Lark Eshleman: Curriculum and the Traumatized Child

October 4, 2014

by:  Gari Lister

This interview was part of ATN’s Educating Traumatized Children Summit (Day 5).

Lark Eshleman, PhD:  Curriculum and the Traumatized Child

Lark Eshleman explains that school curriculum — both reading and assignments — can often trigger traumatized children and send them into a dysregulated state. Which assignments and which books will trigger will depend on the individual child’s history. For example, if a child has lost her mother, books which even discuss a mother and child may trigger her, while a child who has gone through periods without food may be triggered by an assignment to cut out pictures of food.

So as a parent how do you handle these kinds of challenges? First, Eshleman suggests you educate the teacher about your child and help them understand the child’s history. Find an article that explains the impact of trauma on the brain or children who react how yours does. And if the teacher won’t respond, then enlist the help of the school counselor and go up the line to explain the situation. Sadly, sometimes parents need to prioritize in order to protect their children while they are healing. Because until a child has healed, a trigger will send a traumatized child into a tailspin, and they won’t be learning.

Eshleman also notes that sometimes — depending on a child’s specific situation — it may help to educate not just the teacher, but also the principal, the bus driver, and maybe even the child’s classmates. Everyone the child comes in contact with is a potential ally in the effort to manage the his or her trauma. Eshleman notes that a child’s peers can sometimes be a wonderful resource when they know what has happened to their classmate.

The second way a parent can help their child handle school challenges is by understanding their child’s curriculum and the hidden triggers that may lie within, says Eshleman. If an assigned book might present emotional triggers, perhaps the teacher can assign an alternative book. When a project might be especially difficult, parents can ask whether the child can complete the assignment at home. At home, a parent can help the child with the assignment, and do it in little pieces so that as soon as the assignment becomes overwhelming, they can help the child take a break and play basketball, or go for a walk. She points out that by helping your children get through really hard projects at home this way, you are helping children learn how to regulate themselves through challenging projects.

One assignment that almost always presents problems, Eshleman says, is an assignment about family. Sometimes children can write about an imaginary family, or pick one from a movie to write about.

Finally, Eshleman suggests that when the curriculum cannot not changed to accomodate a traumatized child, the way in which it is implemented can. For example, a child who has to take a test which deals with triggering material could take the test in the resource room rather than the classroom. That way, if they need to cry, if they otherwise become dysregulated, they are not doing so in front of the entire class. Another modification that can be helpful is obtaining permission for a child to leave the classroom when material is discussed that triggers them.

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