I recently had the privilege of providing a series of trainings to educators across Canada. My focus was to help teachers, school counselors, and administrators understand the impact that dysfunctional family dynamics and trauma can have on their students. I invited these enthusiastic and highly dedicated professionals to think about their most challenging or “difficult” students. Many students quickly came to mind including kids who talk back, stare out the window during class, jump out of their seats and disrupt the lessons, act aggressively towards peers, get failing grades and don’t academically achieve what they are capable of accomplishing. Although it was clear that these professionals were compassionate, it was equally clear that they were frustrated, confused, even somewhat burnt out by these “high maintenance” kids who spend more time in the principal’s office than they do in the classroom.
Once those diagnoses are in place, a child’s actions tend to be looked at through that narrow, all encompassing lens.
I think it’s fair to say that kids with these kinds of behaviors and issues tend to get labeled pretty quickly as either uncooperative, unmotivated, ADHD, or oppositional. Once those diagnoses are in place, a child’s actions tend to be looked at through that narrow, all encompassing lens. The focus shifts away from resilience, creativity and intelligence. The school becomes more concerned about what’s wrong with the kid, rather than what’s right about him. And most importantly, no one seems to put that child or the behavior into a broader context: a family-of-origin context. In other words, what happened in that child’s home last night or in the morning before heading to school? What did that child witness or experience first-hand? Is it possible that symptoms of dissociation, agitation, acting out, or an inability to absorb or retain school lessons are the byproduct of emotional distress that has its roots in trauma, abuse or neglect? Are the “attention–seeking behaviors” designed to do just that? Get someone’s attention?
I provide therapy for many adult survivors of trauma and so often they describe their inability to focus, concentrate, learn or retain information when they were in school. They also say, “No one seemed to understand what was really going on for me.” Kids who are growing up in war zones at home can’t possibly show up at school and act and learn like other kids. Here’s what educators need to understand about kids who are being traumatized:
- They live in their limbic systems, primed for survival. There’s no reasoning or insight in limbic system and they can’t learn when they are in a state of fight, flight or freeze.
- They don’t have good inter-personal skills and re-enact with their peers the violence they are subjected to at home.
- They’ve learned to perceive adult authority figures as inherently threatening. -They don’t trust adult overtures for help and often go on the offense in anticipation of being harmed by them- like they are at home.
- They don’t have good problem solving skills because no one is modeling healthy ways to navigate conflict at home.
- They don’t hand in assignments or raise their hands in class because they are afraid of being shamed or failing. “Doing something wrong” at home is met with dire consequences.
- They are not securely attached and therefore don’t have good affect regulation skills. They might be jumping out of their seats because they have no other way of soothing or managing the flashbacks or emotional overwhelm that pervades their lives.
- They fall asleep in class because they were kept awake the night before by violence in their home or the need to stay hyper-vigilant to navigate the potential threat of being unsafe.
My hope is that educators will recognize that assessing for trauma, abuse, neglect or other dysfunctional family dynamics is as important as assessing for learning differences or pathologizing mental health diagnoses. Oftentimes, the “symptoms” that show up at school are the inevitable byproducts of trauma or the creative coping strategies that kids are compelled to use in order to survive. When we can accurately understand what’s happening in their lives, we can intervene in ways that truly put these kids on a path to recovery and healing.
What has been your experience in working inaccurately labeled children?