In the wake of school disruptions during the pandemic, reports of widespread student misbehavior have been making headlines. It's the kind of story that attracts attention, with armchair analysis from individuals outside the field of education. Today, we'll hear from teacher, consultant, and author Arlène Elizabeth Casimir about how the behavior categorized as misbehavior is often an expression of trauma. In this excerpt from Trauma-Responsive Pedagogy: Teaching for Healing and Transformation, which Arlène co-authored with Courtney Baker, she explains how educators can easily miss signs of trauma in students. She shares ways in which students' trauma manifests in their behavior and helps us understand how adults' words can unconsciously punish students for their trauma responses.
Register for this upcoming FREE workshop presented by Arlène Casimir on October 5, 2023 at 4:30 PM, ET
Below is a transcript
Hi, this is Brett from Heinemann. Thanks for joining me on the commute this morning. In the wake of school disruptions during the pandemic, reports of widespread student misbehavior have been making headlines. It's the kind of story that attracts attention by armchair analysis from folks outside of the field of education. Today, we'll hear from teacher, consultant, and author, Arlène Elizabeth Casimir about how the behavior that gets categorized as misbehavior is often an effect of trauma. In this excerpt from Trauma-Responsive Pedagogy: Teaching for Healing and Transformation, which Arlène co-authored with Courtney Baker, Arlène explains how it's easy for educators to miss signs of trauma in students. She shares ways in which students' trauma manifests itself in behaviors and helps us to see how adults' words can unconsciously punish students for their trauma responses.
How we can miss the trauma. Like many teachers, I wanted to have strong classroom management, so I could teach academic content that could help my students decide what kind of people they wanted to be in the world. This meant I wanted students to control themselves. There I was in a classroom in New Orleans, sitting on a carpet with 28 fourth graders, all of whom were grappling with personal, racial, societal, and/or communal trauma. Oftentimes, their trauma exposure responses interrupted our lessons and took us off course. It's easy to get very discouraged and frustrated by our students' pain, but as teachers, we need to recognize that once you can help a child to name the emotions and the trauma response, you can support them to move through it with acceptance, compassion, and grace.
With research, practice and time, I developed an understanding of what I was seeing, and began thinking about how to teach into the phenomenon of children expressing their trauma responses in the classroom. I began to notice a gamut of trauma responses and how they manifested for students behaviorally, cognitively, physically, interpersonally, and emotionally. In past scientific research, scholars believed that there were only two universal responses to stress and trauma, fight or flight. Clinicians and practitioners have since discovered additional manifestations of trauma such as friend and freeze. I've developed a framework throughout the years of my lived experience and learning alongside children and adults to comprise an application and extension of those ideas and how they might show up in educational settings as well as how we might misread them.
A fight response might manifest as anger or aggression. A person exhibiting a fight response might seem argumentative, confrontational, or explosive. School-specific scenarios might include students hitting, overreacting, throwing things, yelling, or displaying a confrontational nature. We may misread this behavior as the child being "aggressive, bad, emotionally disturbed, or having oppositional defiant disorder." A flight response could manifest as anxiety, panic attacks, paranoia, feeling trapped, escaping without a word, or literally running away. School-specific scenarios may include fidgeting, constantly asking to go to the bathroom, or looking for excuses to leave the room, or leaving the room without a warning or a word. We may misread this behavior as a child being distracting to other students, off task, or unfocused.
We may be concerned that they present a dangerous potential to run away. A freeze response may manifest as confusion, dissociation, hiding, numbing, spacing out, or procrastination. School-specific scenarios might include appearing shut down or withdrawn, physically slow moving, or a student being non-responsive. We may misread this behavior as a child being spaced out, emotionally distanced, cold, or depressed. A faint response may manifest as shutting down emotionally, mentally, spiritually, and physically. School-specific scenarios could include passing out, napping, or confusion. You might see a student exhibiting the faint response by placing their head down on a table. We may misread the student as disengaged, ill, tired, or seeking unnecessary attention.
A fawn response may manifest as being people-pleasing or overly accommodating. When people exhibit the fawn response, they fear disappointing others by saying no. They neglect personal needs to be accepted by others, or they take others' perspective to a fault. They betray their own needs and themselves. School-specific scenarios can include not going to the bathroom even if they need to go, constantly offering to help, having a strong social awareness, being hyper aware of others' emotions and needs before their own, or potentially being behind on their own work and still willing to help others in order to be accepted. We may misread them as annoying or a tattletale. On the other hand, we may misread them as helpful, super sweet, or a teacher's pet.
The forget response may manifest as losing materials, misremembering next steps for improvement plans, avoiding situations that could lead to conflict, or letting others make decisions. School-specific scenarios can include never bringing their materials, not remembering the intervention that you've given them, or seeming disorganized. We may read them as having ADD or ADHD, not wanting to learn, not caring about school, and even as disrespectful for dismissing interventions that we have put into place to help them succeed. The front response manifests as posturing or putting on a persona of toughness. School-specific scenarios may include coming off as stoic and having a poker face, not seeing others, especially adults as trustworthy, or not showing an emotional response to emotional stimuli.
We may misread them as strong and not in need of compassion, empathy, and tenderness. The fool response, and here fool is used as a verb, not as a noun, can manifest as laughing at inappropriate times and in inappropriate places, having nervous laughter, or laughing to keep from crying. School-specific scenarios may include coming off as the class joker or even being insensitive or cruel. We may misread the students as immature, insensitive, or out of touch. And finally, the friend response manifests as trauma bonding or forming relationships based on similar harmful experiences. Engaging with people who repeatedly cause harm, maintaining relationships based on "what's wrong", or the Stockholm syndrome. School-specific scenarios can include students who seem to be stuck in relationships that are "bad for them", but they see no way of getting out, friendships based constantly on discussing and reliving traumatic events, or a lack of healthy boundaries in social relationships.
We may think these friends are supporting one another, however, they may be circling in a toxic cycle of trauma, forcing students to constantly repeat it. You can find the chart of these descriptions of trauma responses in the PDF that accompanies this audiobook. I want to emphasize that this information is not a checklist or a tool to label children. These responses are verbs, not nouns. My hope is that this information serves as a resource for educators to identify and learn the manifestations of students' trauma responses. If as teachers we are not able to correctly identify a trauma response, we may react as if a student is behaving that way on purpose. We may turn to restricting privileges, detention or timeouts, and other punishments that don't address the root cause of the student's action or support them through their challenges.
We may even label the student as a bad kid and subconsciously treat them as such. Students are very perceptive and aware of how we feel about their trauma. They know when our classrooms and lesson plans do not have space for them to explore their responses, to integrate them, and to heal. The problem? Although social emotional learning may seem disconnected from academic content, the two are deeply interconnected. As Herman noted in 1992, when a student is exhibiting a trauma response, it overwhelms "the ordinary systems of care that give people a sense of control, connection, and meaning". In a word, children are unable to absorb and process what we are trying to teach if their brain is busy worrying about their safety. Now that we understand how trauma can appear in ourselves, our colleagues, families, and our students, we can identify the ways we may intentionally or unintentionally punish children for their trauma responses.
Here are some examples of how students can be punished for potential trauma responses. When we say something like, "You're not able to focus," or, "You can't just sit still," or, "Why can't you write? Everyone else's writing?" The impact of our words calls attention to students in a potentially humiliating way, dismisses the possibility of neurodiversity, holds students accountable to speak to issues they may not be able to understand themselves, uses students' weaknesses against them, and put some students in competition with their classmates for what may be out of their control. When we say, "I am not a psychologist. I am not a social worker. My job is to teach you, not be your therapist," or, "It's not my problem that you didn't eat. It's not my problem that you're living in an unstable home. It's not my problem that you've been absent for all these days. It's not my problem that your assignment is late."
The impact of our words deflect the teacher's responsibility to cultivate caring relationships with students, denies teachers opportunity to co-create safe spaces for students, promotes shame and silence instead of encouraging transparency and trust, dismisses the systemic inequities that lead to unequal access to resources, undermines the humanity of students, demonstrates that students will not be supported outside of learning, and encourages secrecy in regards to what is really bothering the student. When we ask, "Why did your mother drop you off so late?" We blame students for what is not within their control. It welcomes students with hostility rather than care. When we say, "I can't see you, why isn't your camera on?" The impact of our words regulates engagement to one measure of virtual presence, depriving students of the ability to participate in different ways.
It disregards the trauma students may experience when seeing themselves on camera. It disallows the opportunity for students to express why their cameras are off. It does not consider the mental, social and emotional toll of students being called out in front of their classmates. It polices students' bodies while they are at home, and it robs students of the ability to learn comfortably while at home. When we say things like, "This curriculum isn't for these kids," or, "These kids are traumatized and failing no matter what I do," or, "These kids don't want to learn," or, "These kids can't pronounce certain words and they don't even know what they mean," the impact of our words blames black and brown children for not adapting to a Eurocentric culture and curriculum. It stigmatizes students of color who experience trauma as incapable of learning.
It perpetuates academic, cultural, and social trauma by focusing on students' inability to meet standards instead of on what students need holistically to achieve academically, developmentally, socially, and emotionally. It fails to acknowledge the various learning needs of the students, and it uses curriculum as a pipeline instead of as a wire that can be bent to spark students' critical consciousness. These kinds of statements send messages about who we want students to be instead of accepting who they are and the reality they bring to the classroom. As a result, they can end up re-traumatizing the students instead of supporting them through challenges. A lot of these responses come from a place of feeling overwhelmed with mandates and the shifting nature of educating our students.
And these kinds of statements don't only apply when our students stand in front of us, many of us said things such as, "Turn your cameras on," or, "No eating during class," and used other body and home-controlling statements while teaching remotely. We had little to no idea what our students were going through or what their families were going through. In our quest for engagement and some sort of school structure, we were disregarding possible trauma responses and policing students' bodily autonomy as they sat in their own homes. Teaching is evolving into a practice with therapeutic accents, and this can be challenging for those of us with few resources and little training in trauma responsive pedagogy.
Although our intentions may be pure, our actions and words have a lasting impact on our students. They will often forget our lessons, our metaphors, and our instructions, but they will often remember how we honored their dignity and held space for their inherent worth no matter what they were experiencing. To stop unconsciously punishing our students for their trauma responses while simultaneously re-traumatizing the, we need to become conscious of all the ways we may dismiss, ignore, and push their trauma to the margins with the intention to teach them, thus dismissing their humanity.
When we take into account the role of trauma in students' lives and in our lives, we can see everyone's behavior in a different light. Well, that's it for our commute this morning. If you'd like to hear more from our Arlène and Courtney, you can stream or download the audiobook, Trauma-Responsive Pedagogy wherever you get your audiobooks. Thanks for listening, and let us know what you'd like to learn more about in our time together. You can learn more about Heinemann's audiobooks at heinemann.com/audiobooks.
Arlène Elizabeth Casimir is a Brooklyn-based activist, educator, herbalist, healer, and writer. Her experience teaching middle school and elementary school in New York City and New Orleans awakened her purpose of drawing on culturally-sustaining and trauma-responsive teaching practices to nurture the inner genius and inner teacher in others. She founded, designed, and implemented a healing-centered curriculum for her students post-Hurricane Katrina. As a first generation Haitian American, Arlène recognizes the power of community, equity, literacy, and spiritual resilience to help others live with personal integrity, transcend their circumstances, and author their own lives. She enjoys working with teachers, families, schools, and community organizations to do the inner work for socially just outer change. She is currently studying Clinical Psychology and Education with a concentration in Spirituality Mind Body at Teachers College, Columbia University; and leading her educational consultancy, The Awakened Collaborative, LLC where she works as a staff developer and partner to various institutions that are aligned to her mission, vision, and values as an educator.
Dr. Courtney N. Baker is an Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology at Tulane University. She is a licensed child clinical psychologist, and she directs the APA-Accredited School Psychology Doctoral Program, the Project DIRECT Early Childhood Consultation Service, and the Psychology Clinic for Children and Adolescents. Dr. Baker is a member of the Coalition for Compassionate Schools and the Violence Prevention Institute. She is an implementation scientist and a prevention scientist who studies violence prevention, including trauma-informed approaches, socioemotional learning, and school-based mental health. Dr. Baker’s research, teaching, and professional service aim to promote the well-being of children who are marginalized due to surviving adversity and trauma, living in poverty, or experiencing racism and discrimination. The long-term goal of Dr. Baker’s research is to shrink and prevent disparities in health and academic achievement.