At the beginning of each year, I meet with my daughter’s teachers to discuss with them how to best interact with my daughter in the classroom. My daughter experienced a trauma at the age of five and has post-traumatic stress disorder as a result. Without this meeting, the teachers might simply interpret her behavior as that of a child who is oppositional-defiant. It’s important to me that they see my daughter as a child who is responding from a state of dysregulation. I use certain talking points to convey the message that my daughter is a wonderful girl who is simply struggling to deal with the trauma she experienced.
Children of Trauma
The brain and body are connected. Trauma impacts the body-mind system. Stress is an internal reaction to an external event. When a child gets stressed, they regress to self-preservation mode. The child is in a state of dysregulation. In the state of dysregulation, there are two responses:
- Hypoarousal – Defiant (doesn’t appear to care)
- Hyperarousal – Aggressive behavior
Stress causes the regulatory system to become very sensitively conditioned to perceived threats. Perceived threats become stress-producing events, which lead the regulatory system into a state of dysregulation. Children who experience prolonged dysregulation become psychologically and physiologically sensitive to stress. When threatened, the child’s immediate response will be to protect herself from potential threat. This response is irrational, but this is, nonetheless, the child’s perception of reality.
Trauma and Memory
There are four levels of Memory:
- Cognitive – easiest to access (recall of facts, directions, names, people.)
- Emotional – recall of happiness when you remember a friend.
- Motor – (knowing how to write, walk, talk, eat, run.) There is very little conscious thought of motor memory on a daily basis.
- State (Brainstem) – most difficult to access. It is believed that trauma is stored at the state level. During times of activation (stress), this level of functioning determines all of the other levels of memory. The ability to think rationally is not a reality for a child in a state of stress.
1 – Look at behavior as a form of communication.
- Saying shut up to another student
- Putting wrong answers on the entire test
- Talking too much
- Using bad language
- Hitting another student
- Refusing to comply with a teacher’s request
- Tearing up a paper
When my daughter communicates in this manner, she is letting you know that she has exceeded her level of tolerance and is in need of some help in regulating. Even when she appears physically calm, it may take more time for her to calm down emotionally. If she appears to show no emotion or remorse after an incident, she needs to be given more time to calm down. It can take several hours for her to completely regulate depending upon the severity of the incident.
2 – Children don’t act out for attention; they act out because they need attention.
3 – When you stress, you regress to your developmental zone of comfort. That zone of comfort will pre-date the trauma date.
When a child is stressed, it isn’t that she won’t respond appropriately but that she can’t respond. She is not in a regulated state. The state level of memory overrides the child’s cognitive, emotional, and motor memories. The child is not capable of rational thought.
There are three levels of maturity:
- Cognitive Maturity
- Chronological Maturity
- Emotional Maturity
During a time of stress, huge discrepancies occur between these three levels of maturity. Children of trauma lose their ability to reason. My child may be 11 years old cognitively, but emotionally and chronologically, she may act like a 5-year-old. She needs to be addressed at her developmental comfort zone. I’m asking you to see my child, not as a defiant child choosing to misbehave, but as a child who is terrified at the moment. She is not intentionally taking control. She is in survival mode and perceives she will die if she relinquishes control. The flight, fright, fight mode is triggered.
- Hippocampus – logical part of brain
- Amygdala – part of the brain where fear is stored
The amygdala is hijacked during high stress, and the logical part of the brain cannot be accessed. In times of high stress, thinking becomes confused and distorted, the short-term memory becomes suppressed, and a child is unable to think clearly and learn effectively.
4. It isn’t about you.
Although it may seem that your child is attacking you and is in control of her behavior, remember that she is in self-preservation mode. She isn’t thinking rationally. Rather, she is defending her life. It’s hard for you as the target of the defiance to not take it personally. When you can stay regulated yourself and not take what she is saying personally, she will also be able to calm down.
Strategies that Work
- Preferred seating
- Greeting her at the beginning of class in order to determine my daughter’s emotional state. Address her at her current level. She is always in a vigilant mode ready to defend herself. It’s as if she has a lit firecracker in her stomach at all times. She can regulate her behavior between a 1 and possibly a 4, but when she reaches a 5, it may take only one incident to send her to a 10. When she enters your classroom, she may be at 5 because of what happened in previous classrooms. If you take the time to greet her, you may be able to tell that she is in a state of dysregulation. If she doesn’t make eye contact with you, for example, she is probably in a state of dysregulation.
- Enhance structure – Any change in routine causes high stress in a child of trauma. Informing her early of a change in routine allows her time to adapt. If there is a substitute, there is almost a guarantee that she will have a bad day.
- Time-In – Rather than practice time-out with a child who isn’t behaving appropriately, practice time-in with that child. Spending time with the child helps the teacher connect in a positive manner, which, in turn, builds a stronger relationship. That stronger relationship helps to create a safe environment for the child. When she has exceeded her window of tolerance, she needs to be with someone to help regulate her. Isolating her and expecting her to self-regulate is not a possibility.
- Allow my daughter to call me.
- Call me about any issue you have. I have dealt with everything under the sun. I can give you guidance and work with her in our home to improve her time at school.
- Give her a gentle friendly touch on the shoulder. As you are lecturing, place your hand on her shoulder when you walk by. Your state of regulation will help her with her state of regulation.
- If she is not regulated and is communicating that through her behavior, give her a pass to leave the class so that she can remove herself from the situation.
Strategies that Don’t Work
- Calling out her name in front of everybody causes shame, which triggers a stress response in her.
- Yelling at her.
- Belittling her in front of other classmates.
- Removing her from the classroom.
- Getting in a power struggle with her. Remember that she is fighting to survive. You won’t win when the person you are attempting to control is in self-preservation mode.
- Trying to reason with her when she is not regulated. She is incapable of rational thought.
I hope you can use these points to help your child as much as they helped my daughter. You must be persistent with the school and stay committed to the reality that your daughter is not acting out “on purpose.” If possible, get the school personnel to watch Working with the Difficult Child in the Classroom 2 DVD Set available through the Post Institute – click here.