Five Mistakes to Avoid with Students Who Experience Chronic Trauma

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A growing number of students in today’s schools live in circumstances that feature significant (and often multiple) Adverse Childhood Experiences, frequently referred to as ACEs. Their experiences may include frequent violence; drug and alcohol abuse; physical, emotional, or sexual abuse; unstable housing circumstances; extreme poverty; and other adverse life circumstances. Obviously, these experiences can have serious and lasting implications for the behavior and development of young people.

When these students are at school, their out-of-school lives are not left behind. In fact, their life experiences often exert significant influence on how they will engage and respond at school. They may withdraw or become easily agitated, belligerent, or even aggressive. Such behavior can lead educators to respond in the same ways they would when any student becomes disruptive and engages in other unacceptable behavior. However, with these students, traditional responses often do not work and can even make the situation worse.

Experts who have studied chronic trauma in students and practitioners in trauma-sensitive schools point to at least five mistakes we can make when responding to students who experience trauma as a result of one or more Adverse Childhood Experiences.

Mistake #1: Assuming that temporary counseling support will be adequate when these students experience yet another significant life trauma, such as an unanticipated change in housing, homelessness, or the incarceration or untimely death of a close relative. Access to the services and support of a mental health professional is important, but these students often need longer-term support and help building skills and strategies to deal with and counter what life is presenting to them. Assuming that the immediate situation will pass and the student will move on without residual effects is often a mistake.

Mistake #2: Employing standard disciplinary consequences in response to outbursts and disruption. Attempting to stop acting-out behaviors by imposing typical punitive disciplinary consequences is usually ineffective, as these students have experienced far worse than anything we might impose. In fact, attempting to stop the behavior with threats will likely escalate the behavior and make the situation worse. The student’s feelings and actions are embedded in their life experiences and circumstances, not a momentary loss of control. Rather, provide the student with support and a safe space to allow the crisis to pass and the student to calm down. Follow up with a conference to debrief on what happened and what triggered the response, and develop a plan for the student and you to handle future situations more productively. If consequences are unavoidable, at least delay them until the student is calm and can deal with the situation rationally.

Mistake #3: Ignoring these students when they begin to become agitated in the hope that they will regain control and calm down. Unfortunately, the behavior is more likely to escalate. Deciding to pay attention and intervene before the student loses control can prevent a full meltdown. Also, finding what is triggering the behavior can be crucial to addressing the immediate conflict and preventing similar responses in the future. It may be that some time and space away from other students will help the student regain control, or the strength of your relationship and support might be enough if you intervene early.

Mistake #4: Lecturing the student or demanding an apology while the student is still agitated. Students typically have a difficult time absorbing and processing information when they have lost emotional control. Attempts to “bring the student into line” are likely to make the situation worse, not better. If you need to give instructions, keep them short, specific, and clear. You may need to repeat them, but do not become caught up in an argument or allow your emotions and actions to further escalate the situation. Offering students specific options can also be effective, but ultimatums are not. For example, “You can sit where you are or move to a quiet space, and I will check with you in a few minutes” is an effective specific option.

Mistake #5: Failing to address the feelings and perceptions of the rest of the class. When a student loses emotional control, we need to give appropriate attention to the situation and keep the student safe. However, these outbursts can significantly impact others in the class, including students who also experience chronic trauma in their lives. We need to ensure that all classmates feel safe and remain calm. Depending on the level of disruption and potential danger, we may need to temporarily remove the rest of the class from the immediate area. Once the crisis has passed, we need to help students refocus. Acknowledge the situation and, if necessary, take a few minutes with the class to process the incident and help them calm themselves.

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