“He seems lazy. He can’t motivate himself to do his work or remember anything.”
“She has angry outbursts in class and screams at teachers and students.”
“She always seems to have a stomach ache.”
Trauma and toxic stress exposure can wreak havoc in the classroom.
Most of us think of trauma as a scary or upsetting singular event. But many children experience trauma through exposure to ongoing hardships- many of which are everyday occurrences for children in the United States and Israel/ Palestine, such as domestic violence, a mentally ill parent, communal or police brutality, and the stress of discrimination or acculturation.
This chronic trauma, which medical professionals refer to as Adverse Childhood Experiences or ACEs, can cause serious problems with learning and behavior and be misdiagnosed or simply labeled as troublemaking. The truth is traditional classrooms are a poor fit for ACE-exposed children, who have a significantly increased likelihood of dropping out of high school or being arrested by age 18.
Suppose the CDC is correct and 61% of U.S. adults experienced at least one ACE growing up. In that case, a critical mass of students may be ill-suited for traditional classrooms, making an issue with sweeping implications.
Fortunately, schools can be a transformative place for ACE-affected children. Trauma-informed classrooms can be a neutral starting point for repairing and empowering children to become healthy adults. The critical question is how to best frame the educational experience to achieve these important outcomes.
ACE-Exposed Children in the Traditional Classroom
“He is smart, but he can’t motivate to focus.”
Most traditional classrooms require prolonged sitting at a desk and memorization and provide little help forming a secure attachment to teachers or other adults. But chronic trauma affects children’s executive brain function and directs their ability to pay attention, plan, think things through, and perform other executive functions. In an academic setting, this can look like:
- Memory Problems- ACE-exposed children struggle to remember lessons. This is because trauma can disrupt the development of the brain’s lower part, allowing humans to remember information. When this system is damaged, trauma-affected children have an exceptionally more difficult time internalizing new information presented in the classroom.
- Inability to Express Themselves- ACE-exposed children struggle to articulate ideas and information. This is because ACE exposure impacts a child’s left brain hemisphere, which governs language production.
- Challenges Following Directions- ACE-exposed children also have difficulties understanding logic and sequencing tasks, impacting their ability to follow directions or understand critical subjects such as math or science. These children might be labeled as ‘problem students’ because of their limited attention spans or disruptive outbursts in class., This perception of trauma-affected children within the classroom might make them appear hostile or oppositional, belying their vulnerability.
- Poor Attention and Easy Distractibility- Some behavioral issues that trauma-affected children might exhibit are often caused by elevated stress hormones. While non-trauma-affected children experience a usual ebb and flow of stress hormones which dissipate at certain times of day, trauma-affected children experience consistently elevated levels of stress hormones throughout the day, which causes challenges in inattention span and concentration.
“Her anger is explosive and unpredictable.”
ACE-affected children don’t express their distress in an easily recognizable way — and they may mask their pain with aggressive or off-putting behavior. This makes it hard for teachers to identify behaviors caused by ACE exposure. Below are some hallmark signs that a child is coping with trauma and toxic stress:
- Trouble forming relationships with teachers- Wary of adults, children who have experienced trauma and toxic issues have problems developing relationships with teachers, a necessary first step in a successful classroom experience.
- Poor self-regulation- ACE-exposed children often have trouble managing strong emotions. As babies and toddlers, children learn to calm and soothe themselves by being calmed and soothed by adults. If adults have also been trauma-affected and unable to provide a soothing, secure attachment system, ACE-exposed children may experience chronic dysregulation.
- Negative thinking- Another challenge to ACE-exposed kids is that they believe they’re wrong and what’s happened to them is their fault. This leads to the expectation that people will not like or treat them well.
- Hypervigilance- One of the classic symptoms of trauma is hyper-vigilance, which means being overly alert to danger. Being chronically agitated can lead to difficulty with sleeping and chronic irritability.
Identifying the ACE symptoms in children can help educators understand these confusing behaviors.
An Education That Heals
Teachers must examine the classroom context in which a child’s misbehavior unfolds. When we place the onus solely on the ACE-exposed child to change their behavior, we are putting children in an untenable position of trying to adapt their behavior to a model that is not suited to their reality, prompting an additional stress response. Not only does this set trauma-affected children in opposition to the school, but it also can affect how they view their intelligence and self-worth.
While the classroom may cause specific symptoms of trauma to come to light, the academic setting can also provide an opportunity to support a child with ACE symptoms before they calcify and causes lifelong harm.