Have you ever had a student who verbally beats himself up?
How about the student who has a hopeless or pessimistic view of self?
Or the student who lacks the ability to hold their focus in class?
These are all examples of a potential trauma response.
When most people think about trauma, they think of life-threatening situations such as abuse, natural disasters, or auto accidents.
Allow me to broaden your perspective on trauma. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration:
“[i]ndividual trauma results from an event, series of events, or set of circumstances that is experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or life threatening and that has lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and mental, physical, social, emotional or spiritual well-being.”
Trauma is all about the perception of the person speaking about it. Two people can experience the same exact thing; one might have chronic PTSD and the other might move on right away.
There are many factors that can account for these differences, but the one that I am most focused on in this article is the age that the traumatic event happened. What might be traumatic to a 3-year-old might not be traumatic to a 14-year-old. For example, a 3-year-old who wanders off in a store and can’t find his or her parents can experience that event as potentially life-threatening, whereas a 14-year-old will most likely walk around the store until the parents are found.
Trauma is in the eye of the beholder. It is not the event that happened, but the perception of the event that causes a traumatic response. The younger we are, the fewer resources we have to cope with an unexpected event, the more likely we are to develop a trauma response.
How Can Trauma Appear In Our Students?
It can appear in any number of ways as trauma lives in the body. Our ability to regulate our own emotions develops throughout childhood. When a traumatic event happens, it disrupts the natural development of those skills. When we see unwanted behaviors in the classroom, it would be worth asking yourself, “What happened to this child?” rather than, “What’s wrong with this child?”
There is always a motivator under the unwanted behavior.
It’s also important to remember that the motivation, more often than not, is on a subconscious level. It is estimated that our behaviors are driven by our conscious thought only 5% of the time, while 95% of our behaviors are driven by the subconscious.
Some examples of a trauma response:
- Baby Talk
- Clinging to adults
- Angry outbursts
- Difficulty with trust and affection
- Lack of empathy or remorse
- Depression or apathy
Although trauma impacts the development of emotional regulation skills, there are ways to heal from trauma and allow those skills to develop, including the use of Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT).
Supporting “Tommy” With EFT
Tommy was a 10 year-old student of mine. He attended school regularly, but struggled with his academics. It wasn’t for a lack of trying. He gave it his best every day.
One day, his teacher noticed that something was off with Tommy. He was very distracted and fidgety. This behavior was unlike him. His teacher picked up on the difference in his behavior and rather than disciplining him, she asked if I could spend some time with him to offer support.
Within a few minutes of having him in my office, he began to share some details of a recent traumatic event. He was experiencing flashbacks of this painful memory and the reason for his lack of focus in class became very clear. Before I was trained in Emotional Freedom Techniques, which included trauma-informed approaches, I would have left that door open for him to share his painful story. Knowing that simply talking about a traumatic event would reinforce the trauma response was enough for me to recognize that we needed to slow things down.
Permission To Proceed
Before he proceeded with the story any further, I gently stopped him and explained to him that what he was experiencing was a reaction to the big event that took place and that I would like to try an out-of-the-box strategy to see if we could help calm his feelings. I explained the technique a bit further, asked if he had any questions, and asked for his permission to proceed.
We never want to force these techniques on students because their sense of safety must always come first. This is how we begin to empower students: by giving them a choice. Especially when they didn’t have one at the time of the traumatic event.
He agreed to try it.
A Quick Shift in Tommy's Demeanor
After about 20 minutes of applying Tell the Story, I noticed a drastic shift in his demeanor. He was sitting up taller, his facial expression was more relaxed, his body was calmer, and he was speaking at a slower pace. He was ready to return to class.
Later that day, his teacher approached me and said, “I don’t know what you did when you were with Tommy, but he came back all smiles!”
Before And After EFT Training
Prior to my training in EFT, I would have sat with Tommy and allowed him to tell his story. We might have tried some breathing techniques or meditation to calm his body, but adding EFT to my toolbox allowed me to support my student in a truly trauma-informed way, allowing me to support Tommy at a somatic and nervous system level where the trauma gets stuck. It allowed him to return to class and it helped him process part of that trauma so he wasn’t experiencing the flashbacks anymore. I was able to support his healing.
Imagine what the benefit would be for all children if they were supported in this way where significant change can occur in such a short period of time. Not only would children show up differently for themselves, but the ripple effect across the classroom would be phenomenal.
Kathleen Weber is a former School Counselor who now specializes in supporting educators experiencing overwhelm and burnout so they can freely choose to return to the classroom from a centered and compassionate place or find another path that aligns with their higher purpose. She also trains educators to use EFT for self-care and with their students.