WHAT KIDS WITH TRAUMA NEED IN SCHOOL:
A heartfelt letter to the teachers, counselors, principals, and other educators working with my child with Complex Developmental Trauma
By Sandi Lerman
Thank you so much for teaching my child.
I appreciate this opportunity to share with you some insight into the challenges that my child has been having in your classroom and as a student in your school.
A few short years ago, I was in your shoes.
You see, I worked as a classroom teacher for over 20 years, so I know you better than you might think.
As a veteran educator, I knew how to use rapport and positive behavior supports to keep my students engaged and on task.
I could develop a sticker chart and incentive program like the best of them, and I knew the school code of conduct and all the various levels of infraction like the back of my hand – all the way up to school suspension, when warranted.
As I gained experience and familiarity with teaching at various grade levels, I developed the ability to stop an unruly 2nd grader or a 6’2” high school senior with a raised eyebrow and as little time off task as possible.
“That’s a warning,” I would say calmly but firmly to the unruly student, knowing that every child in the class was watching me and holding their breath to see if the student would continue to misbehave so that I would move the infraction up to level 2 “Last One Out” or level 3 “Detention”…
When kids did not follow my posted classroom rules…
I wrote their names on my whiteboard (or chalkboard, back in the early years).
I moved their clips up and down on colored charts that everyone in the class could see.
I called their parents.
I used my authority to control, reward, and consequence my students into compliance.
And I wasn’t afraid to call a resource officer to my room on the rare occasion that a student was being so disruptive that the rest of the class was unable to move forward with my carefully prepared lessons.
For the most part, I had a well-behaved class. Things were smooth and efficient. I was a pro.
Or so I thought.
Now I shudder when I think back on the mistakes that I made and the damage that I did to many of the students in my classes using this behaviorist approach to discipline and control in my classroom.
You see, it wasn’t until I decided to adopt a child and brought a 10-year-old with Complex Developmental Trauma into my home that I found out the truth.
When it comes to teaching kids with trauma and high ACE scores, I was a failure.
Most teachers, including me before I adopted, know absolutely NOTHING about trauma and how it affects the way children learn and behave.
Principals, counselors, and other school administrators who know about trauma are also rare.
The little bit that we may already know as seasoned educators is often outdated, as there is new brain research coming out that has changed the way we look at the stress response and how much our kids can or cannot control their choices when it comes to behaviors.
And we also know now that approximately 40% (or more) of the children in every classroom have been affected by ACES – Adverse Childhood Experiences – such as abuse, neglect, and traumatizing experiences that have changed the way their brains and bodies process and respond to information and stimuli.
So when I come to meetings, you may have noticed that I am often reluctant to listen to you and your well-intentioned advice on how to get my child to behave and comply with the rules of your school and your classroom.
You may also not understand why my child is absent so often. You may think I just need to do something a little more forceful to get him out of bed and on the bus. You may think that he is just being lazy or defiant and needs me to be firm, set stronger limits, or implement some consequences for his inability to be normal and just come to school.
You think this will solve the problem. Just punish him, and he will learn to behave.
Sometimes I privately laugh at all your suggestions that you think will be a quick fix to a developmental brain change in my child. When I’m tired from parenting a severely traumatized child and feeling especially frustrated, I will get defensive and try to explain how utterly useless your traditional parenting and classroom management advice is. I know that the majority of your best ideas on shaping behavior simply WILL NOT WORK for a child with trauma like mine.
This might make you think that I’m being unreasonable. Or that I’m just “one of those” parents.
And maybe I am.
Nevertheless, I would like to make an attempt to help you understand why I often don’t trust your advice about my child, so that you don’t take it so personally.
It’s not because I don’t believe you are professionals who care about kids and know what you are doing.
It’s because I know from experience that I, too, was a professional who cared deeply about kids and THOUGHT I knew what I was doing…but I didn’t know enough.
And on some subjects, like Complex Developmental Trauma, I knew nothing at all.
What I didn’t know caused some of my students to suffer and give up – on themselves, and on the systems that were supposed to be there to support them.
As Maya Angelou so wisely said, “When we know better, we do better.”
Here is what I know now:
Kids with trauma like my kid are just trying to SURVIVE.
Because his brain has been changed by trauma, my child is living most of his life below the lowest level of Maslow’s hierarchy.
Feeling that his very life may depend on it, he seeks to control every situation, and his nervous systems is in a constant state of fight-flight-freeze, ready for a tiger to pounce at any moment. Getting him to learn or comply with ANY directive is impossible until he can FEEL SAFE and get his body and brain calm and regulated – both in my home and in your classroom.
When you write his name on the board, call him out on behaviors to shame him in front of his peers, yell at him, and give him expectations that he is not ready for emotionally or academically, he will feel intense levels of fear. That fear will build up all day until you see negative behaviors at school OR I see negative behaviors at home the moment he gets off the bus and walks into our home.
There are days that he is TERRIFIED to come to school. So punishing him is not the solution. There is a better way.
Kids with trauma like my kid need RELATIONSHIPS BUILT ON TRUST.
My child can sense immediately whether you like him or not. He is hyper-sensitive to criticism and believes that he is unworthy of belonging. If you don’t like him or don’t trust him, he will live up to that expectation, and if doesn’t trust YOU, he will act out in many maladaptive ways.
On the other hand, if you take the time out to get to know him as an individual, you will find that he is an amazing, sweet, and talented child with a lot of wonderful qualities. He needs role models and trusted adults like you to come alongside him to build up his feelings of self efficacy and trust.
He wants to be part of a team, and he needs good leaders to show him the way. He needs you to see the GOOD in him, and build on that.
Kids with trauma like my kid need you to TEACH EMOTIONAL AND SOCIAL SKILLS.
If he has a hard time with transitions, low frustration tolerance, or gives up too easily, please don’t blame or shame him. His sensory system is often on overload, and he’s not doing it on purpose. If he seems too loud, too bossy, or gets angry and explosive at times, please don’t rush to scold or punish him.
He needs you to TEACH him how to deal with situations that are too much for him to handle right now, instead of expecting him just to behave appropriately at all times. He will do the best he can, when he CAN. If he’s not doing well, it’s because he CAN’T.
He needs you to be patient and have faith as he grows in all of these skills, because right now he feels like he is never going to be the “good kid” he knows that we all want him to be.
I can teach him the skills he needs to live in a family. I need YOU to teach him the skills he needs to be successful in a school environment.
Kids with trauma like my kid need your PATIENCE AND FLEXIBLE EXPECTATIONS.
He might not be able to complete his homework tonight because we might have just gone through a 3-hour meltdown over what I served him for dinner that triggered a trauma memory from his foster home.
He might be able to do a math problem in your classroom today but completely forget how to do it tomorrow because of a panic attack about a bully on the playground.
He might not be able to do a “family tree” project because he never met his birth father and doesn’t have any baby pictures.
I’m not making up excuses for him. There are times that he is so anxious that he is curled up in a ball or screaming. I need you to know that it is so much harder for HIM just to get through the day than anyone can possibly imagine.
Don’t let the smiles and angel-like behavior fool you. He is absolutely terrified of failure and rejection, and he’s exhausted from trying to live up to everyone’s expectations. He has good days and not-so-good days.
Please be kind and show flexibility to allow for this while he is still healing from trauma.
Kids with trauma like my kid need you to STOP USING STICKER CHARTS, BEHAVIOR CHARTS, REWARDS AND CONSEQUENCES.
This is a big one, and I know you probably already have a beautiful laminated chart ready to hang up on your wall with your classroom rules, rewards, and consequences…or a stoplight color system… or something else based on a behaviorist approach to incentivizing good behavior.
I need to ask you to consider throwing out all of these punitive systems and instead be open to implementing a trauma-informed discipline plan for your classroom that uses relationship and communication as the currency instead of token reward systems and punishments for “crimes” my child can’t control because they are stress responses in his autonomic nervous system.
It’s not that he WON’T behave or doesn’t have the motivation to do what you want him to do… it’s that he CAN’T behave when his nervous system is dysregulated. Even your non-traumatized students will benefit from an overhaul of this outdated methodology that has been proven ineffective by current research.
Kids with trauma like my kid need you to HELP HIM SOLVE PROBLEMS INSTEAD OF GIVING REWARDS AND CONSEQUENCES FOR BEHAVIORS.
Despite what you learned in teacher college and the fact that 99% of all school discipline systems are based on rewards and consequences, current research support relationship-based models based on solving problems collaboratively rather than resorting to punitive, rule-based systems.
It’s a school, not a prison.
My child needs to learn how to solve problems effectively, not just comply with people because they are in authority over him. Give him the tools he needs to develop self-control and problem-solving skills.
Kids with trauma like my kid need you to understand that EMOTIONAL AGE DOES NOT ALWAYS EQUAL CHRONOLOGICAL AGE.
From day to day and from hour to hour, my child fluctuates in his ability to cope with the demands placed on him. Because of early childhood trauma, he sometimes regresses to earlier emotional ages – which could be anywhere from infancy up to his current chronological age.
When my child is acting like a toddler in a meltdown, it’s most likely because he didn’t get what he needed to move through that developmental age appropriately, NOT because he “doesn’t know how to act his age.”
So he needs you to be patient and compassionate when those early traumas are triggered in your classroom. Help him to feel accepted and supported so that he can move through these episodes without feeling embarrassed or shamed
Kids with trauma like my kid need BREAKS AND A VARIETY OF INTERESTING ACTIVITIES.
If your classroom environment requires long, intense periods of sitting still, concentrating, and paying attention to your lessons and instructions, my child is going to have a hard time. It would be much better for you to offer a variety of activities that are interesting and engaging, and also allow for natural breaks in between activities where my child can stretch his body, talk to his friends without getting in trouble, and take a break from concentrating so hard.
My child has a low window of tolerance for frustration, and his mind is full of anxiety and fear. Forcing him to sit still for long periods of time might cause his anxiety to increase, and this might cause some behaviors that will be disruptive.
Help him stay on task by making the task challenging but not so challenging that he is exasperated and exhausted. If he needs a break, please allow him to take one. And make sure he has safe places and people to go to when he is feeling especially anxious.
Kids with trauma like my kid need you to COMMUNICATE WITH ME, THE PARENT, OFTEN AND WITH AN OPEN MIND.
I need you to listen to me and believe what I am telling you, even if it seems strange.
My child might seem like a perfect angel to you at school, but this is a mask for the intense anxiety that he is really feeling. He holds it all in at school and then everything hits the fan at home. Or he tells lies to cover up what is really going on because of his intense fear of rejection.
This is not my fault. It has nothing to do with my parenting. It is because his window of tolerance is limited, and he can only handle so much stress.
All that stress and anxiety has to go somewhere, and it usually comes home – where I get to see explosive and aggressive behaviors that would cause immediate expulsion from school.
I can’t expel my child from my family, nor would I want to. He is trying to survive, and I know this.
I will never give up on him. But he and I need you to believe me and not blame me.
I need you to be open to learning something new and not assuming you’ve seen it all.
This was new to me when I brought my child home, even after teaching for over 20 years.
Kids with trauma like my kid need you to HAVE HOPE AND OPTIMISM.
My child needs you to believe that he will improve and progress over time with support.
He feels unworthy of love and completely inadequate when it comes to doing well at most things in life, especially academics.
Show him that you care about him and that you notice his effort, even if it’s not much right now.
Don’t give up on him.
Give him the tools, strategies, modifications, and accommodations he needs to succeed. Make this the best school year he has ever had. Make a difference in his life, and be the change we need in this world.
Here’s the bottom line…
I want you to pay attention to this next point, even if you think I’m just being an overprotective helicopter mom shielding her child from the harsh realities of life (yeah, I know what you talk about in the teacher work room – I used to work there, too, remember?).
My child was adopted and grew up in an orphanage where he was neglected and didn’t get the nurturing and support he needed in the loving arms of a family, so his trauma is obvious.
But remember that statistic about 40% of the kids in your classroom dealing with ACES?
This means that approximately 4 out of every 10 kids in your classroom has some level of trauma that affects their ability to feel safe and learn in your classroom.
The reality is that there are MANY kids with trauma like my kid in your classroom and school right now, whether you are aware of it or not. Not all of them will tell you what’s going on, and you may or may not be communicating with their parents on a regular basis. Just because it’s not as obvious as my child’s situation, those children who come from early traumatic experiences and who may STILL be dealing with traumatic experiences need you to come alongside them an provide trauma-informed support more than you know.
When it comes to behavior and the way we treat out children, things need to change.
Behavior is communication. Our kids are communicating through their behavior that they are ANXIOUS and very SCARED. What we’ve been doing isn’t working at all for many of them.
Teachers like you and parents like me need to step up and stop using rewards, consequences, and outdated behaviorist methods to control their classrooms and homes. Instead, we need to educate ourselves and hold ourselves to a higher standard that is both trauma-informed and effective.
As a society and as an educational system, we are sending kids with trauma the message that they are not worthy of our care and concern.
Kids with trauma drop out of school in high numbers, and even if they DO graduate, they are at a much higher risk of having more challenges in life than they would without traumatic early childhood experiences.
I believe that early childhood trauma is the root of most of our society’s problems.
Some children are resilient and make it, but many do not. Consider the high incidence of childhood trauma in our inmate population. You and I can make a tremendous difference in what happens to each of these kids we have in our care today. We just need to open our hearts to a different way.
As Josh Shipp, a former foster youth who is now a successful business owner and motivational speaker says, “Every kid is one caring adult away from being a success story.”
YOU can be that adult.
Thank you so much for choosing to work in the field of education. You have a tough job, but as you know, the rewards of seeing progress in children make the challenges worth it.
We parents also have a tough job, and we want to work WITH you, not against you, to succeed in the challenging task of raising well-educated, happy, and responsible young people.
We are counting on you to make school a safe and welcoming place for our children.
Kids with trauma like mine are counting on you, too.
P.S. If you are a teacher or other educator and would like to learn more about compassionate, connected techniques you can implement in your classroom and school, feel free to join our Facebook group Teaching With Connection.