Can this interfere with the student’s ability to learn? Yes, neuroscience teaches us that the area of the brain responsible for memory and learning is essentially shut off when the reptilian portion of the brain takes over to respond to stress through the fight or flight response. According to Dr. Jane Bluestein (2013), “…the brain’s main job is prioritizing information relevant to our survival. Anything that suggests the possibility of danger, whether real or imagined, becomes a higher priority than anything else that is going on at that moment. This data is processed first, shifting our attention from cognitive processes down to the faster-acting limbic system, while more complex cerebral operations shut down. Survival always overrides problem-solving, analyzing, remembering, pattern-detection and other rational processes.”
To recognize a student who may be experiencing stress associated with trauma look for signs of the Fight or Flight Response. Students who are experiencing chronic trauma often may appear to be agitated, hyper-aroused, or emotionally dysregulated. Their day-to-day behavior and emotional responses will be limited. They will reflect those that are hardwired into the brain rather than those that have been learned: fear, surprise, anger, disgust, joy, or sadness. In the classroom, these emotions translate into impatience, impulsivity, inappropriate responses, and less empathy for others. Students may be quickly frustrated and easily give up on a difficult task. When working with others, this behavior can lead to additional social conflict and/or exclusion from a group. (Jensen, 2009). When a student is experiencing the Fight/Flight Response, s/he may be more likely to:
- Be defiant to adults or those with authority
- Be aggressive toward his/her peers which could escalate to a verbal or physical altercation
- Be easily startled, jumpy, or anxious
- Re-enact the traumatic event by mimicking the behavior of the person who caused it
- Refuse to participate to avoid experiencing additional fear or stress
- Disengage from an activity by “freezing” (sitting quietly, not talking, or acting numbly)
- Disengage from an activity by avoidance or distraction (engage in a different activity from one that is assigned)
- Ask to leave the room (bathroom, locker, nurse, etc.)
- Leave abruptly or storm out of the room
- Be absent from school or skip a class
Given that the Fight or Flight response is a physiological response to stress and the subsequent emotional responses are hardwired into the brain, besides referring the student to a guidance counselor or student assistance team, how do you help a student who is experiencing trauma or chronic stress in the classroom? There are several answers to this question, none of which is a magic bullet or an easy solution. The first way is to reduce or eliminate triggers. Here are a few suggestions:
Adjust Your Perspective. Expect that some students will be impulsive, defiant, or otherwise “disrespectful.” Take a deep breath and remind yourself that the student may be experiencing something traumatic at school or are living in conditions that are far from ideal. Respond to and redirect their behavior with empathy and respect, even if they are not returning it!
Adjust Your Behavior. Demanding compliance or engaging in a disrespectful dialogue will only escalate the situation and re-trigger the fight/flight response. Try to keep a calm tone and turn directives into requests or a choice as students will be more likely to comply. For example, rather than saying “sit down now!” say “We’ve got a lot to do today, please have a seat.” If necessary, repeat the directive while maintaining a calm tone.
Provide Structure and Routines in Your Classroom. When students know what to expect i.e. how things “work” in the classroom or what his/her teacher’s expectations are, it reduces the possibility that the fight/flight response will be triggered. It is human nature to fear the unknown or surprises. Remember that change from that routine is difficult for some students, especially those who are experiencing chronic stress. Things like fire drills, school events, or schedule changes can trigger feelings of anxiety, anger, or sadness in some students. This is the first, critical step in establishing a reliable relationship with a student.
Establish a Reliable Relationship with the Student. According to Eric Jensen (2009), all students want the safety of a safe and reliable relationship at school. The relationships that teachers build with students form the single strongest access to student goals, socialization, motivation, and academic performance. Many times, people confuse establishing a relationship with students with being “friends” with them. Where interactions with students should be friendly, professional boundaries must be maintained. Reliable relationships are formed when they know that a classroom is consistently safe: they know what to expect and what is expected of them. Reliable relationships are grown by making students feel welcome and accepted, without fear of ridicule or harsh judgement.
Provide Structure to Peer Interactions. Just the statement: “Find someone to work with” can be a trigger for a student who is coping with acute or post-traumatic stress. Despite their complaints, assign (randomly or purposefully) students to groups or teams, eliminating the possibility that someone will be left without a group or partner to work with. Students want to belong somewhere and it is incredibly stressful when they feel as though they are not wanted or welcomed within their peer group. Utilize a discussion protocol or assign roles within the group to ensure that all students have an opportunity to engage in the activity. Even teenagers need to learn how to “take turns!”
Reduce or Eliminate “Down-Time.” Unstructured time in the classroom is an invitation for shenanigans. For students who are coping with acute or post-traumatic stress, unstructured time can be incredibly anxiety producing. When possible, plan ahead and have enrichment activities readily available for when planned activities don’t fill the entire instructional period.
Capitalize on the “Everyone Else” Effect. Students compete for attention and social elevation by choosing roles that will distinguish them from others (e.g., athlete, comedian, storyteller, gang leader, scholar, or style maverick). A student who is experiencing acute or chronic trauma may adopt a role in the classroom that will make them stand out… so long as they perceive that this role garners approval from their peers and that behavior brings their rating up on the social depth chart. Depending on the role they assume the classroom, this peer approval dynamic can be used to help de-escalate a student who has been triggered. For example, when a student is refusing to engage in an activity, calmly point out that “everyone else is working on this…”. And, acknowledge when they do engage.
As in my previous blogs about trauma, I would encourage EVERYONE (even if you don’t teach in a community with a high percentage of low-income students) to read: Teaching with Poverty in Mind by Eric Jensen. Chapters 1 and 2 are available on-line at: http://www.ascd.org/publications/books/109074/chapters/How-Poverty-Affects-Behavior-and-Academic-Performance.aspx.
Bluestein, J. (2013). Stress and the Brain. Available at: http://janebluestein.com/2013/stress-and-the-brain/.
Jensen, E. (2009). Teaching with Poverty in Mind: What Being Poor Does to Kids' Brains and What Schools Can Do About It. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
Marich, J. (2016) What are Trauma and Stress Related Disorder? Available at: http://www.eastcentralmhc.org/109-post-traumatic-stress-disorder/article/55724-what-are-trauma-and-stressor-related-disorder as well as http://www.drjamiemarich.com.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. (n.d.) National Institute on Mental Health. Available at:
Terzain, M., Moore, K., Nguygen, H. (2010). Assessing Stress in Children and Youth: a guide for out-of-school time program practitioners. Research-to-Results Brief. Child Trends. Publication #2012-22. Available at: www.childtrends.org.