School Strategies for Students Experiencing PTSD or Trauma

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When it comes to children in the classroom who have been traumatized or who have PTSD, something as simple as a teacher raising their voice to get everyone's attention can trigger a negative response from the student. The child may begin acting out or be disruptive. This happens because the teacher raising their voice reminds him in some way of the traumatic event and causes a fight or flight reaction in the child's body.

If this fight or flight reaction happens over and over, the student can become more easily triggered and in the end, seems to exhibit behavior that appears crazy or rude at times. What's more, this behavior makes absolutely no sense to the teacher because they are unaware of the root cause - the student's trauma or PTSD.

For this reason, it becomes increasingly important for teachers to be able to recognize when a child might have been traumatized or have PTSD. By doing so, they will be able to address the student's odd and disruptive behaviors in a kind and compassionate way.

Helping a student with PTSD
 Verywell / JR Bee

What Causes Trauma and PTSD in Kid's Lives?

When we think of the PTSD and trauma that kids experience, our minds may automatically go to large scale experiences like school shootings and gang violence. But kids can experience trauma and develop PTSD from just about anything that is frightening or leaves them feeling scared and unsure.

For instance, it is not uncommon for kids to experience trauma when they witness abuse at home, are neglected by their parents, experience homelessness, witness violence in their neighborhoods or schools, are food insecure, or are abused or bullied by their peers. Even being in a car accident or going through a significant illness can cause trauma symptoms or PTSD.

For this reason, it is very important for educators and administrators to understand how trauma and PTSD can impact students, especially because it has been shown to impact learning.

Understanding PTSD and Trauma

For educators, trauma and PTSD can be particularly challenging to address because kids often do not express the distress they are feeling in a way that is easy to recognize. Instead, they mask their pain and their fear with behaviors that are often aggressive or challenging. In fact, they are masters of making sure no one can see their pain.

But when teachers and administrators are able to identify the symptoms of trauma and PTSD, they are better able to understand a traumatized student's behaviors because they know what is causing them to behave in disruptive ways. This understanding also can help avoid misdiagnosing kids with other conditions that have symptoms, such as ADHD.

Kids with PTSD and trauma typically struggle in a number of areas. For instance they:

  • Have trouble forming relationships with teachers
  • Have poor self-regulation
  • Struggle with executive functions
  • Engage in negative thinking
  • Are hypervigilant

Here is a closer look at each of the most common symptoms kids with PTSD and trauma exhibit, and how teachers can help address these issues in the classroom setting.

Difficulty Forming Relationships

Forming relationships with teachers is often the first step in a successful classroom experience for kids. But kids who have been neglected or abused have trouble forming bonds with other people due to their lack of trust. Because the people they have counted on usually betrayed them in some way, they have learned not to trust others.

What's more, they generally do not ask for help in class because they are not used to people helping them when they truly need it. As a result, they will often struggle in the classroom and still not ask for assistance. One way teachers can support kids in this area is to be reliable and trustworthy. It also helps to offer assistance when they need help rather than waiting on them to ask for it.

Poor Self-Regulation

When it comes to strong emotions, traumatized kids have a hard time managing their feelings. In the classroom, teachers can support these kids in ways to help calm themselves and manage their emotions. Remember, that co-regulation comes before self-regulation. As a result, it is important to coach them in how to de-escalate when they are feeling overwhelmed and stressed.

Challenges with Executive Function

When kids experience trauma, this affects their memory as well as their attention span. Additionally, they struggle with planning, thinking things through, and other similar executive functions. Aside from the obvious areas where they need assistance like learning to focus and improving memory, kids also need help planning. Not only does this inability to plan effectively impact their schoolwork, but it also impacts their behavior too because they are unable to plan how to communicate their needs and feelings.

Teachers can help cultivate this planning skill be helping students predict the future in the classroom. Not knowing what is coming next is unsettling for these kids and can create a lot of anxiety and acting out. But, if the teacher is clear about what happens next, this gives the student a sense of comfort and control over his environment because it has become more predictable. Traumatized kids also need help talking themselves through difficult or challenging situations. So, this is an area where teachers can model this skill for them.

Negative Thinking

Kids who have been traumatized or have PTSD often have the false belief that those bad things happened to them because they are inherently bad or defective in some way. This type of thinking creates an expectation that people are never to like them or treat them well. They may even go so far as to believe that everyone is out to get them.

Another area where these kids struggle is with classroom participation. They are paralyzed by fear of making a mistake. As a result, they can come across as defiant or oppositional when they refuse to participate. But this lack of participation is motivated by a fear of failure and not a desire to get under the teacher's skin or to be difficult.

The best thing teachers can do is to regularly speak into these students' lives about what is good or special about them. Additionally, with an understanding of what is motivating them to refuse to participate in class projects or discussions, teachers can address the root cause of their behavior which is the fear of failing and encourage them along the way rather than reacting with discipline immediately.

Need to Be Hyper-Vigilant

When a child has been traumatized in some way, they tend to be overtly aware of danger and especially jumpy. As a result, they often have an exaggerated startle response. What's more, being chronically agitated can lead these kids to appear hyperactive and irritable.

When kids are escalating in the classroom due to this exaggerated fight or flight response, it is best if the teacher tries to connect with how they are feeling and help them name their feelings. Disciplining the student without really understanding the root cause of the behavior does nothing to change the situation.

Tips for Managing Traumatized Kids in the Classroom

When it comes to managing traumatized kids in the classroom, educators must be willing to take a step back and consider for a moment what might be at the root of bad behavior rather than just immediately moving into discipline mode. Here are some ways in which teachers can manage students who have experienced trauma or have PTSD.

Change Your Perspective

When a student acts up in your classroom, stop and think for a moment about what might be causing the behavior.

Instead of seeing a bad kid or mean and defiant student, look at the student through a different lens. It's actually highly likely that the student that is acting out is not truly a mean kid but is instead a scared kid. And, his actions are most likely rooted in the fact that he was exposed to traumatic events beyond his control.

When you understand that something deeper is causing the bad behavior, you are much more empowered to address the situation in an empathetic way. As a result, it is very important to remind yourself that traumatized kids are not trying to push your buttons.

Find Alternatives to Traditional Discipline

One of the challenges traumatized kids face in school is the fact that when they misbehave, most schools immediately enact some sort of discipline that ultimately withdraws attention such as suspension. Instead of suspending kids, schools should focus on helping them change their behaviors.

This begins with teachers recognizing that there are some powerful feelings such as fear and anxiety that are leading kids to act out. When teachers instead acknowledge the emotions a student is feeling and tries to identify it (even if they are wrong), this is more effective than simply withdrawing privileges or writing them up.

Focus on Positive Attention

Finally, in addition to connecting with kids that have been traumatized, it is important to give them as much positive attention as possible. Keep in mind that kids who have been traumatized tend to get attention by acting out because it is fast and efficient.

But, if positive attention is just as fast and efficient, it may be useful in changing behavior and helping the student cope more effectively. One example of positive attention includes expressing warmth and kindness that is not necessarily earned. Remember, kids who have been traumatized need to know that they are good at something and that they can influence the world. Remind them of these facts on a regular basis.

Be Predictable

Keep in mind, kids who have through some sort of trauma often worry about what is going to happen next. As a result, a daily routine in the classroom can provide the kind of structure and predictability that a traumatized child needs. Some teachers have found that visual cues in the classroom are especially helpful because a student can see the order for the day for the classroom activities.

Ask How You Can Help

It is OK to ask your student what you can do to help. Acknowledge that you see them struggling and that you want to help them succeed. Also, keep in mind that you do not need to know what has traumatized them in order to be helpful and supportive. As a result, focus on what you can do to help them rather than trying to get details about what they have experienced and how it has impacted them. You can still respond with flexibility and empathy without knowing the details about what the student has been through.

Remain Neutral and Not Judgmental

If your student does share what he has experienced, try not to be judgmental. It is especially harmful to develop a belief that what he experienced is not that bad. Remember, it is not what you think about the situation that matters, but instead how the child feels that matters. Likely, the situation he experienced made him feel vulnerable, scared and out of control. Remind yourself that it's the child's perception that really matters. What's more, many kids will minimize what they went through due to embarrassment and fear of what will happen if someone knows the truth.

Take Care of Yourself

It should go without saying that you should take care of yourself. But when you have a student with a challenging situation in your classroom, it can get draining and overwhelming. Be sure that you are taking time to care for yourself. This might include something as simple as a bubble at the end of the week or massage over the weekend. Whatever you need to feel rejuvenated and inspired enough to face another day of working with your traumatized student is what you need to do. The last thing your student needs is for you to be burnt out and irritable just when he was beginning to rely on you.

A Word from Verywell

Remember that just because a child has been traumatized or suffers from PTSD, this does not seal his or her fate in being a problem child. In fact, there are a number of things that teachers and other caring adults can do to not all help them overcome the effects of trauma, but also flourish rather than struggle. All it takes is a little patience and understanding and the rest will fall into place.

By Sherri Gordon
Sherri Gordon, CLC is a published author, certified professional life coach, and bullying prevention expert.