Not having effective strategies to cope with the trauma I encountered in my classrooms has impacted my teaching career more than any other issue I have faced.
In 2005 Rice and Groves defined trauma as “…an exceptional experience in which powerful and dangerous events overwhelm a person’s capacity to cope.”
- “Trauma is real.”
This seems too obvious to even bother mentioning, but that doesn’t stop some educators from questioning the trauma their students are facing. We shouldn’t assume that we know everything happening in a child’s life, or predict how far their ability to cope can be stretched.
2. “Trauma is prevalent.”
If a child has experienced the death of a parent, no educator in their right mind would pretend trauma wasn’t playing a role in their classroom behaviour. Sometimes what causes one child to stop being able to cope might not be quite so obvious to their teacher. What is important to remember is that it’s not your job to figure out the exact causes of the trauma. You can react to evidence of traumatization, or act proactively to prevent triggers, without knowing the root cause. I would go so far as to suggest that you are better off leaving your detective hat in the closet. My saviour complex pushed me to dig for answers that I ultimately was not equipped to process. The best thing you could do for your own sanity is to accept that trauma is prevalent in your classroom, and adjust your practice to mitigate the effects.
3. “Trauma is toxic to the brain and can affect learning and development in a multitude of ways.”
The trauma I couldn’t cope with wasn’t even my own. I wasn’t prepared to know about the life experiences my students brought into the classroom. Angela Watson says that teachers are prone to having a Saviour Complex. It’s easy to understand why the first impulse of educators would be to make the problems students face their responsibility to solve. We are expected to think of ourselves as parents in the absence of the child’s actual parent; a concept called acting in loco parentis. The problem is that we are not their parents. Once students pass through the doors of the school, educators have few ways to control what happens to them. Some people would say even our ability to protect them within the walls of the school is suspect.
While I could never claim to have had an idyllic or privileged childhood, the problems I faced ultimately seemed small in comparison to those dealt with by many of my students. Contrary to the stereotype that people on the autism spectrum cannot feel empathy, my experience has shown me that many autistic people have hyper-empathy, even to the point of experiencing aspects of Sentinel Intelligence. Sentinel Intelligence is the ability to sense threats that are undetectable to most people. It tends to be connected to high intelligence, heightened anxiety, altruism, and raised empathetic ability. I quickly discovered that I often didn’t need to be told a student was having a bad day. I could feel it radiating off them like a heatwave. As I got to know my students, I could feel the way their moods changed. I found myself overwhelmed by the need to save them from whatever it was that was troubling them. Angela Watson’s article A Crash Course on Trauma-Informed Teaching reminded me that there was more going on in the bodies, minds, and spirits of my students that I sensed. Angela Watson suggests in her podcast/blog that there are five things about trauma we need to understand as educators.
Angela Watson quotes Alex Shevrin Venet in her blog article: A Crash Course on Trauma-Informed Teaching
“Trauma just really messes with healthy development in all kinds of ways. It can be anything from difficulty regulating emotions to difficulty regulating body temperature. I have had students who wear shorts the entire year-round or who are always wearing a hoodie in the middle of the summer, and it’s connected to a difficulty regulating how hot or cold their body feels. Really, when you think about the impacts of trauma, you can throw everything you know about regular child development out the window and start to look at each individual kid and say, “Where might they need some help in developing a skill or practicing something that for whatever reason, didn’t develop along the way?”
Alex Shevrin Venet
When I thought about how Alex Shevrin Venet describes the symptoms of trauma, I realized that innocuous behaviour I’d always thought of as quirks represented something more serious. I also realized that if I took that to be a fact, there were students I hadn’t thought of as struggling with trauma who were more than likely suppressing something that affecting them in physical ways. Jeff Baker pointed out the following in Angela Watson’s blog/podcast, A Crash Course on Trauma-Informed Teaching:
“Popular related stresses are ongoing — they don’t go away. It’s not a one-time life event to live in a poor neighborhood that has a food desert, or that is rife with gang or community violence, or where it’s common to see police brutality. These things happen every single day, and so the stress becomes chronic over time. When stresses become chronic, the neurological side of things is that the stress hormones remain in the body, because the mind is telling the body that it must always be alert for triggers and a lack of safety. So, students bring this mindset and really the embodiment of trauma into the classroom and to the school. We like to separate these contexts in which the child develops and grows; however, they are all very interlaced and inextricably linked in a way.”
I realized this was a very astute description of the level of anxiety and trauma my students were facing. They couldn’t get over it because it wasn’t just a one-time event, they didn’t have access to professional counselling services, and there was no reason to think the trauma would end.
4. “In our schools, we need to be prepared to support kids who have experienced trauma, even if we don’t know exactly who they are.”
A lot of Angela Watson’s advice focuses on not judging what students are going through. It might be easy some days to let ourselves think of a student as having No Pumpkin Spice Latte Problems. What I mean by this is that we might think of a student as living a privileged life and having problems that amounted to their favorite coffee shop not selling Pumpkin Spiced Latte in the fall. We have to remind ourselves that trauma is real and prevalent, and tell ourselves that we can’t always what things are challenging people.
5. “Children are resilient, and within positive learning environments, they can grow, learn, and succeed.”
Something I’ve learned about my students is that what they want the most from me are things they might be missing in other areas of their lives. They wanted a teacher who didn’t dismiss them as being incapable of meeting certain expectations or excused all displays of poor decision making. They wanted someone who challenged them to do better. Based on how many times during a school year I get asked if I am going to stay in the school for another year, they want someone who’s invested and whom they can rely upon to be there each day.
Transience amongst the teachers in the schools where I’ve taught which makes the students think they don’t care about them. I tend to believe that most teachers who leave after a year or two are motivated by caring too much. They get burned out by their savior complexes, the way I did when I almost gave up on teaching. The point where I stopped being able to cope came when one of my students died. Although he wasn’t the first student of mine who had passed away or even the student I lost whom I felt closest to, his death was my breaking point. I quit teaching and went to get training in a completely unrelated profession.
I regret the years I wasted in confusion and unresolved grief and traumatization, but the experience taught me to think about my students in entirely different ways. If the things happening in their lives impacted me that severely just by proximity, to the point where I walked away from a career I’d put in five years of work to earn, it was entirely unreasonable for me to believe that those youth weren’t being affected in far worse ways.
I generally try to relate most things to my experiences as a neurodiverse person, since my perspective as an autistic educator is far less common than my thoughts as an education.
I have been thinking about how much thought and consideration educators put into not causing further traumatization to their students, all while participating in therapies and strategies that tend to cause long-term harm to neurodiverse students. If we are encouraged to approach the trauma that students bring into the classroom as something that isn’t our job to fix, why are we so determined to fix neurodiverse students? Why don’t we approach neurodiverse students the same way as traumatized students? We can adjust our classroom to avoid triggers. We can refrain from making judgments like, “It’s just a temper-tantrum.” In the same way that you can’t know when a child affected by trauma has passed their ability to cope, you can’t know when a neurodiverse student has been pushed beyond their threshold for a melt-down.
Knowing that some traumatized students might wear their hoodie all day because they can’t regulate their body temperature, would we tell these students to take them off? Why are do we participate in carrying out expectations to suppress the verbal and physical stims of neurodiverse students? Why do we carry out strategies to pressure neurodiverse students to mask their autism?
The simple answer is that we shouldn’t. You shouldn’t. How can you say you are doing everything you can to practice trauma-informed teaching if you are an active participant in traumatizing neurodiverse students?