I developed (Websiteevaluationtool.docx) is something that I think will work well with my students because it is fairly short and involves a simple point system.  The critical thinking part comes from evaluating the score a page receives and deciding if the score is high enough for the website to be used.   In the past I’ve used a resource from Common Sense Media.  That website contains a whole digital citizenship curriculum for grades K-12. What I found with that website evaluation tool, for my students, is that it is way too long and wordy for them.  

To develop your own useful website evaluation tool you need to get some pointers.  This article from SUNY-Albany is really helpful because it outlines some important items to consider on a website to determine if the website is truthful and unbiased.  There are already some tools that you can look at in order to fine tune them to create your own, or to use in your own classroom.

1.  SPAT by Dr. Elizabeth LaRue  

2.  A Wizard tool from 21st Century Information Fluency.

3.  This comprehensive one from Cornell University.

4.  Kathy Shrock has several tools for various grade levels on her website.

5.  Read, Write, Think has a tool and an entire lesson plan for introducing it.

A Research Model

imagesOver the summer I took a course through PBS Teacherline called “Promoting Digital Media Literacy.”  The final project was presented as a problem to solve:  how can students effectively locate good resources online, analyze, and use them.  For my solution to the problem, I developed the Q-PASS model.  Through the course we looked at various research models such as “The Big 6,” “Pathways to Knowledge,” and “SPIRRE.”  By studying models we could see what we liked about certain models while thinking of the needs of our students, so we could synthesize that information into something new.  Because I work with students with middle and high school students with emotional and behavioral disabilities at an alternative school, I wanted to develop a research process that would be easy for them to remember and that would help them develop some important critical thinking skills.  I also wanted to develop something that I felt would be a useful process for them to go through when answering life’s tough questions when they are done with school:  “Which job should I take,” or “Both towns are close to where I work.  Which town should I live in?”  As a result,  the model I developed has a way to define a good research question as the first part of the process.  Also, my students need help with social interactions.  The goal at our school is to get  the students transitioned back into a mainstream setting, but they need help with social skills.  In my model, there is a process for learning to collaborate with others, which is an important social skill.

The Q-PASS model involves 5 steps:  Question, Plan, Assemble, Survey, and Showcase.

1.  Question.  First, students develop a good research question.  It doesn’t show me what my students have learned if they are just giving me factual information about a topic.  Copying and pasting facts from their research is not good learning.  That’s what my students want to do, but it doesn’t show me what they’ve learned.  So developing a good research question is essential.  If a teacher has already developed a good research question, then this part of the process is not necessary, but many teachers want their students to develop their own questions.  In order to help my students come up with a good question, they will first need to brainstorm what they know about the topic.  Then they use the chart I created in order to develop questions.  Once they become proficient at developing questions, then they will no longer need to use the chart.

2.  Plan.  The next step is for students to plan their research.  What search terms will they use?  How will their search terms be refined?  What types of information will they need in order to answer their research question?  When my students begin a research project, they usually have a lot of difficulty starting because they don’t know what to do.  I developed this step to help them.

3.  Assemble.  Next, students will assemble their information.  That means that they find it, take notes, collect images, organize it, and analyze it.  I have included a tool students can use to evaluate a website in order to determine if it meets their needs before they use it for their research.  This step will require some critical thinking in order to organize the information and analyze whether or not it will be useful.  When students have all the information that they think they will need, they move on to the next step.

4.  Survey.  Students will work with a partner to help each other determine if they have enough information and if their information aptly answers their research question.  This is a social skills training opportunity for my students, so in my model, I include a lesson plan for one way to go about teaching this step to students.

5.  Showcase.  The last step is to show off your project.  The students I work with often don’t finish projects or they don’t want people to see them, even their parents.  By making this step the final part of the research, it helps students see that showing your work is part of good learning.

the Q-PASS Research Model

I am excited to try out this research model.  I would love to hear feedback from other people who try this in their classrooms too.