Bad Behaviour or Anguish in Disguise?


Bad behaviour or Anguish in Disguise?

Why we need trauma-sensitive practice in every school.

“I’m never, ever going to be a teacher!” The words tumbled out amidst the three year

old’s heart-felt sobs, frustration and hurt evident in his voice. “She didn’t even want to

learn how to play the game. She just pushed it onto the floor! ... While I was trying to

teach her how to play!” More distressed sobs.

The conversation was in reference to a game the little boy had been busting to play

because it had numbers to 999. He was well on his way to learning the pattern of three

digit numbers and deemed playing this to be more interesting than the “things” they

had to play with at preschool, hence he had decided that he would take this to share

with the other kids. But the three year old girl who had initially shown an interest in

playing with him, soon abandoned the game, and in style it seemed. No one else

wanted to play.

His Mum had talked him into including a range of numbers from 1 to help make the

game easier for others to join in, but it was clear to her on this sorrowful afternoon, that

this has been unsuccessful. It had simply left two young children feeling frustrated, and

one feeling wounded that once again, no one wanted to play his games. He felt

different, like an alien in his own skin, and alone. What his Mum didn’t forsee was

that this would not be an isolated experience and that as a result, stress would be

ongoing and become toxic, resulting in trauma that would change the course of their


Trauma; it disrupts development, creating serious and often permanent changes, at the

systemic, cellular and genetic levels. The impact of this is seen through poor health,

disrupted development, and trust and attachment issues, which tend to play out as

disruptive or unfocused behaviour, limited healthy interpersonal connections, and

delays in learning.

So what do we mean by “trauma”?

Too many of our learners are experiencing suboptimal opportunities as a result of

unaddressed trauma responses. But what do we actually mean by trauma, and how can

we recognise it? Drawing on definitions by Karen Onderk and the Australian Childhood

Foundation, trauma can be described as the biological and emotional response to

single, multiple and/or ongoing distressing experiences that overwhelm an individual’s

ability to cope, resulting in feelings of helplessness and inescapability, a diminished

sense of self, and inability to feel the full range of emotions. It is an interplay between

environment and genes, with experiences of chronic toxic stress resulting in epigenetic

changes. In other words, traumatic experiences can alter a person genetic expression.

Traumatic experiences take many shapes and forms: physical and emotional; simple

and complex; overt and discrete. These can impact directly through first hand

experience, vicariously as a witness or support person, and even across two or more

generations, including historical trauma which can impact beyond seven generations.

Most importantly, what might be traumatic to one person or group, may not be viewed

or experienced as traumatic to another. Severity of the stressor(s), length of exposure,

genetic predisposition, the sensitivity, resilience, and prior experiences of the person(s)

involved, and the level of support from a safe and trusted other, all influence the

likelihood of trauma being experienced. Ultimately though, regardless of how the

trauma occurs, the underpinning biology is the same, and recognising this is the key

when it comes to trauma-sensitive practice.

Embed video [ReMoved]:

What are we looking for?

When someone has experienced trauma and not had the time and support required to

heal from it, they are going to live life on full alert, hyper-vigilant for anything at all that

might signal a potential threat. It could be a high or low pitched sound, a smell or

colour associated with a memory, the tone of a teacher, or expression of a peer, or

perhaps that they are faced with a classroom task that seems insurmountable

(regardless of how ‘simple’ it appears to the teacher). Reflecting on the video above,

what do you think might have been the reason behind the girl’s response to the gift?

Kids with traumatic backgrounds will have likely developed faulty neuroception,

mistaking benign situations as dangerous, resulting in their nervous system being

triggered into fight, flight, freezeor fawn (sometimes referred to as submit) and as such,

seeming to be overly reactive and often extreme in their responses. This can leave

those around them feeling bewildered and wondering what to do, in terms of trying to

identify the reasons behind the behaviour, how to de-escalate in the heat of the

moment for those in fight mode, and what prevention strategies to implement. Just as

with the adults, the child is often left feeling startled, scared and uncertain about their

own overwhelming and seemingly unpredictable feelings and behaviours, building a

view of themselves in response to other’s reactions; bad, naughty, disrespectful, angry,

uncontrollable...not okay.

If we can recognise that the behaviours we see are not intentional, and cannot be

controlled by choice given the biological underpinnings, we have the opportunity to

reappraise our responses and strategies in order to be better equiped to develop

positive student-teacher relationships, reduce experiences of trauma triggering, co-

regulate to de-escalate, and explicitly teach emotional literacy, including bodily

sensations and the biology of flipping ones’ lid, and associated coping skills. In effect,

we are setting these kids up for success, the chance to be well, learn and thrive.

Embed video [What is Trauma Informed Practice):

Where to from here?

Trauma-sensitive (or trauma-informed) practice starts at the school gate. As noted in the

video above, it is a school-wide approach, that requires buy-in from all school

governance, leadership and staff. It is a shift in thinking and practice, but the results,

well, they speak for themselves.

At six years of age, that little boy from the opening anecdote was excluded from school

having been unsuccessful in transitioning. But ... three years on, he is now thriving in a

trauma-informed learning environment. He tells me that his favourite computer game is

Champions of Shenga, a game where he is developing his deep breathing technique

amidst game play with biofeedback, and that he welcomes the sharing of his

experiences to help others learn about the importance of understanding trauma, it’s

impacts, and most importantly, how to help kids through it.

For some inspirational trauma-informed practice, watch the awesome work of Kiwi

principal Hamish Brewer in America, the wonderful work being done around historical

trauma at Kia Aroha College, and an example of modeling of emotions by Dr. Becky

Bailey. If you would like to learn more about trauma-informed education practices,

check out the Australian resource, making SPACE.

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Vanessa White is a gifted education specialist, with an intense professional interest in supporting young people who experience anxiety and trauma responses. She is the co-ordinator for the gifted and talented education endorsement of the Massey University Specialist Teaching programme, on the Ministry of Education Gifted Education Advisory Group, an adviser for the New Zealand Association for Gifted Children, and blogger for the New Zealand Centre for Gifted Education. She will be presenting on the topic of trauma at the upcoming Supporting At-Risk Learners event being run by Potential to Performance (Gladstone Primary School, 17 April 2019) providing an array of practical classroom strategies and responses.

Vanessa White