Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Developmental Trauma & Back to School

A couple weeks ago was the long-awaited first day of school for two of my children...

Due to developmental trauma, they crave structure that is next to impossible for me to provide them during summer vacation. Also, we live in the city, so running in a backyard for hours, daily, isn’t an option.

All summer long, I ran our family like I was running a highly-structured day camp. Our days resembled the days I once planned when I was a houseparent at a children’s home before having children. Every single moment was accounted for.  Every single moment received vigilant attention.

Still, it wasn’t enough for two of my children, and it was far too much for my other two…

By the time their brothers were happily waving from their school bus, my other two sons were desperate for weeks of unstructured play. I had to remind them to eat meals the first day of school because they were so absorbed in playing.

Because my two children needed their unstructured play more than anything else that first week, I only planned one (super fun) outing. We ventured to the teacher store to prepare for our homeschool year. This excursion isn’t even annual for us as I don’t ever brave a retail establishment unless I find it absolutely unavoidable- so the boys spent the better part of two hours exploring necessary educational tools such as kinetic sand, planetarium projectors, and musical instruments I would never purchase for them because I place a high value on my remaining sanity.

The teacher store we (in) frequent is kind of a hike for us so by the end of our visit we were looking forward to going home and each curling up with a good book when BAM, we got rear ended trying to enter a traffic circle. Whiplash.

The outing in its entirety is a perfect picture of how school starts for my other two sons- both of whom have endured developmental trauma. They can’t wait to get back into their highly structured routine. They wave delightedly from the bus and then BAM they realize summer is over and they’re no longer in their former, trusted teacher’s care.

The specific thing they were longing for no longer exists for them, and they feel a bit lost.

Then my phone starts ringing... because no matter how much I try to prepare my children for the new school year and their teachers for my children as their students, it is never enough.

I told a friend recently that I spend an average of five hours a week on communication with teachers in my sons’ school. At the end and beginning of the school year, I spend 25-30 hours a week preparing communication with my children’s school so my sons have the scaffolding they need to transition well.

Every year I feel more prepared than the year before and, nevertheless, I end up with whiplash.

Still, we’ve made progress in our communication with teachers over the years. The conversation must evolve as our relationships with our children deepen, our understanding of trauma deepens, and even our understanding of our children’s school culture deepens.

This year we shared the following info with our children’s teachers so the teachers had the information they needed to begin building trusting relationships with our children and so our children could feel safe enough in the classroom to regulate their emotions and learn. It is always our hope that as our children get their complex emotional needs met, they are calmer, the classroom is calmer, and every student in the classroom has increased learning opportunities.

Developmental Trauma in the Classroom- An Evolving Conversation

Physical Rewards

Because of early childhood trauma, physical rewards can lead to a hoarding mentality (survival strategy) my children are healing from. For some, once earning a physical reward they can focus on nothing other than getting more rewards and (frankly) more stuff. In the past, earning a simple keychain led to one of our son’s survival skill of digging in the garbage by the end of the week (when we hadn’t seen those behaviors for over two years).

Reward Systems Create Stress

Systems can seem endless for our children who are already overwhelmed. For some of our children, systems seem so overwhelming, they would often rather give up than try. Since the system seems so big, they lose confidence in sight of it. It isn’t containing enough for them to regulate their emotions and the system (that aims to motivate) is incapable of teaching them the skills they need to succeed. On top of all of that, systems are put in place to manage rather than relate. In essence, a reward system is relationship avoidant and harmful relationally to our children who have been working hard at establishing and maintaining relationships. As their relationships suffer, their confidence suffers. As their confidence suffers, their academics suffer.

Even more importantly for some students, the reward system gives them the ability to return to a common maladaptive survival skill: manipulation. The system increases their stress because they have no way to feel safe other than testing the system via manipulation to find the boundaries. The boundaries are not clear or containing enough for them to regulate their emotions and do better as a result of the system. Whenever boundaries are unclear and children do not feel contained (safe), there is major potential for emotional, behavioral, academic and relational regression in our most traumatized children.

Logical, Intrinsic Rewards can Help Healing

Rewards can be good for our children as long as they are natural/logical and intrinsic! For example: If the students do their best work and there’s time left over, they get extra free time/recess. Since our children are already hurting for more movement time, this seems to be productive in many ways. The movement is regulating. There is no overwhelming system. Of course, for this to work with my kids it has to be really low key and it works best if there isn’t previewing (which minimizes the potential for loss and BIG feelings due to loss that can interrupt learning time). They just taste the reward for being efficient and are therefore more motivated to be efficient in the future. Previewing always has the potential to create anxiety for our children suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Logical, intrinsic rewards used without previewing can reinforce the often lacking (for our children with developmental trauma) cause-and-effect thinking.

Behavior is Communication

I’ll admit, ignoring negative behaviors was key during our early relationship with our children because we had to choose our battles. We had to establish safety and a tiny bit of trust before they could even listen to our words. Still, now that we know them, we realize that behavior is communication. If our child stomps into the house after school and snaps at all of his brothers, I might have to give him space while his feelings are so big. Later, the relational approach is to ask him what happened at school and tell him I know from watching him get off the bus that he’s dealing with something. One of our children rarely wants to verbally process, but he is almost always relieved when a trusted adult acknowledges his hurt.

Our children went through years of neglect so, while I know my kids often need time, space and physical activity to regulate enough to connect, they need to be heard. If I ignored their negative behaviors consistently, they wouldn’t be heard because they don’t yet have the communication/relational skills they need to initiate many conversations via words. When our children don’t feel heard, they cannot listen or learn.

Punishment vs. Boundaries

When behaviors are negative, we’ve learned that taking something from our children intensifies their loss. Their early lives were defined by loss. That doesn’t mean they don’t need to “lose privileges.” However, the language we’re learning to use with them is much more respectful of their experience. We simply say, “We can tell by your behavior that (this movie/game/bedtime/etc…) is too much for you. Our job is to keep you safe.”

The very best we can do with our children is monitor their tolerance level and develop a routine that considers what they can best handle. When we do this, they rarely “lose” anything. Rather, they are set up for consistent success and their confidence improves as a result. Their routine is healing, lowers their stress, and helps them learn to trust us. Eventually they can tolerate more and we can establish a new routine based off of their increased tolerance.

Our children need the adults in their lives to provide safe boundaries for them based on what their behavior is communicating. If one of our children is being silly (and he’s not naturally silly), asking for help before attempting to do his work independently, is leaving the classroom more frequently than could possibly be necessary, or is asking for a teacher to assign value to his work, he is dysregulated and needs more clear boundaries so he can feel contained enough to regulate and do his best. One of our children needs to know from day one that his teachers will always expect him to make an admirable attempt at independent work before offering to help him. Our children's teachers realize they sometimes ask to leave the room when they’re dysregulated and that the teacher will let their parents know if they’re asking to exit the classroom at an unusual rate. Their teachers will always be thrilled with their best work, but will refrain from judging it. Rather, their teachers will ask them what they think of their work. (This has been incredibly helpful because it helps our children develop confidence. Our children will only listen to external validation if the adults around him let them...which is quite dangerous in the long run. When we use this approach, our children at times realize they haven’t done their best work and opt to modify it on their own.)

Social Support  

Though our children may be social, they could have difficulty connecting with their classmates. Often their social development is delayed as a result of their early life experiences. They may misinterpret others’ behavior, and may interpret others’ behavior as being disrespectful to them. Additionally, because our children often have difficulty with social nuances, they may say things that hurt others’ feelings which aren’t intended to hurt others’ feelings. When our children are afraid, they can be mean, and they need direction to know how to repair relationships- in the moment. When our children feel wronged by a friend, they may completely shut down. They can become depressed and unable to learn when they feel left out or friendless. When our children get the support they need to build and maintain friendships, they are more confident, better team members, and are able to learn more.


Beyond anything, our children need to know the adults in their lives are on the same team and are willing to communicate anytime they’re struggling. We will always give our children’s teachers the benefit of the doubt and will contact them if we have questions and we hope our children’s teachers will do the same with us. Our children need the parent/teacher relationship to be solid so they can feel secure. When our children are feeling their safest, they can do their best.

It’s important to note that the above information has been collected from our children’s gifted teachers, brilliant therapists, and parents with far more experience than we have. I have no idea where we would be without the compassionate parents and professionals who have willingly shared their wisdom with us.

What am I missing? I’d love to hear what you’ve shared with your children’s teachers!

Blog Design by Get Polished