Trauma and the Environment
Throughout these Newsletters we have consistently maintained the premise that the majority of children who display dysfunctional behaviour at school have a history of abuse and/or neglect that is the cause of their problematic conduct (we have excluded those children whose behaviour is driven by a physical anomaly such as developmental delay, psychosis or autism). Although we understand there is a real difference between the consequence of abuse and the resulting trauma (see Newsletter - Physical Damage from Early Childhood Abuse – 11/06’2017) and neglect (see Newsletter - The Impact of Neglect 09/12/2017) the merger of both has often occurred for convenience and is the reflection of the reality some children experience.
This combination has long been accepted and as early as 1995 psychologists formalised the impact of both neglect and abuse through the Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) index. This index categorise sufferers based on the number of the following childhood experiences:
- physical abuse
- sexual abuse
- emotional abuse
- mental illness of a household member
- problematic drinking or alcoholism of a household member
- illegal street or prescription drug use by a household member
- divorce or separation of a parent
- domestic violence towards a parent
In the US over half of all children had suffered at least one of these events.
However, just because there is a strong propensity for these children to experience both abuse and neglect the approach to healing these kids is complex, requires very specialist training and is not nor should be the task of the classroom teacher. However, we contend that for the classroom teacher the practice we outline is the same regardless of the complexity of the child’s history.
Since the time early childhood trauma and neglect was properly accepted as a significant cause of behavioural dysfunction there was a spate of training programs that advertised themselves under the heading of ‘trauma informed practice’. From these, teachers were instructed to change their teaching, regarding their behaviour management practices to cater for these kids. This was setting an impossible task for the teacher and providing no real help for the student.
For the teacher, there is at least two problems; the first I have alluded to above. Teachers are not mental health professionals and are not equipped to deal with the specifics of the cause of the behaviour. To modify your behaviour management practices and cater for the individual requires you to really understand the cause of the behaviour and the best way to address that cause. For a therapist in a one-hour face to face consultation it is hard enough, to think you can do this in a classroom with 30 other kids is farcical.
The second problem is that by making allowances for abnormal behaviour does not provide the student with the experience of ‘normal’.
The complexity of dealing with this problem is not surprising, each kid comes with 80 billion neurons that are shaped by unique experiences. In the broadest possible manner, we can put these kids’ inappropriate development into the following categories:
- Post-Traumatic Stress Development (PTSD) – here the child experiences an assault on their physical or psychological sense of self that evokes a stress response that is beyond their ability to cope (see reference above). This damages the ability to deal with situations that repeat the conditions of the original abuse, or circumstances that resemble those conditions. When the environmental conditions change the intense reaction steadily returns to normal. These kids are often engaged at school.
- Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder CPTSD – this is the result of frequent and sustained abuse. The abusive incidents occur at such a frequency and without warning the child finds it difficult the address any stressful situation. They have missed those periods of normalcy, peaceful times when they could have learned some coping mechanisms for those day to day disturbances. So, when they confront the minor stressors found in in any classroom, the traumatic memories evoked are beyond their ability to cope.
- Deprivation/Neglect – These children have not had the exposure of experiences that allow the child to develop a rich variety of encounters that build their memories. As teachers we understand the importance of kids being exposed to a lot of different environmental events to build a rich palate of memories. For these kids not only do they miss out on any variety they fail to be exposed to the most necessary, fundamental experiences:
- Affection, this is the key to developing strong attachment and a positive sense of self.
- Attention is required for a child to get their needs met. When they are hungry they cry and get fed. Of course, these strategies change as they get older but the thing is the child gets a sense of control.
- Structure is crucial for a child to get a sense of safety. It gives the child the ability to predict what will happen in a given situation. After relationships, the provision of a structured classroom is crucial for all students to learn.
- Guidance or lack of appropriate guidance never allows the students to be taught how to operate in social settings. Little kids regard their parents as being the gold standard for behaviour. They have nothing to compare with in their formative years. More often than not these kids have no social skills and so they are unlikeable.
However, as teachers you are left to deal with these very needy kids without the resources you require. We need to take our lead from the mental health experts and for any therapist dealing with these individuals the first thing they do is try to emotionally stabilise them before they can work on their problems. Our task is to provide an environment that allows them to ‘stabilise’, this is at the core of our work. The teacher’s essential task is to present a learning environment that has defined structure, clear expectations and supportive relationships. These conditions must be in place before meaningful school work can be achieved.