How Students Who Grow Up In Trauma-Households Learn Differently

grayscale photo of woman covering her mouth using her hands

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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.

  1. Regression

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.

Dramatic Reactions

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.


Contraction Surgery

Written by: Katrina Cavagna

Are your students having trouble identifying where to place the apostrophe inside of their contractions? Are they just not “getting” contractions in general? Are you looking for something extremely fun that may actually stick in their minds for more than one class period? Try Contraction Surgery!


Contraction handout students completed after the lesson.


So I have to admit, I had way more fun with this lesson than I ever imagined was possible. I bought a low-end pair of nurse’s scrubs, $5.00 stethoscope and colorful band-aids from Amazon, then borrowed latex gloves from the school cafeteria and masks from the nurse! In total, I spent about $30.00 for this lesson that I’ll be able to use again, and again, and again…


Intrigued? Here’s the scoop on how to pull this lesson off!

First, print off a bunch of words that can be made into contractions. Don’t want to create your own? Download the printable here. Cut each word group out into strips. Then, on easel paper, write in large letters “Contraction Surgery” (hopefully your handwriting is better than mine!). Display the easel paper at the front of the room either on an easel stand or on the whiteboard.

Desk Arrangements

I arranged my desks into groups of four. I want my students to have more practice collaborating on in-class activities. This lesson could be done individually. It’s entirely up to you and the needs of your specific students. You know best! At each group of desks or desk, place the same number of bandaids as there will be “patients” or groups of words that the students will be making into contractions.


If you want to make the lesson really fun and engaging for the kids, have each student put on a pair of latex gloves (check for allergies!) and a mask as they enter the room. With my groups of four, I had the students choose one of their groupmates to be the doctor, and that student was the only one to get completely dressed up (saving some class time). The other members of the group were assistants to the doctor.


On display when the students entered the room!

Introducing… Doctor Teacher!

I informed the class that I had had an occupation change overnight, and that I had received many new patients in the ER. I needed their help to perform multiple surgeries to save patients’ lives. They giggled a bit, some were in awe of my costume, and others were eager to get going. We went over what contractions were on the board (this was a 7th grade group, so they had had prior experience with contractions).

Let the incisions begin…

I then passed out a strip of words for each student. Each student was in charge of placing the “incision” with their scissors in the correct place to create the contraction. They had to problem solve together to determine what letters needed to be taken out during the surgery. Then, they had to open up their colorful band-aid and determine where the apostrophe should be placed in order to “stitch the patient” back up. Only the designated doctor of each group could perform the final surgery, but they needed their assistant to help them place the band-aid on the easel paper at the front of the room.


These were some messy surgeries! However, the hands-on approach of this lesson allowed students struggling with the apostrophe placement in a contraction. Winning! 

Clean up the “body parts”…

What a BLAST! The kids were talking about this lesson for days afterward, and the Contractions practice worksheet I gave them afterward really highlighted which students were going to need one-on-one instruction on this topic. In total, the lesson lasted twenty minutes and we had time to read from our favorite class novel!

Don’t have time to make the materials for this lesson? Get them from my TeachersPayTeachers store here.

Apathy: How To Approach The Student Who Doesn’t Try

As teachers we’ve had every sort of difficult student pass through our doorway and place themselves in our seats for the lessons that we put our blood, sweat and tears in to creating. We’ve had our fair share of grumblers, vocal complainers, smile-and-nod-but-never-do-work-kids, quiet resistors, and everything in between. As difficult as those students can be, they are nothing compared to the apathetic student.
The apathetic student feels like they have nothing to lose. They don’t fear not passing (or so it seems), and so they show up to class late with no pass nor any logical excuse. Being overly kind doesn’t elicit any sort of motivation to complete your classwork. Being stern or getting tough just causes them to shut down even more. They don’t complete work and have no explanation for why aside from a small shrug. Detentions don’t hinder them since they’ll merely attend and stare at the wall for the entire time. They tend to lose critical handouts, don’t have materials needed for class, and no matter how much you fret and pull your hair out to help them, they just don’t care about being successful in school.
If you are picturing a student’s face right now, here are some tips on how to cope with the apathy.


Photo by Suzy Hazelwood on

  • First and foremost, you need to take a step back from the student. If you have been pouring your emotional energy into this child every day, showing that you care and practically doing a song and dance to get their attention… Stop. Now. When it comes to an apathetic student, the issue does not lie with you. You, dear teacher, are going above and beyond for this child already. Please quit telling yourself the lie that if you just keep showing this child how much you care about them, that they’ll miraculously start to want to succeed in school. It is not your responsibility to convince a student to complete schoolwork. Remember – the amount of energy the student puts into the work should be equal to the amount of emotional energy you invest in the student for that assignment. Let’s say that a little louder for the people in the back.
  • Stop Coddling. No more cutting the student slack when they show up to class late. No more extensions on homework assignments, or additional lectures for why an education matters. This student has shown that, currently, they are choosing to not do as instructed. If this were a defiant child, you would write them up after refusing to do work. Handle this situation similarly. If the apathetic student shrugs when asked where their work is, nod that you understood and move forward with the consequences that are normal in your classroom. The student will immediately see that you no longer are going to bend over backward to get them to work, and they are now facing the full consequences of their choice.
  • Stay neutral in tone and body language. During this part of the process, it is important that you ALWAYS stay neutral with the student. Begging for the student to start completing work weakens your authority. Yelling at the student for not completing their work causes you to lose your calm control of the class, the apathetic student stops listening, and your blood pressure is now sky-high. By staying neutral you are signaling to all students that, “I place an expectation. I expect them to be followed. If you do not follow instructions as asked, then this is your consequence.” The student no longer gets an emotional response from you, and is left with only negative consequences for their actions.
  • If you haven’t already, contact home. Sometimes you will get support from home. Sometimes you will get accused of being a poor educator instead. Either way, you need to attempt to contact home about the issues in class. A phone call is a more personal way of communicating with parents about the issues with their child. Some parents have no clue that their child is struggling in school, and may be willing to offer support in the form of consequences at home for poor behavior in school. I would always recommend following up a phone call home with an email to the parents as well, that details what was discussed on the phone, and outlines the possible solutions that were talked about. This provides a written form of evidence that you have been attempting to help the student, in case the student does fail for the quarter (or the year) and a parent tries to call the school to blame you. Better safe than sorry.
  • Discreetly find out if the apathetic student has interests. Most apathetic students try to act like nothing interests them, even outside of school. Either by asking their friends or during the phone call to their parents, try to figure out some things that pique the student’s interest. While your entire class can’t revolve around one student’s interests, you can incorporate something every so often… and just maybe they’ll get involved despite themselves.
  • Give them a fresh start. Everyday. Yes, I know they’re frustrating. Yes, I know you’re tired. Yet, every single day, show back up for them. Greet them as you would any other student. Wipe the slate clean and start again. Always be optimistic when you ask them for their homework. Even if you know they still don’t have it done. Maybe the reason they have become so apathetic is that no one has ever believed in them before. Maybe your undying optimism will inspire them to get one homework assignment done.
  • If they complete an assignment, treat them as you would ANY other student. Do not make a big deal over the student completing the work. It was the expectation that they do the work. If you don’t jump up and down for Suzy who always turns in her work, then don’t jump for the apathetic student. Do not reward their past poor behavior with ecstatic celebrations now that they have decided to start following directions. Instead, leave encouraging notes when you correct their work. Smile when you hand back the assignment and congratulate them quietly on how hard they worked. The student may begin to see the benefit of completing work, and meeting classroom expectations. It may take a while, but you may be able to slowly coax them out of their apathy to join their classmates.
  • Accept that they may fail. Yikes. I know, this one hurts. I’m not sure why we teachers care more about a student’s grades than the student themselves, but we do. In the case of an apathetic student, we have to accept the grim reality that if the above tips don’t bring forth any change in the student, that they may have to be allowed to fail that quarter. This is the old-fashioned “tough love” that many of us faced as children. While this is a hard pill for us to swallow, some apathetic students have been pushed along from grade level to grade level so many times that they have never faced FAILING. Sometimes, failing a quarter (or even the full school year) is enough to get the student to start attempting to complete work and starting to care about the future of their academics.