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.


This week I had a parent call me and tell me that her daughter had been threatened by a classmate via Facebook, and she asked if I would help solve this problem between the two girls.  I asked the parent to email me what was posted and I would check with our administrators in the district to see what I could do. When I got the email of the posted comments I was surprised at how explicit and dramatic the threats were. The comments were between two students planning how to “beat up” another girl to keep her away from one girl’s boyfriend. The comments gave specific directions to the school with a time at which to do the deed. In fact, the threats were so explicit that the girl who was threatened was too scared to come to school. When I brought the emails to the principal of the school, she stated that there really wasn’t anything we could do since the threats didn’t happen on school grounds. I thought that seemed unfair since the bully was allowed to be in school and the victim was too scared to come to school. So the principal decided that the bully would be spoken to by the school resource officer and told about the seriousness of the internet threats and to stop the behavior. When confronted, the bully denied all actions, and when shown the actual emails, she was so angry that she decided to leave school grounds without permission.  Later that day I got two more emails from the victim where the bully had continued her threats because now she thought the victim was a “snitch” and deserved to be beat up even worse. Those threats didn’t name names as the first ones did, but the context was pretty clear. I still didn’t know exactly what to do. I emailed major administrators in the district to discover what our cyber-bullying policy is. It turns out that we don’t have any specific cyber-bullying policy.   As a group of teachers in a small program in the school district, we decided that it would be a good idea to keep the bully out of school while a risk assessment was conducted. That made the victim feel better and come back to school. I was part of the team which conducted the risk assessment and there were standard questions for the parents and the bully to answer, and we actually went to the student’s home to have them answered.  After that, the staff got together to decide on a course of action. We decided that a safety plan should be in place and be agreed to by the bully before she could come back to school, so we developed a safety plan.  The victim would continue with escorts to and from the building and within the building as long as she felt she needed it. The two students would also come together so the bully could apologize and assure the other student of her safety. I don’t think it’s enough for a district to say we have a zero tolerance policy on bullying.  A district  actually has to have a policy in place for how to handle it.

Blogging with Students

I recently had my two classes of high school students set up blogs through My purpose is to use our current unit topic to have them present their thoughts and opinions. First, having students sign up using email was only straightforward for those who regularly use email. Otherwise, students forgot passwords or had trouble creating email accounts. I can deal with that by having students write down their passwords and login information in their notebooks. If our school district provided students with school email, some of the issues with lost password or login information could be avoided. Once all accounts were set up, showing students how to personalize their blog was easy and they caught on quickly.
I provide students with a quick in class reading so they can get some information, then they spend the rest of the class typing a blog post in response to specific questions I write based on the reading they did in class. I follow each of the student’s blogs so I can easily comment to them to open up conversations and I can help them improve writing skills to work on IEP goals. I can also assess their understanding of the topic we read in class. The biggest thing I am pushing with my students through blogging is teaching them to back up their opinions with facts and details. I constantly repeat to them that their opinions are stronger when they can give clear and concrete reasons to support them. As we work through non-fiction topics connected with their science and history classes students will form opinions, use concrete evidence to support their opinions, and build skills necessary to be more active and social citizens.