“Easily one of the saddest circumstances that educators deal with is helping students who have or are dealing with trauma.”
These are the words of Ben Gilpin, an elementary school principal who recently guested on an episode of Studentcentricity about connecting with and guiding the behavior of children exposed to trauma.
Ben’s right of course. But sadness may not be the only emotion that educators experience. Because we don’t always see the trauma – because it isn’t necessarily in plain sight -- what we may only see are children who are challenging us. Children whose behavior is not in accord with our plan to help them learn. Our feelings then may be more along the lines of frustration and exhaustion, which can lead to expectations – such as the expectation that the behavior of these particular children will continue to challenge us – that perpetuate the problem.
Ben reminds us that “in recent years the number of incidents appears to be on the rise” and that “as educators we need to exercise patience and understanding with ALL of our students.”
If I were to offer a bit of advice I would begin with a quote from Annette Breaux: "Remember, everyone in the classroom has a story that leads to misbehavior or defiance. Nine times out of 10, the story behind the misbehavior won't make you angry; it will break your heart."
Before you write off a child for having outbursts and negative behaviors I challenge you: have you learned their story?
Certainly, if a child has recently experienced a move or the death of a parent, you’ll know that trauma has touched his or her life. But you may not be aware if a child is exposed to family or community violence, or if a close family member is dealing with a serious illness.
That’s when you have to rely on the signs, among them behavior you would rather not have in your classroom. According to Joyce Dorado and Barbara Sorrels, the other two guests on the show with Ben, which was sponsored by Gryphon House, these signs include aggressive behavior resulting from their need to remain in control. A child may see everything as a chronic threat, triggering a fight-or-freeze response. You may witness a meltdown simply because a child’s ideas aren’t accepted. And don’t forget to be on the lookout for withdrawn behavior. It’s easy to overlook the quiet ones whose sole “infraction” may be a lack of desire to participate as fully as you’d like.
Joyce and Barbara agreed with Ben that this, unfortunately, is a growing trend. You will have more wounded children – and thus more behavior issues – in your classrooms. But all is not lost. They advise that in addition to getting to know each child’s story you remember that your relationship with students may be the single most important factor in helping them achieve success.
A wounded child cannot heal without a relationship with at least one warmly responsive adult. The capacity to influence a child’s behavior is directly proportional to the strength of the relationship that is forged with that child. We change children’s behavior through instruction and correction and not power and control.