Lessons Learned: Trauma Sensitive Teachers

November 21, 2014

By: Craig Peterson

The right teacher can make all the difference – for every student and especially those children healing from past trauma.

Boy with a Birthday CakeWhen my son Alex joined the family at the age of 10, he hadn’t been in a regular classroom since first grade. His behavior had been out of control, with anger filled rages getting the best of him. After grabbing a pair of scissors off a teacher’s desk and attempting to stab the principal in the neck, he spent a month in residential treatment. Upon his return to school, he was limited to two hours of instruction per day. A beefy ex-Marine stood guard.

Talk about timing. Alex’s pre-adoptive placement in my home was approved three weeks later. Although the words RAD and attachment were never used, I knew a lot about my son’s unfortunate past.

Years of severe neglect – beginning at birth – were followed by a large dose of abuse at the hands of his birth mother’s boyfriend. Survival was all he knew.

I wanted my son in a general education classroom with appropriate role models, not another self-contained area for kids with severe behavior problems. Upon contacting the school principal and director of special education, I asked them to bring an open mind to the move-in case conference.

Alex’s long-time case manager from his four years in the system joined me. She concurred with my opinion. My new son needed a fresh start in a new environment.

After a tense three-hour meeting, school officials agreed to give him a chance – with his new fourth grade teacher being Miss Wright. She was a first-year teacher but understand the importance of empathy. A girl with Asperger’s Syndrome was doing better in her classroom than anyone imagined possible.

For the rest of the school year, Miss Wright never raised her voice once. Her tone was level.  Rather than asking Alex questions that could potentially back him into a corner – and perhaps trigger past trauma, she made intentional statements with an emphasis on sequence.

In other words, she made my son feel safe and then established trust – constantly modeling an appropriate teacher-student relationship.

Not only did Alex finish the year without a single behavior problem, he also earned straight As.

And to think just months ago this was the same boy who refused to do academic work each day, made numerous threats to female teachers and acted out at least once per week – aggressive behaviors that usually required him to be restrained.

One person had made a difference – someone who displayed the patience of a saint, someone who never judged and someone who walked in my son’s shoes every day. Clearly, Miss Wright should have been nominated for a “teacher of the year” award.

And according to my son, she remains his favorite teacher to this day – underscoring a simple fact. The right teacher can make all the difference in the world to children with attachment issues.

His fifth grade teacher followed Miss Wright’s plan and built upon the previous year’s success.  Unfortunately, the move to middle school was bumpy. Some of his seven teachers “got it,” but several re-traumatized him with their demands and lack of understanding. In hindsight, I should have kept his world small with trauma-sensitive individuals surrounding him.

Lessons learned – wishing I had another chance.

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