UW expert: Kids bring their traumas to school

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MADISON - Children who have experienced trauma face obstacles to learning that can pose deep challenges in the classroom.

And students who have undergone a variety of traumatic events in their lives - poverty, various forms of abuse, homelessness or parents with addictions - do not respond well to traditional forms of discipline.

Students in trauma instead need mental health support and trauma-informed classrooms, according to Travis Wright, a University of Wisconsin-Madison Assistant Professor of Counseling Psychology and nationally recognized expert in resilience and emotionally responsive teaching.

Many times, Wright said, adults can underestimate the impact of difficult life events on children since adults have more complex and advanced coping skills. When children feel overwhelmed and helpless, their brains tend to shut down and they stop thinking, planning and goal setting. As stress hormones are released, they focus on survival - exhibited by fight, flee or freeze behaviors.

"It can be impossible for a child in trauma to learn as their bodies are actually working against it," he said.

The responses from children who are living in traumatic situations can prove disruptive for school environments. Such children can be triggered into acting out by a wide range of stimuli. It could be the sound of a book dropping or a light flicking off or a teacher verbally trying to exert control over them in a classroom setting. Some children may flee or disassociate. Others may lash out verbally or even physically.

Some of the more common factors leading to a child experiencing trauma, he said, is a child witnessing domestic violence or a parent having an overdose.

"Children are dependent upon the adults in their lives," Wright said. "When adults can't keep themselves safe or are scared, it makes children worry about their ability to survive."

Children also may experience trauma from being bullied or abused, and ongoing fears of it repeating.

"It's the 'living in fear' part that leads children to develop traumatic symptoms," he said.

Some children have episodic trauma, stemming from a particularly stressful incident. However, increasing numbers of children are undergoing combination trauma - a mix of stressors such as chronic poverty, instability due to homelessness and/or having parents with addictions or who are incarcerated.

"When children who are chronically deprived witness something terrible happen, it compounds their hopelessness, despair and terror," Wright said.

Children in trauma often run into power struggles with teachers in the classroom. The symptoms of trauma can be perceived by teachers as behavior problems and teachers may resort to behavior management strategies. Although traditional behavioral strategies, such as rewards and consequences, can be effective for many children, it usually will not work with those in trauma.

Kids in trauma are especially sensitive to people they perceive as trying to exercise power and control over them. When a child is having a traumatic episode, they can't process or hear what a teacher is saying and they can't reason through behaviors, Wright said.

The children seem out of control because their bodies' stress response actually is out of control. When a teacher tries to exert more control over a child in trauma the child will feel threatened and the situation likely will escalate, Wright said.

"It's really scary and feels out of control and makes the teachers feel the same way," he said.

When asked what teachers can do to balance the needs of students who are acting out with those in the classroom who want to learn, Wright said the answer is creating trauma-sensitive classrooms. Classrooms promoting positive relationships and respectful language work well for all children.

"The needs of kids in trauma aren't in conflict with the needs of all kids," he said.

Wright said prevention is key when it comes to kids acting out in trauma, as once they are triggered they are already out of control.

Children also need additional support in the form of mental health services and places in the school building where they can feel safe.

Wright said removing kids from the classroom or expelling them may make things worse for traumatized children in the long run.

"Children who experience trauma, with the exception of the freak accident or fantastic circumstance, are usually growing up in challenging circumstances. When expelled they are spending more time in the circumstance that traumatized them," he said.

Wright said expulsion also creates fear and insecurities for a child who will fear how to fend for him or her self and perhaps act out more. Wright said many of the children who get expelled are non-whites and are living in poverty or areas with high crime rates, reinforcing the idea it is OK to exclude people already marginalized in society.

"When schools reinforce that message, it makes it harder for children to heal. Expelling a child who has been forced to experience something terrifying reinforces the idea that the world won't be safe and that the child's needs don't matter," he said.

Kids who experience trauma need safe and predictable environments, with a respectful climate and caring relationships, he said.

"Teachers, parents and community members have to be advocates for children in trauma," Wright said.

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