Imagine that one time that you went to reach for your wallet and realized that it was no longer there. A blanket of cold dread pushed from your scalp to your toes, your heart rate increased, and you may have felt momentarily dizzy. This was your body’s quick reaction to intense stress. It may have only lasted for a few seconds until your body leveled off the stress hormone and you could think rationally about the whereabouts of your lost wallet.
Now, imagine having that flood of stress multiple times a day, every… single… day. Our students who grow up in trauma-households are experiencing this constant overload, whether that be from physical abuse, verbal arguments that are psychologically scarring, all the way to a parent withholding love from the child as a punishment. Eventually, the child learns unhealthy ways to cope with the trauma.
If your student utilizes regression (learned helplessness), you may notice that when faced with difficult tasks or consequences for their actions, they revert to babyish actions. They may even speak in baby talk. This tends to happen with children who did not receive much physical touch nor loving care as a child. The student may have acted babyish when younger to frustrate a caretaker, forcing the caretaker to become physical with them and provide that physical touch (though not in a positive way).
How to teach these students: If you notice a student practicing regression, first and foremost, view them as the courageous soul that they are. Can you imagine having never experienced physical touch or care, and yet still being brave enough to seek it out? These types of students won’t just “grow up” if we toss that careless expression at them. They require our gentle, yet firm understanding as they eventually move through this stage in their life. We, as educators, cannot provide the physical touch they crave, yet we can provide a safe haven for them while they work through their past traumas. Gentle reminders of how the student should act may encourage them to begin acting as they should for their age level. They will slowly realize that they receive praise from adults when they act as they should, and not when they regress to childish actions.
Place yourself back to the time when you thought you had lost your wallet. That stress reaction that occurs is what we refer to as the “survival brain”. You cannot think rationally when your brain is in this state. Students who face trauma often are trapped in survival brain mode, and the slightest further stressor can either cause them to become angry, explode in tears, or want to flee (fight or flight). Something as small as a wrong look from a classmate could be enough to set off a dramatic reaction.
How to teach these students: Create a plan for these students in the case that their stressors become too much. Often, the reason these students explode dramatically is that they can’t handle everything at once and are unsure of what to do. By sitting down with them and setting up a solid plan during these moments, the student not only feels supported by an adult but has a safety net for situations that are overwhelming. This empowers the student as well as teaching them healthier coping mechanisms. The eventual goal is for the student to not need an adult to guide them when they are facing these extreme stressors, so having the student create their own coping plan is essential to further growth.
NOTE: Some students may try to escape their reality at school by overusing their coping method. Be sure to set very clear expectations that they follow their plan only when the student is overwhelmed to the point of being unable to cope.
Some children learn how to basically shut down and disassociate from the negative situation. Their brain “zones out” until the terrible experience is over which, to an educator, can look like defiance and flat-out insubordination. The child may have developed this coping mechanism to the point where they are unable to speak once their brain shuts down, and may stare straight ahead until they are able to escape the potential threat.
How to teach these students: If a child shuts down, there is only one action to take – send them out of the room to the guidance counselor or another adult equally as soothing. The child cannot be allowed to sit in class and not complete the tasks that you have set forth, but becoming frustrated and trying to force them to work will create a hostile environment for the child. They need you to be calm, patient and understanding at all times, even when they’ve shut down. As time goes on, you may work with the guidance counselor and the student so that the student can build up more and more trust in you. They may get to a level of trust with you where gentle coaxing during class could bring them out of their “zone out” to join their classmates. As the student ages, they should be working to come out of their disassociation on their own without an adult’s help.
Ultimately, wonderful teacher, these students need a caring heart and an understanding ear as they work through the traumas of their past and present lives. Their thoughts may frequently return to the trauma they are afraid will be waiting for them at home. Be gentle when reminding them to get back on task. Remember that you probably can’t save the child from experiencing the trauma, but you can be the warm smile they see each and every day they come to school, the kind tutor who guides them through their schoolwork, and the encouraging voice that helps them to recognize their own unique talents… maybe for the first time in their life.