How Not to Respond to Trauma

What is the Proper Role of a Teacher in the Face of Trauma?
Photo: RODNAE Productions/Pexels

One of the more common complaints teachers have, post-covid, is the abysmal state of student behavior. A common explanation of the cause goes something like this: students were taken out of the classroom, lost guidance from teachers on how to behave, and now we’re reaping the results. While plausible, I’d like to counter it with my own: how we view and respond to trauma, as a profession, has interfered with our ability to manage our classrooms.

This isn’t new. In fact, it has long been the case that working in a classroom is marked by a series of concessions made in the name of “helping” whatever students we presume are suffering from trauma, while simultaneously conflating the experience of any hardship with trauma. In the world of COVID and our responses to it, these tendencies have only worsened. We have been told that everyone is living through a traumatic experience and their responses to the traumatic experience have to be respected, honored, and, in many cases, excused—a well-meaning tendency but ultimately misguided.

Too often, very real concerns regarding behavior and accountability are met with a reminder that students are going through “something,” especially students for whom school is supposedly a reprieve from their home life. Notwithstanding that for many students school hardly represents a reprieve, this response is insufficient.

Schools’ response to negative behaviors stems from two false assumptions which are guiding teachers in their response to students with trauma: 1) Teachers are competent to the task of identifying and dealing with students’ trauma and 2) the compassionate, appropriate response to trauma is to lower standards.

One popular measure for student trauma—endorsed by the National Education Association, professional development companies, and administrations country-wide—is the ACE (adverse childhood experience) score.  The test is simple—it asks ten questions about traumatic experiences and assigns one point for every “yes” response. The total score is said to be predictive of certain ailments including social and emotional problems. 

The ACE exemplifies our overly deterministic thinking about trauma. For many people, there is a sense that if you have certain experiences, it will result in trauma. However, what one person finds traumatic, someone else may not. Additionally, how someone is affected by adverse experiences in their life is not strictly determinative of who they become and the level of success they can achieve.

Moreover, one of the insidious truths about trauma is that people who experience it are often not going to talk about it as a condition of their trauma. Not only are we likely wrong about the imagined trauma responses of some of our students, but we will fail to identify students due to their need to appear “normal.” It is neither within a teacher’s expertise, nor their job experience to identify students who are going through adverse experiences; the attempt to do so risks malpractice.

Unfortunately, this lack of certainty in identifying students, coupled with a desire not to exacerbate the problem, has caused many teachers to treat everyone as if they have experienced trauma. Often, accommodations are more disruptive of learning for the general student than they are helpful. These accommodations are identical to the ones received by special education students: extended time on assignments, excused absences for stress, permission to leave the room when feeling overwhelmed, etc. 

What obligation does a school have to its students? What sort of adjustments to their education are required, if any? What sort of attitude towards students would prove to be the most beneficial?

Hailed by Alexander McFarlane, the director of the Centre for Traumatic Stress Studies, as  “Essential reading for anyone interested in understanding and treating traumatic stress and the scope of its impact on society,” The Body Keeps the Score, by Bessel Van Der Kolk, M.D. explains that people who experience trauma have brains that are physically altered to the point where they don’t operate the same as non-traumatized persons.  

According to Van Der Kolk, one of the physical effects of trauma is an overactive amygdala. As the author writes, “[w]e depend on the amygdala to warn us of impending danger and to activate the body’s stress response…when traumatized people are presented with images, sounds, or thoughts related to their particular experience, the amygdala reacts with alarm.” He goes on to explain that the amygdala is not a part of the brain capable of higher-order, logical thinking; instead, it speaks the language of association. A common example of an amygdala reaction is the fight or flight response many soldiers experience in reaction to loud noises.

This understanding of the amygdala underlies the importance of maintaining order and expectations, both academic and behavioral, in the school setting. It is at the expense of traumatized students that we create and maintain systems of disorder within our classrooms. When chaos rules, what is this doing to students who have experienced trauma or have disorder as the backdrop to their everyday lives? For every loud disrupter we excuse on the basis of their adverse experiences, there is another student quietly suffering.

What should be done by responsible educators is to create spaces that have transparent rules that are consistently applied and a system of reward and punishment that encourages students to operate within those spaces, maximizing the benefit of all students. Instead of having classrooms that mimic the ever-shifting landscapes of their home environment, we should create spaces that are sane, places that operate by a logical set of rules, places that are safe and consistent, places that are the opposite of the environments students get to escape when they come through school doors.

In Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers, edited by Head of Michaela school Katharine Birbalsingh, contributing author Jonathan Porter uses the fictional example of a student named Tom to make the following point in his chapter on no-excuses discipline. 

A ‘some excuses’ school argues that Tom’s background explains why he behaves like he does. Of course, they are right. It is no coincidence that Tom throws chairs around the classroom: he’s had precious few positive role models, his dad’s nowhere to be seen, and he’s grown up with few of the boundaries that have nurtured his middle-class peers.

What is at stake here is whether you think Tom is capable of changing. WE do. But also whether you are prepared for Tom’s behaviour to affect the learning of the other 30 pupils in his class. We aren’t.

The students who are silently suffering, who also potentially come from environments that make “Tom’s” seem cheerful in comparison, are so affected by the behavior of students like him that they can hardly function when they come into your classroom. This silent segment of the student population is ignored when we roll out initiatives to excuse student behavior.

Accountability is compassionate. Expectations are compassionate. We should be expecting a lot more from the segment of the student population who we’ve heretofore treated as incapable of learning, for their own good and the good of those around them.

In response to the societal shift towards an overly protective stance when it comes to our children, the philosophy of Stoicism has experienced a bit of a resurgence of late. This can partly be attributed to the popularity of such figures as Ryan Holiday, Wim Hof, and Jocko Willink, as well as the book The Coddling of the American Mind. Stoicism is seen by many as a curative to what is perceived as a broad permissiveness and encouragement even of anxiety and other mental health issues. We respond to these issues with a reverence that they don’t deserve, and one which strengthens the malady rather than contributes to its elimination.

Considering these modern-day stoics’ implications for the classroom can be instructive. Jocko Willink, for instance, is a former Navy Seal, frequently hosting military personnel on his podcast. On any given episode, you can hear discussions with a WWII Holocaust Survivor, a Vietnam Prisoner of War, an amputee, and any number of other men and women who have survived terrible hardships in their life. There are a few takeaways from listening to these survivors. 

First, whatever you’re going through in your life, there is someone who has been through worse. This is objectively true of every human being who has ever lived, minus one. Someone, somewhere can rightfully claim that they have had a worse life than anyone who has ever lived, but the mathematical chances of that being you are infinitesimal.

Second, if you’re alive and breathing, you can find something good in your situation to carry you through. One thing that everyone who has survived trauma has in common is a stubborn refusal to give up. Short of death, there isn’t anything that can’t be overcome. 

The way out of any terrible situation, while not easy, is simple: make more good choices than bad, whatever the socio-economic realities, post-traumatic stress, or other disparities present. These things do limit the choices that are available to a person. But there are still opportunities to make good choices. 

Progressive models of discipline management, especially those done in response to student trauma, are ruining education for large swaths of the student population, by taking away their ability to make these hard choices. We need to stop making it so easy for our students to make the wrong choices. We need to help cultivate the attitude that, “nothing happens to any man which he is not formed by nature to bear.” We need to help make our kids stronger and more fit for the world because the world is not going to get any easier. 

The fact that life is a series of choices should be a cause for hope, not despair. As teachers, we can’t control what happens to students outside our walls, but we can absolutely control what happens in them. We should be creating safe environments in our classrooms that students can rely on, environments in which clear expectations for behavior are set, and when these expectations are violated, students should be punished, not as a means of control, but for everyone’s benefit. We should be hopeful because we have the opportunity to teach our students something of long-lasting value: that they are the stewards of their own lives. 

Jason Anger
Jason Anger is an educator from Wisconsin, a father, and a part-time bartender. He is a regular contributor to Chalkboard Review, where he is also a fellow and member of the social media team. He has been published in Chalkboard Review, City Journal and National Review.