The Effects of Trauma in the Classroom

–by Janyne McConnaughey, PhD

“It’s just me.”

That’s what I used to think about my behavior, including when I myself was a student.

Then I began to learn. My growing understanding of the effects of trauma on children and how they learn has come from several sources. In addition to my own experiences as a traumatized child and later as a teacher educator, I have been researching trauma-sensitive schools while watching a series of webinars produced by NICABM. While the information is intended for clinicians and therapists, it has been incredibly informative at this juncture of my personal journey as well.

A recent webinar discussed dysregulation in clients. Contrary to what one might think, dysregulation is actually useful during therapy, since it means something is surfacing that needs work. This means that restlessness, irritability, anger, shutting down, and crying can all be productive in a therapy session.

Photo by Jens Lindner on Unsplash

However, what works in therapy can cause difficulties in the classroom, mainly because these same responses come across as inappropriate behavior. Yet these behaviors are not a conscious choice the child is making. They happen when the child’s emotions are outside of her window of tolerance. We all have this window –it is why something that sends one person over the edge may have no effect on another. Some people have bigger windows than others. For those with attachment wounds and trauma, that window can be very small.

There are two responses to this: hyperarousal and hypoarousal. They look different, but have the same cause. Hyperarousal is obvious in the sense that it is almost always disruptive. The child isn’t trying to be bad; he or she is trying to survive. Likewise in hypoarousal, the child is trying to survive, but it looks very different because the child is shutting down. While hypoarousal is generally less disruptive, teachers sometimes still see it as a problem because the child may appear uncooperative and unwilling to do his work.

Most of our classroom behavior strategies focus on controlling these episodes. But control is a cognitive process that ignores the emotions that are the root cause of the problem. Controlling emotions can cause emotions to escalate internally until the child is pushed outside of her window of tolerance. There is an alternative, however: teachers can help a child to process her emotions, rather than merely send her to a corner “to think about her behavior.”

Emotions and cognitive thinking occur in different parts of our brain. The child is not able to use higher-order thinking skills while she is trapped in another (lower) part of the brain. Some children –usually those who are securely attached and/or have suffered less trauma– know how to self-regulate and self-soothe. Those who can’t need help to process what they feel, rather than being left to stew in their emotions.

How to help, though? What helps one child may be a trigger for another. Any type of touch can go in any number of directions. Trying to get a student to talk while she is trapped in the lower part of their brain is useless. You almost have to throw logic out the window, for dysregulation is not logical. Focus instead on finding what makes the child feel safe. This is the key to getting her back into the tolerance window. Just remember: this takes time. We’re on a journey, not speeding through the drive-thru.

For me, one answer was sustained eye contact, but that might be a trigger for others. If the child is uncomfortable with your gaze, can you simply sit beside him? Could you talk slowly, quietly, gently? Could you allow him to walk around the room? Could you toss a ball with him? Offer him a fidget spinner? (I know we educators complain about them, but they do help some children!) Be creative, especially since, sadly, we have limited many of the things that actually help children soothe emotions—recess, art, music, etc.

One of the keys is to notice when children are heading out their window of tolerance. I think most teachers would say that they know the meltdown is coming even before it happens. Watching body language from the moment children enter the room is an essential teaching skill I used, but unfortunately did not teach while training teachers for more than thirty years. I never mentioned trauma as a possible cause of a child’s behavior, although I did often admonish new teachers, “You do not know their story.” It was a step in the right direction.

I realize now that my own story was informing me as a teacher. If I saw warning signs, I would gather the group and read a short book. I read a lot of books. I didn’t wait for everyone to be quiet; I simply began to read—very quietly so they had to focus on listening. Even if the one beginning to dysregulate didn’t join the group, the quietness in the room seemed to help.

The more strategies and tools we put in place to keep children in their window of tolerance, the more we can focus on teaching, rather than behavior. It won’t be easy to change the classroom management mindset that has prevailed for as long as I can remember, but if we can look at behavior through the lens of attachment and trauma, we’ll be on the path to success.


Manager’s note: Janyne has a book coming very soon! Click here to order yours: BRAVE: A Personal Story of Healing Childhood Trauma

Janyne McConnaughey, member of the ATN Board of Directors, is a retired teacher educator and Professor Emeritus who taught every age from preschool to graduate school during her forty-year career. She completed a Ph.D. in Educational Leadership, from the University of Colorado—Denver in 2006, with an emphasis in Early Childhood and Math Education. After retiring, and an intensive healing journey for significant childhood trauma, she now devotes her time to writing, speaking, and blogging. Along with Brave: A Personal Story of Healing Childhood Trauma (2018) and Jeannie’s Brave Childhood: Behavior and Healing through the Lens of Attachment and Trauma (2019), Janyne is working on a prequel to Brave which should be available in 2020. She and her husband Scott, are now living in the Seattle area near their children and grandchildren and love exploring the Pacific Northwest.