The Classroom through the Lens of Trauma

–by Janyne McConnaughey, Ph.D.

The doctor my parents took me to was wise beyond his era. He said, “She seems to be a bit anxious about school. Maybe it would help to keep her home for a week.” My first-grade report card proves that his advice was taken. In the midst of almost perfect attendance, there was an anomaly. It was called trauma.

I used to tell a story about that year, a story I believed to be absolute truth. I said my teacher was very mean, that she tied students to their desks, and some peed on themselves. I also said she took students back to the coat area, did bad things to them, and made them cry. Finally, I said that I refused to go to school and the teacher was removed from the classroom. When I went back, there was a nice teacher.


Then, I went to therapy. I told this story, but when I tried process the memory with EMDR, I realized it never happened. I found my report card and found that the same teacher signed it all year long — there was never a new teacher. Oddly, I did remember being terrified in the classroom. But why? What happened that year?

What happened was trauma and the resulting hyper-vigilance. The sexual abuse had begun at age three in a home daycare and occurred again somewhere around first grade. The child who lived that year was terrified of just about everything. She viewed life through a trauma lens.

The true memory I found was of a teacher laughingly saying, “If you don’t stay in your seat, I am going to have to tie you down.” I was so afraid to get out of my seat that I had an accident. The teacher, who was actually kind, would take the children to the back of the room to talk to them because she didn’t want to embarrass them — but they were often upset, and so they cried.

It was a bit disconcerting to realize the story I told my entire life wasn’t true. I now know it wasn’t true, but it was how I interpreted what was occurring around me. How I interpreted the situation was far more important than the truth. This was such an important insight!

As a teacher educator, I have spent a good amount of my career in classrooms. I loved school and never felt safer than when in a school. I remembered my teacher’s names and felt most of them liked me, but during this particularly turbulent year, I saw everything differently.

I have also taught students from preschool to graduate school, and always believed that the students and I observed or experienced in the classroom the same thing. Once in a while, a student would confront me about something and I would wonder why they saw what happened so differently. Yes, we humans always see things from different perspectives, but trauma adds another layer, that of fear, to one’s interpretation.

Trauma is a lens. Children who have experienced trauma do not view the world the same ways as children who have not experienced trauma. If we, as the adults are aware of the trauma, we may recognize their misinterpretations; but if the trauma is hidden, as mine was, unusual behavior is the only clue.

Behavior is based on needs. My need was to feel safe, so I hid at my desk, drowned in anxiety, and as a result, became ill. I am not exactly sure why my week at home helped but I am thankful for a doctor who seemed to understand what I needed. I probably needed time to fully repress the trauma and stabilize emotionally.

When I returned, the teacher and the classroom had returned to normal. If my trauma had continued, as it does for many children, my fear of the classroom probably would not have dissipated, and if I had tried to explain what I thought was happening, it would have sounded like I was lying. For over fifty years, I was absolutely convinced that what I saw through the lens of trauma was true… and for a small traumatized child, it was.


Coming soon: The Fine Art of Consequences, Part II, by Julie Beem



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