We Are Only Human

On the path to self discovery

Hanging Tough

How flexibility and support can transform traumatized students

Eva was having meltdowns during class and spent most of her time in the guidance counselor's office in tears. Her mother had schizophrenia and had recently decompensated, so Eva was beyond worried. I began working with Eva when the guidance counselor couldn't get her back into class and they'd reached an impasse.

So when I broached the idea of enrolling Eva in a memoir workshop, a place where sharing stories is encouraged and community is fostered, I was surprised when she said yes.

Months passed, and I was invited to the class reading where I listened to Eva's story about being left at a shopping mall when she was only four and her brother was six. Her mother was confused that day as she was psychotic, and Eva detailed how she and her brother walked along the highway, in the dark, back home. The police were waiting when they arrived, and, as Eva devastatingly described, "That's when my mother lost custody of us."

In working with challenging or traumatized students like Eva, educators have an incredible opportunity to provide scaffolding and to help children build a meaningful narrative. Shifting the paradigm away from punishing these challenging students when they falter, act out, or cause disruption in favor of compassion and unwavering commitment challenges even the most difficult students to grow out of their behavior.

This very simple, but effective idea has been coined "hanging in" by Jeffrey Benson, a school consultant and coach and author of the new book Hanging In: Strategies for Teaching the Students Who Challenge Us Most. Hanging in can do some good, he insists, where punishment doesn't.

The downside? It takes time. It takes work. But it does work.

"Each child is truly unique, and we can't 'fix them' immediately," Benson explained. "Students can shed maladaptive behaviors for better ones, but not overnight. These students remind us that humans don't change as much as grow. We grow through support, useful feedback, trust, safety, and time. There is no guarantee that any intervention will work, and there are no guarantees that growth will happen within a given period of time."

It's estimated that six percent of children suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, and the National Survey of Children's Exposure to Violence reports that one in 10 children experience some sort of maltreatment.

In understanding traumatized students, an educator has to first understand how sustained abuse, neglect and trauma can subject a child's brain to prolonged exposure to cortisol, the stress hormone, which can damage the amygdala and hippocampus, the regions associated with memory, learning and emotions processing.

In addition to depression and behavioral disorders, trauma can also cause changes in classroom behavior and relationships. Children who have endured trauma need to be taught how to read emotional cues as they often take a neutral sign and perceive it as hostile. My book, The Behavior Code, co-written with Jessica Minahan, is all about how a student's behavior is a symptom and an attempt at communication—and that understanding is imperative in educators' efforts to help them move forward.

"It can be hard to see how they see a task—academic or physical or social—and to anticipate what will trip them up. Before you can realize it, they may be over-stimulated by a simple task, flooded with memories of failure. But that emotional flooding can look like non-compliance or avoidance," said Benson. "It would be so easy if a student said to you, 'This task makes me remember all the ways I dislike myself and how scared I am of the future.' Instead, you have to assess the situation and try other approaches."

While schools are notoriously strapped for cash, Benson said the resources needed to help students include engagement, flexibility and a game plan. All of which are free.

"It sometimes is enough to provide stability, to allow students to make mistakes in an environment where they will not be damned for those mistakes but can build capacity and maintain relationships," he said.

Benson added, "Students need a safe place to temporarily retreat from the hurly-burly of a jam-packed school—and it doesn't have to be the nurse's office, which is where a lot of traumatized students learn to go. They need simple plans for how they can self-regulate, both in a classroom and in that safe place for a given period of time—for instance, noise-reducing headphone, a pillow, a book of nature photos, a journal. They need a reliable person or two who can see them at their worst. They need a plan to go back to class and catch up without attracting a lot of attention, so returning to class is not in itself a problem."

Benson's timely book builds on a recent New York Times opinion piece by David Bornstein on the prevalence of trauma and the necessity for all school employees to understand its hallmarks and effects. Indeed, momentum is building for schools nationally to adapt non-punitive strategies that support students with disorderly behavior and allow them the leeway to self-regulate, cope and resume.

And, like in Eva's case, "Students are often ready to give up on themselves far sooner than you are ready to give up on them. You have to hold onto hope for them when they cannot find it," said Benson. "You have to find that part of a task they can grab onto."

Nancy Rappaport is associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

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