When Misbehavior is a Trauma Response

A five-year-old will express traumatic responses in a different way than say, a 16-year-old, and so from a developmental lens we see different behaviors. But let’s take a five-year-old child who maybe comes into a classroom and they’re putting their things in their cubbies, and maybe a child who has extensive you know, history of lots of things happening, and maybe another kid knocks over their bag. That five-year-old child will maybe shove that other little boy or girl down, they may yell, they may get really angry.

Maybe a teacher comes over and says, “Rona, it’s okay,” and maybe reaches out to touch that little child, and the child pushes them away, or goes under the table, and really has this aggressive, what looks aggressive or explosive behavior. What we know about trauma is maybe that child is really just trying … Their life has been disregulated and that disregulation is manifested in that moment. So you see really big responses to something really small. Maybe that same five-year-old child has been in foster homes and so maybe what we see is that what trauma lens that backpack is really significant to that child because maybe it’s one of the few things that that child owns or that belongs to them, and so belongings take on a different meaning for a child who didn’t have a history of separation from a parent or things like that. 

The child tends to lack the ability to communicate or verbalize because those are the kind of skills that get impacted by adverse childhood experiences so creating a narrative about your experience is like or being able to self-regulate, so there’s a need for co-regulation in that moment. But a child’s really, you know, we talk a lot about we see misapplied survival skills because a child’s just surviving but in the context of a school, we don’t push our classmates, and we don’t push our teacher, and we don’t throw things across the room, and we don’t go under a table. But if that’s what you’ve done to regulate, you’re gonna keep doing those things.

Helping Children Learn to Verbalize

If a child doesn’t have those skills and hasn’t learned ways to rely on adults, then the adult’s job is to help that child learn to co-regulate and that might be, maybe I’m with that little five-year-old Rona who is really upset. In that moment she’s not gonna be able to really process my language. So what I might do is use a really soft voice and I might say, “I’m right here with you. I’m gonna keep you safe. I’m not gonna let you hurt yourself or anyone else right now.” It really doesn’t matter what I’m saying but I gonna use quiet words and I may say, “Let’s breathe together,” and I might have little five-year-olds who maybe now is crying and really having a hard time because when little ones cry they’re kind of …

You know, and their breathing is really shallow and that’s gonna make this little one more upset, and so I might just calmly breathe with me or I might say with the little ones we optimally use maybe a weight or a sand toy, something that has a little weight. Then we might say, “Do you want to hold this?” Just help that child co-regulate. If you’re a parent, you can hold and do all those things but we try to help that child learn that it’s okay to calm down but we have to guide them because often they don’t have the skills to do that.

I gave you an example of externalizing behavior or outward behavior. But there are also inward or internalizing behavior. So when we think about responses to adverse experiences or trauma, we think about getting triggered into kind of a flight, fight or freeze response. I kind of gave you an example of a fight response but maybe you have say a nine-year-old who is called on by a teacher. Maybe that’s a material that’s really challenging. The other piece that we know and kids have lots of adverse experiences is that cognitive function is sometimes impacted. So there are language delays or speech delays or just challenges learning academically. 

So maybe there’s a child that is asked to work in a group and they freeze in that moment and they’re not able because they just feel unsafe or scared or threatened. So that child might just shut down and that might be the child that the teacher calls on again. “Rona, can you stand up and read your paragraph,” or whatever, and you just refuse and you just say, “No. Mm-hmm (negative), mm-hmm (negative).” The child won’t do it. That might be a moment where the teacher’s frustrated because, “But I see it. It’s right in front of you. I see you’ve done your work. Stand up.” That behavior can be seen as defiant but really maybe it’s a child in that freeze. So we do see that kind of behavior as well. 

It gets less attention in schools because sometimes the kids that are quiet, well, you’re not making, you’re not throwing something across the room, so we’re good when you have 30 other kids in your class. But that can also be that child that really shuts down or can’t advocate for their own needs. So maybe they do need something, and they can’t raise their hand, and they can’t ask for help, and they don’t know how to do that. 

Kind of moving to an older child, let’s think about … I’m kind of smiling because I’m thinking that I work in a middle school right now. I saw a middle school student who kind of walked in the room late, and the teacher asked the child to sit down. The kid’s like, “No,” and he kind of wanders through the room and he’s giving high five’s and he’s giving hugs, and he’s engaging a lot of actually attention-seeking behavior. 

But when the teacher then asked him to sit down again and came over and kind of moved closer to that child’s space, the child turned and said, “I’m not afraid of you. Why do you think I’d be afraid of you?” Have that really big response. But with our teenagers, we often see that really big response can be really … Adolescents are really good at pushing buttons so you add those adverse experiences and maybe it becomes now a threat. There’s a threat to self or maybe they’re threatening other people and it looks really big and can look really scary. 

Shifting How We Think About Trauma

What are the things that we think about when we think about teacher response? Part of what Resilient Futures does is we run a program called HEARTS, which is Healthy Environment and Response to Trauma in Schools. We have this core guiding principles that help us make sense of how do we support teachers. One of the things that we talk a lot about is kids are doing the best that they can. We also believe that teachers are doing the best that they can so I kind of want to frame that before I respond because we recognize that teachers in the moment are holding their own vicarious trauma. What I mean by that is their own traumatic stress response that comes from holding the stories and experiences of children and families who are impacted by trauma. That has an impact on the teacher. 

But what we find is that when we work with schools we really try to help them shift from this lens of like, “What is wrong with this kid,” to, “What has happened to this child?” I remember one time I was consulting with a team of teachers and you know, we talked about like, “What is wrong with this kid?” Someone was in that space and their colleague said, “Oh, it would be easier to say what’s right with that kid because there’s so many things.” It’s easy to get into that place when you’re a teacher. 

You know, a lot of the teens, for example, call their teachers everything under the sun and say really awful things. You know, for a teacher you don’t want to be told or called something really inappropriate. So there are certain things that are triggering to teachers and it’s hard to move to that space of so what’s happening to this moment? Why is this kid yelling at me or cursing at me? Or whatever might be happening, or storming out of my classroom to something’s happened that is creating a response in this child. So that’s the space that we try to shift to. That “What has happened to this child?” response would be more of instead of assuming immediately like this is an aggressive response or … 

So many kids get suspended for defiant behavior. What does that really mean? It can mean lots of different things but instead of assuming that that behavior is defiance, it’s recognizing in the moment what just happened that maybe triggered this child? What occurred that I just called on that child and maybe they’re not prepared? Did I inadvertently shame that child? Then it’s coming from a different place that you respond. 

One of the best things I tell teachers is to take a moment. When you’re in that moment and you feel triggered and you feel escalated, stop, don’t respond immediately, and just breathe through it because that’s the place that if we respond from that anger or frustration we’re most likely to respond in a place of implicit bias or lack of understanding, or all of those things. So it’s slowing down that process. 

I mean that’s really the piece that, the intersection that we see in being trauma-informed is that adult ability to regulate themselves. You really can’t co-regulate a child if you’re not regulated in mindfulness, the ability to be present without judgment, and not judgment on that child for whatever their behavior is but just recognizing something happened in the classroom. There is a moment and maybe a child is escalated, or you were hurt because of something they said, and just acknowledging that moment happened, and not attaching a judgment to that but acknowledging it, breathing, and then moving into a response.