Recently I was reminded of how what look like minor events to adults have the potential to cause a considerable traumatic stress response in sensitive students. The latest quagmire: a grade three student referred to me because of sheer terror of returning to school, paralyzed by an event that for most of us might seem inconsequential—performing in the school Christmas assembly. The school, and the student’s mother, confused about this radical shift in her daughter’s behaviour, referred her to counseling. Thankfully I had been introduced to a similar phenomenon early in my school-counseling career: an honour roll student, who went from being one of the strongest speakers in her grade six class to being unable to perform even the simplest activity in front of the class. Her teacher was perplexed; here was a student with no previous difficulty with school, a star pupil who was now paralyzed with fear, incapable of uttering a sound in the presence of her classmates. Attempts were made to help the student: regular speech therapy, anti-anxiety medication, a modified school routine. Doing activities in front of the class was dropped while the school raced to find some type of solution. During our initial meeting, the student expressed being perplexed and feeling defeated; despite on-going speech therapy and religious adherence to her medication, she was acutely aware that her body hijacked her every attempt to speak in front of the class. I was curious to know what great event, or series of events caused such a devastating effect. She told me, somewhat sheepishly, that the previous year while delivering a speech in the classroom she stuttered slightly, every so slightly, barely noticeable by her own account, which led to a few thoughtless students snickering. The result for this student—complete and utter embarrassment. She wanted to run away, hide, never set foot in that class again, but couldn’t; she was stuck in place, her body frozen with fear.
Zoom forward three years, and into my office walks this grade three student paralyzed by the same fearful response I had observed in the grade six student. Christmas concerts are not meant to create traumatic responses in kids; quite the opposite, they are meant to be a special and memorable event. Unfortunately, this Christmas concert would be memorable for all the wrong reasons for this student. Like her classmates, she’d been faithfully practising her lines and songs and was excited about performing for friends and family. The morning of the Christmas concert something happened and she became scared—really scared. She could not articulate or pinpoint what or exactly when it happened, but sometime that morning she became riddled with fear, and consequently was unable to perform later that day. She also suddenly became afraid of returning to school—really afraid. In fact, her return to school next day resulted in violent illness. Subsequent attempts to return to school caused a myriad of somatic complaints: racing heart, feeling nauseous, dry mouth and phantom headaches. Her body had, like the previous student’s, hijacked her; she was the victim of a traumatic stress response.
Don’t overlook that even small mishaps during a school day can equal major trauma for some students
Trauma is often misunderstood and sensationalized by images and stories in the media. Many of us visualize tsunamis, plane crashes and violent acts against others when we think about trauma, and certainly these things are traumatic. But trauma can also be caused by minor events such as a child falling off a bicycle or getting lost in a mall, according to Peter Levin and Maggie Kline (see references below). They comment that trauma can be caused by any event or situation that stretches a child’s normal “elastic limit” causing them to remain distressed after the event is over. Elastic limit is defined as the child’s normal resiliency; genetic predisposition to stress; and the intensity, duration and speed at which the situation causing stress happens.
How does a teacher recognize that a child’s elastic limit has been stretched too far and is in need of repair? You need to be on the lookout for any unusual or out of character behaviour beginning shortly after a severely frightening event (based on the student’s interpretation of it). Also be aware of students avoiding situations or having strong emotional reactions to events that once caused no issues for them. Peter Levine comments that some common reactions to look for are extreme clinginess or shyness, emotional outbursts, fearfulness, irritability, reenactment of the event, aggression towards other children, and a list of physical symptoms with tummy aches, nausea, restlessness and headaches being very common.
Teachers play a huge role in supporting and helping students with mitigating the impact of deeply frightening events, here’s how you can help:
• Get acquainted with your own emotional responses. Learning about your own internal dialogue helps you recognize when you are stressed and not calm. Be aware of the feelings and sensations you are experiencing so that you can make the necessary corrections to return you to calm. Knowing your own emotions also provides you with a very useful tool; it allows you to articulate to students what you are feeling and help them with identifying their own sensations and feelings. Levine and Kline’s book, Trauma Through a Child’s Eyes, offers many wonderful ideas to help both you and your students with getting in touch with feelings and body sensations. Focus on your own responses to the distressed student. More than anything, says prominent attachment and family therapist Bryan Post, children learn to regulate and contain strong emotional states through the support of a calm, self-regulated adult. Peter Levine suggests that allowing your own body to settle down allows you to be fully present and available for your students, and you do not “infect” them with your own emotional baggage.
• Allow children time, space and the opportunity to go at their own pace. Working at a pace that is comfortable for them gives them a feeling of control and minimizes the chance that they will go into overwhelm. Give students permission to work through strong feelings, reassuring them it is okay to feel strong reactions such as rage, anger or shame during or after something frightening has occurred. Whenever possible, ask students to tap into what they are feeling inside (butterflies in the tummy, cold hands, fidgety feet) as they work through the strong feelings they are experiencing. If a child says they feel enraged, ask where in the body they feel the rage: in their tummy? head? Ask them what the rage feels like (hot, hard, twisting, etc.).
• Put together a trauma support team that can assist in supporting students. Working through trauma and stressful events often takes time, a precious resource that teachers do not have enough of. Having a support team composed of school counselors, educational assistants, other teachers and school administrators allows students experiencing tough situations to be fully supported.
Just a footnote: both students I told you about at the beginning of this article are doing wonderfully. With specific counseling to address the traumatic incidents they experienced combined with school, parental and external support, they have overcome the difficulties they faced and are moving forward in their educational careers and life.
Levine, Peter. Even a Minor Accident can Cause Childhood Trauma. Web article. http://www.traumahealing.com/somatic-experiencing/ childhood-trauma-prevention-steps-after-event.html
Levine, Peter. Helping Children Recover from Accidents, Grief, or Trauma. Web article. http://www.traumahealing.com/somaticexperiencing/steps-for-parents-to-help-children-with-traumagrief-stress.html
Levine, Peter & Kline, Maggie. (2008) Trauma Proofing your Kids. North Atlantic Books, Berkley, California.
Levin. Peter & Kline, Maggie. (2007). Trauma Through a Child’s Eyes: Awakening the Ordinary Miracle of Healing. North Atlantic Books, Berkley, California.
Post, Bryan. (2010). From Fear to Love: Parenting Difficult Adopted Children. Post Publishing, Virginia.
Rothschild, Babette. (2000). The Body Remembers: The Psychophysiology of Trauma and Trauma Treatment. W.W. Norton and Company, New York, NY.
Siegel, Dan. (2008). The Neurobiology of We: How Relationships, the Mind, and the Brain Interact and Shape Who We Are. Sounds True Publishing, Boulder, Colorado.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Scott Coleman (B.A., M.A.P.P.C) works as an employee family assistance clinician providing counseling to adults, couples, families and children. In his previous life, he worked as a school counselor with Living Sky School Division in Saskatchewan. He has a passion for working with and writing about stress, anxiety and trauma and has supported both adults and children in healing.
This article is from Canadian Teacher Magazine’s Jan/Feb 2013 issue.