It is very important that we are aware and informed so that we do not cause further harm. Shocking as it may seem, for the most part, we are indeed causing more harm.
Here is how.
When we use restraint inappropriately, when we use seclusion, when we misuse behaviorist approaches (you all know by now how I loathe token economies, stickers, stars, rewards, PBIS, level systems, point charts), when we expect our kiddos to control big scary emotions and to self-regulate when they feel they are in crisis. All of these things cause harm to our traumatized students. They serve as triggers, reminders that the world is an ugly place, further damage self-concept and self-worth. They certainly do not restore a sense of well-being or safety.
And as discussed earlier, the brain will not allow any of its energy to attend to things like schoolwork and friendships. The brain is in a constant state of hyperarousal and it tells the body to stay that way. Because your very life depends on it. You must be ready to flee, fight or freeze at any given moment. That takes a lot of energy.
Really? Even when a traumatized kid is safe in my classroom? Even when I have told him a hundred times that he is at school and that his job to attend, and that he is safe? Even when I have that really great reading nook with comfy chairs and I play soothing music while the kids work? What is to be scared about? What’s the worry? My room is the safest place this kid has. Why isn’t he able to relax here and take advantage of being in a safe place?
As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, physiological changes happen when one is exposed to prolonged stress and traumatic events. You cannot undo that. You cannot undo what kids have seen or heard or experienced. It changes the brain. Traumatic events cause everlasting changes in physiological arousal. Emotion, cognition and memory are all profoundly affected. And childhood trauma changes the way a child develops in all those areas.
Remember this. Traumatic reactions are actually completely normal and appropriate responses to abnormal, frightening, and life-threatening events. Yes. Those reactions are certainly appropriate because they keep us alive. We are wired to instinctively know when we are in danger. So when we feel threatened, experience a traumatic event or endure trauma over and over again, on some level, we know we are in danger.
And teachers cannot cozy-reading-nook-soothing-music-tell-me-I-am-safe that away.
So, what do we do?
The most important thing we can do is to not react to the maladaptive behavior by being punitive or telling the student to ignore the feelings. Do not invalidate.
Some maladaptive behaviors could include increased heart rate, rapid respiration, trembling, dizziness, loss of bladder and bowel control, stomach aches, chronic headaches, tingling hands and feet. You may see emotional reactions such as intense fear of everything or things that are not even there, helplessness, agitation, disorganization, angry outbursts about anything and nothing. These are all ways traumatized kids can react to real or perceived threat.
But it gets even trickier when our kids experience intense and disturbing feelings as a reaction to situations, people, sensations, feelings, anything that reminds them of their traumatic experience or event. These traumatic reminders are just as real as the original trauma. Recognizing trauma responses is absolutely essential.
I know I have
preached written about seclusion and restraint more than you all can stand, but I think this is very important when we talk about being effective and therapeutic with kids who have experienced trauma. And we want that, right?
Have you ever noticed what happens to a child when they re restrained? Have you noticed what happens to a child while in seclusion/timeout/think rooms? (You can put any stupid ‘positive’ label on that room. I don’t care, but you are not fooling kids. They know what those rooms and spaces are for.
Do you notice panic? Do you notice loss of bladder and bowel control? And how many of you believe that peeing and pooping on you or in the seclusion room is the distressed student’s way of getting back at you, that they are doing this on purpose to show you who is boss? Do you take it personally? How about when they spit on you? Do you notice a surge of adrenaline and super power strength in your student?
That’s all called survival responses and they are induced by what YOU are doing. Let your mind wander and think about the kinds of trauma that may be triggered by using restraint and seclusion. Fight, flight or freeze reactions are at full throttle when triggered.
So stop doing it.
Let’s also stop looking at our trauma kids and asking, ‘what is wrong with you?’ Let’s instead consider what has been done to them and how we might help, how we might prevent trauma responses by making sure environment and people are not going to be triggers. Let’s provide only safe places and people as defined by the student.
Read that last sentence again. WE do not get to decide what is safe. WE do not get to define what is safe. Safe is relative and personal.
Ask your student where and when he feels safe. Then make sure you provide that. When we don’t honor that, we cause more harm. We actually provide more reasons for the student to stay in hyperarousal.
For example, a student I work with is homebound. He has PTSD because of the way his behaviors were managed in his early years by school personnel. (I am not necessarily pointing fingers here. Perhaps those in charge did not know better and did not know how to analyze behavior and respond approrpiately.) In school his behaviors were handled very poorly. Too many restraints and seclusions can cause PTSD. So, naturally this kiddo is averse to all things ‘school’. Trust was broken too many times for this kiddo. He is easily triggered when anyone talks about school as he has specific memories and disturbing feelings about school. So in his case, going to school was out of the question. It didn’t work.
The district has contracted services for this kiddo with a private agency specializing in providing in-home care for people on the spectrum. They come to his home every day. When this agency has difficulty providing the contracted services due to personnel absence, the district has to honor and follow the IEP so they provide substitutes. People this kiddo doesn’t know.
But HE knows they come from ‘SCHOOL’. They don’t know him, they are not trauma-informed or trauma aware. They have no clue what to do with him.
So all these substitutes can do is sit and watch the alarming maladaptive behaviors this kiddo engages in. Why does he do that? Because their presence causes trauma responses. They are reminders of what was traumatizing for him. His safety depends on him repelling unsafe people.
And remember, HE gets to define safe places and people.
What is a school to do? The challenges we face when working with kids who have experienced trauma run wide and deep.
We stop expecting our trauma kids to perform and interact in the school environment like everyone else. We stop expecting them to follow the same schedules, do the same things, perform at the same levels as their peers. We stop pushing them and demanding they listen, do their work, and learn.
We recognize when they don’t listen, follow along, get things turned in, sustain attention, communicate effectively or when they shut down, act out, freeze, elope or fight, it is because they have no other choice.
We understand they are just trying to stay alive an unharmed. Just trying to stay safe.
More specifics to come in the next post.