So, I took a break from this blogging just long enough to reenergize. When one thinks about special education as much as I do, a sense of urgency can cloud the thinking and everything feels like an emergency. The reality is this. We are doing so much wrong in special education. Kids are resilient and most get through their education alive, more functional than when they entered school.
But that isn’t good enough for me. It’s not good enough for our communities. It certainly isn’t good enough for those with special needs. Because even when teachers are doing their best, it’s often not good enough. Not that teachers are mean, or bad. I taught way too many years to believe that. It’s because many teachers are misinformed. It’s because many special education teachers are not coached and supported in ways that help them grow and stay current with best practice.
So, with things in a better perspective, I can sit at my desk and write again.
In keeping with my loose but helpful Wednesday Word theme , today’s ‘word’ is trauma.
What brings me to this topic? Well, I am involved with some kiddos who have been diagnosed with PTSD. One kiddo has had a devastatingly dreadful early life fraught with all sorts of abuses and neglect. The other is a kiddo who, unfortunately, developed PTSD due to repeated events at school. Both boys have been traumatized. Both boys have trouble expressing themselves, coping with emotions, and are easily triggered. Both boys revert to maladaptive behaviors when they are triggered. Both boys have been negatively consequences for these maladaptive behaviors. Honestly, their behaviors can be frightening and uncomfortable to witness but expecting them to do better is harmful.
We have to understand trauma. More and more kids come to school living with trauma. Trauma changes the way the brain develops and functions. All those neural pathways that are responsible for responding when one feels unsafe (perceived and/or actual survival is threatened), get over developed. What that means is those kids are in a state of hyperarousal. And what that means is that those kids overreact to nonthreatening incidents. In other words, the traumatized brain gets stuck making it near impossible for those kids to achieve a state of calmness and restore a sense of well-being. That renders them ineffective communicators and processing verbal instruction to learn and follow directives is a challenge many kiddos cannot overcome.
Do you get that? Kids with diagnosed PTSD or that have been identified as traumatized often have impaired receptive and expressive communication. This means learning is hard. Really, really hard. Their poor brains are in a constant state of hyperarousal. Their brains are doing the job. It’s about survival, staying alive, fighting, flighting, freezing. All the brain’s energy is about just that.
Imagine this. You are alone. It is dark. A tiger is stalking you through the jungle. You may or may not see the tiger. Your brain and instincts are screaming at you that there is a tiger stalking you and you cannot fall asleep, look for food, stop for water at the watering hole. Your brain is telling you to stay aware, pay close attention. Your life depends on it. You are not safe.
And then someone directs you to turn to page 10, look at the board, listen to only them as they explain something. That someone is doing everything they can to get your attention but your brain is screaming at you that your life will be in jeopardy if you attend to just that person. Could you do it?
Your heart is racing, you are anxious, your adrenaline is flowing so that you can immediately react to danger, run, fight or freeze to stay alive. Your whole body is in a state of hyperarousal.
Yes, now do this worksheet. And if you are in the jungle and feel frightened night after night after night, you will have flashbacks and things will trigger you during the day. And you cannot control when those flashbacks or triggers creep in. You cannot control your reaction to those flashbacks and triggers because your brain is telling you that you are in danger and it feels real.
Now, can you please sit on the carpet during circle time and listen to this story? Eyes on me. Put your listening ears on. Sit on your bum.
Here is how you have been forever changed. You have already developed maladaptive strategies for surviving in the jungle with that tiger hot on your trail. You might dissociate whenever you are triggered. It’s what you do when the tiger is too close. Dissociating is now a permanent response and will be with you even years after the threat of the tiger is gone.
You will have much trouble regulating your emotions. You will have great difficulty expressing your emotions in a safe way. You might become very withdrawn, or you might bang your head on the floor, act out behaviorally. You might become a chronic eloper.
Those responses may serve as adaptations to overwhelming stress. You won’t be able to communicate what exactly is wrong. You probably won’t even know. You will most likely have a language delay, you will have cognitive deficits, you won’t be able to concentrate, complete tasks, understand directions. You might drop out of school when you can because you are an unsuccessful learner. You will have a very poor sense of self. You will see yourself as ineffective, powerless. You might carry around a heavy load of shame and believe you are to blame for that tiger stalking you, for not doing well in school, for not having friends.
And if you continue to visit that jungle because someone else makes you and that trauma is prolonged, your stress response is toxic. Because all that trauma is beyond your capacity to cope.
And it is not your fault.
And nobody should ever invalidate your fear.
And you should never be secluded.
And you should never have points taken away, rewards denied, recess taken away.
Because it is not your choice to respond to stress the way you do.
Now we know better.
So we must do better with our traumatized kiddos.