"What if?" - Using a trauma-informed lens to reframe behaviour in the classroom.
Updated: Jan 13
A new blog for a new year! I decided to start with a piece on reframing traditional views of behaviour in school. As we strive to meet the increasingly complex needs of children and young people in the classroom, the resulting stress can diminish our compassion and lead to ever-quicker use of sanctions and exclusions. Here are just SIX typical statements and how they might be reframed in the context of trauma, loss and associated difficulties with attachment.
It’s just attention-seeking"
When a child behaves in a way which seems to seek attention, it is easy to associate this with negative connotations; “He’s trying to disrupt my lesson”; “She’s holding other people back from their work”; “He’s trying to be the class clown”.
But what if the child has been starved of attention in the past? What if there was a lack of consistent and positive attention at an earlier stage in their development? The child may have learned to behave in ways which stand the best chance of holding on to such attention – positive or negative – due to a fear of being forgotten.
When we think of attention-seeking as an attempt to make or maintain connection, we can be more flexible in showing the child that they are kept in mind and remembered. This might involve checking in with how they’re feeling on a more regular basis, being explicit about when you’ll see them again after a separation or using a transitional object to represent your enduring relationship.
"They have no respect for authority"
It can really grind our gears when a child acts in a way which is disrespectful – this might include rudeness, sarcasm, mockery, name-calling or being ignored. We can feel our muscles tensing, the beating of our heart and a sense of panic setting in. These feelings can make us want to take control and reassert our own authority, especially if the behaviour occurs as other children or adults are watching.
But what if the child’s past interactions have been characterised by a lack of basic respect? A lack of thought for their safety, their sense of belonging and their own thoughts and feelings about a range of situations? If children have experienced past relationships which have been fraught with isolation, harsh words and even physical or sexual abuse…then they may expect the same type of relationship with school staff. They may not easily trust that you care about their safety and well-being.
We can gradually build trust by focusing on playful, caring and empathetic interactions. Try asking about their weekend, spending a few minutes talking about their interests, sharing a joke or acknowledging that they’re trying really hard in a task which must be frustrating or daunting for them.
"This is just manipulation"
It can be very easy to perceive undesirable behaviour as deliberate, targeted and planned. After yet another stressful and frustrating incident in the classroom or playground, our “hot cognition” can be that the child knows what he or she is doing. The idea that they have gone out of their way to interrupt, antagonise or embarrass us can be devastating and infuriating.
But what if such behaviour helped the child to survive elsewhere in the past? By being noticed and provoking strong emotions in the adults around them, it may have helped to maintain connection or sent a much-needed reminder about their needs. Even though we know they’re safe in school, they may stick to what they know best – especially if their amygdala is over-sensitive to perceived threats.
We can mitigate this tendency by building in opportunities for them to exert control (such as letting them choose materials or where to start in a task), establishing a routine which allows them to take a break and giving them responsibilities which help them feel valued and competent. To regularly convey a sense of safety and predictability, we may need to refer to pictures of the daily schedule and use curious and descriptive commenting about what is happening now and next.
"Every day is constant disruption"
When a child presents with so-called “meltdowns” - comprised of shouting, screaming, throwing objects, tipping over furniture and lashing out at others – this can be extremely hard to watch. The staff supporting this child can feel on edge, anticipating that it will happen again sooner rather than later. It’s understandable to think that the child needs time away from the classroom or even that they are in the wrong type of school.
But what if the child can’t effectively regulate their emotions like other children their age? The neural connections governing this function may not have been repeatedly wired through sensitive, consistent and attuned interactions with an adult. So we need to be pro-active in helping them maintain a calm and alert state.
They may need a settling routine in the morning where they can scan the environment and talk through the daily schedule. Changes in activity and transitions may need to be communicated in advance through countdowns and timers. They may also need a sensory diet, with dedicated breaks for movement, play and relaxation. When the child becomes significantly dysregulated, it’s important that we reduce demands, limit our use of language and follow consistent routines for going to a safe space with a key adult.
"Praise and Rewards never seem to work"
It can be so frustrating when a lot of time and effort has been spent on a reward system, only for the child to rarely meet the targets for accessing the reward. They may have a great morning and then suddenly their behaviour goes severely downhill after break time. And no matter how often we “catch them being good”, they continue to break the rules or engage in undesirable behaviour at other times of the day.
But what if we consider how the child’s developmental age may not align with their chronological age? What if the child is stuck at the point of past trauma and is still functioning as a much younger child? Praise may be too abstract for such a child to internalise and it may cause discomfort when they receive explicit feedback. They may not trust that they will be given a reward, due to past experiences of not getting what they were promised or deserved. If they continually fail to achieve a reward, this can induce shame which will only cause further emotional dysregulation.
For these children, it may be safer to initially focus on non-verbal communication – a smile, a nod, a laugh or a thumbs up. We may need to explain a task or give positive feedback to the group of children at their table, if they are sensitive to praise on an individual basis. As for rewards, are they sufficiently motivating for the child? This is where good home-school communication is essential in understanding which toys or objects are genuinely comforting and relaxing. There may need to be scheduled times with these items as part of a preventative approach to emotional regulation, as it is unrealistic for a child with fluctuating emotions and impulses to consistently earn this time.
"They want everything done for them"
When managing the various needs of a large mainstream class, it can feel overwhelming to contemplate having to do so much for one child. So when that child can’t organise their belongings, take out their books and materials when asked or get started to a task on their own, this can be exhausting. It can be easy to see this as laziness or even deliberate time-wasting.
But what if they have missed out on the healthy experience of dependency on a caregiving adult? When a child has experienced neglect, abuse or periods of separation and loss, those crucial bonds of attachment may have been disrupted. They may have lacked the experience of exploring the world and trying things for themselves, safe in the knowledge that a vigilant and responsive adult is looking out for them and can help when they get stuck.
These children need a key adult in school who can get alongside them to reinforce messages of safety and encouragement. Organisational skills will need to be actively modelled. Visual checklists or schedules may serve as a concrete reminder of what they have to do. They may feel more confident when a task is broken down into small steps, with their progress being checked periodically.