The role of trauma in student behavior

We’ve all been there, you’re in the middle of class, things seem to be going well, and then you notice what one student is doing.  Maybe they have completely shut down, maybe they are talking to a neighbor, or maybe they are acting out in some way that draws the attention of other students from the current activity to the student who is misbehaving.  The natural (and often simplest) reaction is to redirect, sign a behavior card, raise our voice, or maybe even submit an office referral.

In my personal opinion, a lot of the time that acting out behavior stems from something that has absolutely nothing to do with you, your class, or the students in your classroom, but from something that we as teachers have no influence over.

A couple days ago, I was at a PBIS (Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports) training with several other members of the PBIS team in my school, as well as some of the other PBIS teams in our district.  We spent a portion of time discussing the role that trauma plays in student behavior and learning.  So, as a working definition, here is how we’re going to define trauma for this post:

Trauma refers to extreme or chronic stress that overwhelms a person’s ability to cope and results in feeling vulnerable, helpless, and afraid.  The event(s) that led to trauma may be witnessed or experienced directly.  Trauma often interferes with relationships, self-regulation, and fundamental beliefs about oneself, others, and one’s place in the world.

the-hurt-that-troubled-children-create-is-never-greater-than-the-hurt-they-feelTrauma can occur from lots of different things – there is simple trauma (serious accident, disaster, one-time physical assault); complex/developmental trauma (witness domestic violence, death of a parent / caretaker, ongoing physical or emotional abuse, ongoing neglect, homelessness, living with family members with untreated mental illness or substance abuse, or having a family member deployed in the military); and finally historical / generational trauma.  Children who have been through traumas like those listed above can have various levels of stress, but those who are living with high levels of stress spend much of their life in the fight, flight, or fright mode.  These children respond to the world as a place of constant fear.

All this stress leads to issues with brain functions and development, and make it very difficult for students to focus on learning.  Oftentimes these students fall behind in school; fail to develop healthy relationships with peers; and/or create problems in classrooms and at school because they are unable to trust adults.

So now that we know a little about where this trauma and stress comes from, we need to examine what it may look like in the classroom.  Let’s first look at the development of the brain.  For typical children, who do not have toxic levels of stress in their lives, they are able to spend very little of their time focused on survival, and as a result are able to spend much more of their time devoted to cognition and social-emotional functions.  For the children who have experienced developmental trauma, the majority of the brain’s attention is focused on survival skills (the fight, flight, or fright reactions), which means there is little time or energy to devote to cognition or the social-emotional functions.

When students have experienced trauma, you may notice some of the following traits:

  • Day dreaming
  • Impaired social & emotional function
  • Difficulty retaining information
  • Labeled as learning disabled
  • Can sit in classroom and not learn
  • Less mature problem solving
  • Use violence as a tool
  • Feel the need to control their environment

These traits can lead to various effects on learning, including the ability to: acquire language & communication skills; understand cause and effect; take another’s perspective; attend to classroom instruction; regulate emotions; engage in the curriculum; and utilize executive function (make plans, organize work, follow classroom rules).

So now we’ve talked a bit about what trauma is, what may have caused trauma in our students, and some of the traits that may happen as a result.  Next week we will look at how our responses can play a role in student behavior, especially those who have experienced some form of trauma in their lives.

In the comments below share your thoughts on this topic.  Have you had experiences working with students who have lived through trauma?  What worked?  What didn’t work?

Engaging & empowering our students

Last week I shared with you some data on student mental health issues, anxiety, and student engagement.  I closed the post with these three points:

  1. Mental health concerns in our students are rising.
  2. Levels of engagement decline as our students grow older.
  3. Even with increased focus on standards, performance on standardized testing has remained stagnant.

So what can we do?  I’m sure that all of you have noticed these patterns in our own classroom, but knowing the pattern is only part of the task of finding a solution.  In last week’s post I shared the work of two college professors.  Going back to their work, I hope to share a couple ways we might be able to help fight anxiety and lack of engagement.

Peter Gray, the psychology professor from Boston college, feels that the key to learning and growth for our students is free play:

Children today are less free than they have ever been.  And that lack of freedom has exacted a dramatic toll.  My hypothesis is that the generational increases in externality, extrinsic goals, anxiety, and depression are all caused largely by decline, over that same period, in opportunities for free play and the increased time given to schooling.

So as a school, what does play look like?  For one it means we have to be sure to value recess/physical activities during the school day.  There is clear research that one of the benefits of physical activity is increased student engagement.  Think about your classroom on an afternoon where we did not have outdoor recess due to weather.  What are the engagement levels like?

Several recent research studies have looked into increased free play time in the school day, and the results suggest that students with regular recess behave better, are physically healthier and exhibit stronger social and emotional development.

Knowing these facts, does that lead you to think about changing what you do when you return to the classroom on a day when we are unable to go outdoors for recess?  Hopefully you can think about finding a way to squeeze in some free play on those days.  If not free play, then a few short brain break activities to get the kids out of their seat and moving.

And what about the days that students already get their recess?  Does that mean we don’t need to look for other opportunities for play?  Many of our teachers have been doing outdoor activities here at school this week.  I’m sure that they would share that the students are loving the activities they’ve been doing – they are active, engaged, and empowered in this learning environment.  My question though: Do we only save activities like this for the end of the school year?  Or do we try to integrate play into our lessons throughout the year?  How can we make use of our outdoor space, our small and large group instruction rooms, or even just the hallway to get the kids up and playing as they are learning?

Next we have the issue of engagement.  For the purpose of this piece, I am defining engagement in school based on the Schlechty’s Center for Engagement definition:

  • The student sees the activity as personally meaningful.
  • The student’s level of interest is sufficiently high that he/she persists in the face of difficulty.
  • The student finds the task sufficiently challenging that she believes she will accomplish something of worth by doing it.
  • The student’s emphasis is on optimum performance and on “getting it right.”

Is it engagement when we work hard to get students into content that we have selected for them?  You may be able to get their attention, but if it’s based on extrinsic goals (like a grade) the motivation may not last.  So here are some ways you might be able to increase motivation in your classroom:

  1. Students are more motivated academically when they have a positive relationship with their teacher.
  2. Choice is a powerful motivator in most educational contexts.
  3. For complex tasks that require creativity and persistence, extrinsic rewards and consequences actually hamper motivation.
  4. To stay motivated to persist at any task, students must believe they can improve in that task.
  5. Students are motivated to learn things that have relevance to their lives.
HSE21 Best Practice Model
HSE21 Best Practice Model

As you spend time thinking about bringing more inquiry into your classroom, as you work to better incorporated the HSE21 Best Practice Model, you will begin to notice increases in your student engagement.  When we provide our students with challenges, with activities that are relevant to their lives, when learning is rigorous and based on inquiry-driven study, when students are able to apply their learning in collaborative ways, when we work to incorporate more of the HSE21 Best Practice Model we will see increases in student engagement.  In fact, if we work towards truly relevant and rigorous study students will not only be engaged, but actually will be empowered to take their learning to levels that we can’t possibly imagine!

As we approach the end of the year, take some time to reflect on things you have tried that have been new.  What activities have led to increased levels of engagement?  What ways have you been able to get a kid truly excited about what they are learning?  Now, think ahead – how can you take the things that have been successful and expand on them for next school year?  Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Anxiety & Engagement

This year at RSI we all read the book The Price of Privilege.  I know from follow up conversations with many of you that we see some of the issues that were described by Dr. Levine.  I don’t want to go through everything that she shared once again, but one of the things that jumps out at me from that book has to do with the level of anxiety in our kids.

Recently I also read a paper written by Jean Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University.  In the study she looks at the mental health of kids just like those you would find in just about any school in the country.

In her paper, Twenge looks at four studies covering 7 million people ranging from teens to young adults in the US.  Among her finding: high school students in the 2010s were twice as likely to see a professional for mental health issues than those in the 1980s; more teens struggled to remember things in 2010-2012 compared to the earlier period; and 73% more reported trouble sleeping compared to their peers in the 1980s.  These so-called “somatic” or “of-the-body” symptoms strongly predict depression (for more on this study, click here)

In fact, the growth in mental health support in the form of services or medication in the 6-18 age group is somewhat shocking:

https://www.theatlas.com/charts/Vko2VfNpe
https://www.theatlas.com/charts/Vko2VfNpe

I think the writing of Peter Gray, a psychologist and professor at Boston College, sums it up this way:

We would like to think of history as progress, but if progress is measured in the mental health and happiness of our young people, then we have been going backward at least since the early 1950s. (to see the whole article, click here)

I know that mental health is something that we have been talking a lot about in our community and our school.  In further reading of the research from both articles, there are differing opinions of the why, but you may notice some similarities.

Twenge has seen a noticeable shift away from internal, or intrinsic goals, which one can control, toward extrinsic ones, which are set by the world and are increasingly unforgiving.  On the other hand, Gray believes kids aren’t learning critical life-coping skills because they never get to play anymore.

We have all had the students who had to have the right clothes, the right phone, the right video game in order to feel as though they could fit in.  We have also seen students who cannot, without adult mediation, play a game at recess that doesn’t end in a fight.

The increase in anxiety and mental health support for our students is one concerning piece, but let’s add to that another issue.  As students grow older, the general trend for all students is towards a lower level of engagement.  In a recent post on the blog Dangerously Irrelevant by Scott Mcleod, the following data from the annual Gallup poll of middle and high school students was shared:

http://dangerouslyirrelevant.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/2015-Gallup-Student-Poll-1.jpg
http://dangerouslyirrelevant.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/2015-Gallup-Student-Poll-1.jpg
http://dangerouslyirrelevant.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/2015-Gallup-Student-Poll-2.jpg
http://dangerouslyirrelevant.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/2015-Gallup-Student-Poll-2.jpg

I’m going to let those charts sink in for a bit, and leave you here with 3 thoughts.  Next week we’ll come back to this topic:

  1. Mental health concerns in our students are rising.
  2. Levels of engagement decline as our students grow older.
  3. Even with increased focus on standards, performance on standardized testing has remained stagnant.

What have you noticed in your classroom?  Is there a connection between anxiety and engagement?  What strategies have you tried to help students feel less anxious or more engaged in your classroom?  Share your thoughts in the comments below.