Teaching Kids Who Have Trauma

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First and foremost, I think it’s important to remember that kids can’t learn under stress, so creating, a calm, safe, warm environment is the most important thing to focus on. What that looks like to you will mean something different, but it helps if the space is calm and you are calm. And if you aren’t calm, that you explain to the child that it’s not their fault because they will pick up on whatever energy is out there.

Trauma can make it difficult to focus, so often it is helpful to provide warm redirects and to understand that children facing trauma will often have shorter attention spans and will need patience and more breaks. Set more realistic goals for attention, get a baseline read by finding out the amount of time it takes for them to get overwhelmed and then work five minutes back from there. So if they freak out after 15 minutes, you know that they need a break at ten and slowly and gently work your way up. Breaks look different for every kid but the little ones benefit from physical movement, which can be walking or dancing. The older ones benefit from being able to stop sensory overload. I highly recommend music breaks or walk breaks.

It helps if you vocalize things for the kids. So in my case, I used to flinch if people touched me, someone broke me of it by noticing I was doing it and saying, “hey, you flinch when you are being touched, why is that” and then I could be both conscious and aware that my trauma wasn’t normal, this is especially important for victims of early childhood trauma and kids who went through years of trauma like I did.

I had a pass in my room where I allowed kids to step out at any time if they needed to gather themselves. It was used, very rarely, but it made the kids who needed it feel safer because they knew they had the option and they knew I was aware and they weren’t going to get in trouble for their trauma.

Some kids benefit from having a peer age buddy they sit next to or can call on if they need them. I gave my students input on the environment so they felt more in control of the situation.

Trauma can make kids feel uncontrolled frustration and anger and most of the time this is what leads to kids acting out. I’m a big believer in giving kids things like stress balls or stuffed animals (if they are little), this can give them a physical way to deal with their emotions and it’s something they get to be in control of. I also allow doodling as long as it doesn’t get in the way of work, I doodle myself and also often make comics or basically provide running commentary that are definitely not notes that I used to get in trouble for but it kept me from getting frustrated or blurting things out. In fact, I’ve used this for non-traumatized kids too.

If something happens and a kid starts to become defiant, DO NOT escalate by yelling at them in public. Ever. Ask them to take a break outside and go talk to them. Yelling will automatically trigger a negative response. Don’t take it personally, don’t assume they are just being a jerk or trying to engage in a power struggle. Be the adult in the situation and calmly tell them to take a break and then go talk to them. Kicking kids out of class and to the principal’s office ought to be reserved for students who are a direct physical danger to others, otherwise you are just sending the message that these kids are “bad” and unwanted and unlovable. Kids who have this self image will act out when a teacher loves them and likes them, because they will want you to confirm their image of themselves. That’s the worst thing you can do, instead you should break them down over time by loving them everyday no matter what they did the day before. Give your students a clean slate everyday. Are they likely to disappoint you by misbehaving on a given day? Yes, but in the long run, their behavior will change over time. And besides, you are the adult here, their job isn’t to please you or to make life easy for you, your job is to teach and love them. Be the adult.

And the most important thing I can say is to remember that if a kid is acting out, he’s not being an asshole. There’s a reason for it. The best way to diffuse a freak out is to say, “hey, this isn’t like you. Is something going on? How can I help?”

And finally, it might seem obvious but I rarely see teachers do it, develop a rapport with students and open up a line of communication and ask them what they need to be successful. Giving them agency is critical and it sends all the right messages to them about their power and rights after being robbed of that. Some kids might not immediately turn into the compliant happy kids you want, some will take all year and some will take decades but if you are consistent, loving, kind and professional, you can take solace in knowing that they will remember that you provided the counter narrative and a model for what a good adult looks like.

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The Whole Truth and the Ugliness I Lied About

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I recently had to make a decision that has both been a long time coming and absolutely gut-wrenching. I’m not speaking to my family at the moment and I was raised in a culture where this is a decision of absolute last resort. Blood, we are told, is thicker than water. La familia is everything, and I mean that both in the cultural working class and also because I was raised in a family that was exposed to organized crime. I’ve been hanging on for a very long time, through every time someone said, “dude, maybe it’s time for you to cut off contact.” I helped raise my siblings, so I feel a deep, mothering closeness and responsibility. I went hungry to feed them. I took blows so they wouldn’t have to take them. I was prepared to sacrifice my entire body, soul and heart to protect them and I did, in very real ways. But my family has an very all or nothing attitude so there wasn’t an option to be part of the lives of some and not others.

And by now you are wondering what the others have done, because while I’ve been very vocal about the extreme abuse I endured at the hands of someone who is in jail, I’ve been very careful to cling to protecting the other people who abused me in my family. Like my grandmother who told me she hated me for being born but who at least made sure we had food to eat sometimes. Or my older sister whose tortured and tormented soul played out on the blows, both verbal and physical, on my body. And perhaps the most hidden of all, the extreme neglect and emotional abuse of my mother.

I had a hard time grappling with my mother and my relationship. On the surface, I was the child who seemed most hers. I was her companion and best friend first and foremost and my siblings resented the association even when I was punished by my grandparents for it. And then there was the fact that I was probably the only person in my mother’s life who understood her intelligence and suffering fully and until later in life, she was the only person who understood me. For multiple years, she was the only person I spoke to, because I was scared from an early age to open my mouth and be found out for the weirdo I was. My sister and I are so close in age that we were treated like twins and my intelligence overshadowed her in a way that was destructive and I spent my life feeling guilty about it. Because while I was getting all of this attention from my mother she was also asking me to sacrifice for my siblings and for her. She raised me to be utterly selfless, she raised me to offer to eat less so they could eat more, she raised me to do my older sister’s homework for her, to take my sister’s blows and his blows, he who must not be named, so that no one else had to. She raised me to view my body as a vehicle through which I could make everyone’s life better. And this is how I’ve reached the point where I only value my life in terms of what I can do for others.

But this wasn’t all, my mom also gave me fewer of her very limited resources because I “needed” them less. So when she needed a baby sitter, she pulled me out of school because it would be less of an impact on my education than my sister’s. She pushed me harder, much harder, than my siblings. I wasn’t supposed to need help. So when my mom came home and found me lying on the floor, passed out, she screamed at me to get up without investigating what had happened. I almost died several times because she simply wouldn’t take me to the doctor, even though she was incredibly tenacious when it came to my sister. I wasn’t allowed to need self esteem, so she engaged in a concerted effort to convince me that my life wasn’t valuable and that I wasn’t gifted. When I needed a ride home from school because I was sick, I called my friend’s mom. When I needed her help enrolling in school, I forged her signature (a skill she herself had taught me so she didn’t have to keep track of my siblings’ school documents) on a document giving my older sister’s illiterate boyfriend the right to enroll me in school and he and I rode the bus two hours in the rain with all the documents in a neat row. This was my life, it was a martyrdom I was groomed for, it has affected me in a million visible and invisible ways. It is the cause of the injuries I’m recuperating from, the arthritis that is now in my spine, the headaches, the crippling insomnia. And for a long time I believed it was responsible for all of my success, because she had groomed me to believe that. If the answer wasn’t that I was intellectually gifted (I was disabused of that notion the minute I noticed I was different from the other kids) then the answer had to have been that I was unusually hardworking and sacrificing. But I could have gotten to Stanford without the hunger, without the pain, without being trained to endure unimaginable suffering. My grit and intelligence are inate and would have been enhanced by simply being working class. But it’s taken a long time and a lot of very difficult work from my friends, mentors, therapists and my own introspection to understand that.

And then I had to take the year off. You have to understand that the idea terrified me, because I knew, from past experience, that my mom would view it as self indulgent and weak. And weakness is a sin in the house I grew up in. So as the realization and the doctors’ orders slowly came, and as I realized that I was going to need more time than I initially thought, my privileged friends laughed it off.

“What’s the big deal. I took a year off and my mom did my laundry while I got high and surfed.”

Even my fianc√©, who grew up with me, was confused about my terror because his family was fine with it. But I knew what was waiting for me if I had to go back to mom’s house. I lasted six weeks. In the course of that time I passed out at least 10 times from lack of food and stress, I sustained my third concussion, and I had a complete emotional and physical breakdown. I was healing in the Bay Area, I had to start over completely once I got out of my childhood home. But the fatal blow came when I finally got up the nerve to ask for more food after my concussion.

“I’m going to get money from you one way or another.”

Is the sentence that will forever haunt me in a two hour tirade that my mom and little sister went into accusing me of being a lazy, pretentious, opiate addict. My mom tried to blame my medications for the fact that I had told her that I was initially concerned about returning to her home. In other words, she found my self confidence and awareness to be so jarring for her that she accused me of a serious drug addiction, which is a pretty big statement from someone who likes to tell stories about her three children crying the night she gave up meth. She then tried to convince my fianc√© that I shouldn’t take my medication and I realized that it was dangerous for me to be there. I thought that my step-dad was going to temper the abuse a bit but he just joined in because he needed someone to take his issues out on. And this is discounting the fact that I was having very bad flashbacks and nightmares just from being back in the place where I was tortured everyday. In the midst of all of this, I was applying to PhD programs.

And as all of this went down I thought about all those times that people tried to lecture me on what a privilege it was to have my mom and to be white. I remembered the names and faces of every surrogate mom, the black, Hispanic and white working class women I grew up with, my teachers, my mentors and the look of horror in their faces for every time they realized that I had nothing to eat and that I didn’t have transportation to get home. I remembered all those people at Stanford, the other working class kids I tried so desperately to fit in with, whose stories of heroic moms I “borrowed” as I tried to not let it come out how many Hells Angels and drug dealers I knew.

We want to explain away people like me, and there is a very convenient narrative. But the real story is so much darker than I ever let you know. And for that, for the kids who can relate to this, I’m sorry. I love you. You are beautiful and whole and you are not alone.