A great woman I know recently posted an article on Facebook about children who have lived through adverse experiences in childhood. The interest this woman has in the article stemmed from a teacher’s perspective in working with students who zone out, disconnect, act out, and otherwise remain distant. For her, understanding the cause of various behaviors and moods in the classroom offers the ability to assess each student from a shifted perspective. With the right tools, teachers can assist children caught in a fight, flight, or freeze pattern and bring them back to the present. The key is to connect with trauma survivors in childhood, provide safety, and validate their experiences when they open up.

The biggest question of all is, “How do we get children to open up?” That is a skill some people have naturally, and all people can learn. In fact, I believe it is imperative that we know how to open the door to encourage children to feel safe and communicate. First, however, I believe it is necessary to explain a real-life scenario a child can experience and how that relates to the battlefield which exists in schools and classrooms across the country.

Please note, if you have lived through domestic abuse, the following contained between the horizontal bars could cause triggered reactions.

Imagine, for just a few moments, that you are growing up in a home riddled with domestic abuse. You spend your time feeling insecure, walking on egg shells, and attempting to be as invisible as possible. When you reach your front door, you take a deep breath and listen intently; are people yelling? Is there more silence than usual? Does anything look out of place outside? Is there evidence of another fight? Then you open the door, eyes scanning every surface while listening intently. Who is home? Realizing it’s just you and your Mom, you let out a sigh of relief and ask when Dad will be home. Mom says he will be home after work, a couple of hours from now. In that instant, you feel safe.

Mom suggests a snack and sits down to help with your homework. You smile and share about your day while eating. Before long, you finish your homework. You notice your Mom looking at the clock on the wall. She is nervous and with her voice quivering, states she needs to start dinner and suggests you play outside for a while. Your anxiety begins to increase. Playing outside sounds safe. You can hide in your fort and imagine a fantastical world far, far away.

Mid-slay of a ferocious dragon, you hear the deep rumble of the truck coming down the street. Immediately, your heart races and sweat begins to break the surface of your forehead. The engine goes silent, and the door slams shut; he’s in a bad mood. You run for the back door and stand stiff, searching for the courage to go inside. He’s screaming because dinner isn’t on the table. He says to her loud enough for the neighbors to hear, “You are worthless! How can you not get your shit together and have dinner ready when I walk in the door?” Mom whimpers, “Dinner will be ready and on the table after you’ve showered.” He retorts, “Now you are telling me what I’m supposed to do when I get home? Bitch!” You hear his boots stomping on the hardwood floors followed by a door slamming shut.

Sheepishly, you crack open the back door and look at Mom’s tear-stained face. She rushes you to wash up for dinner and sit at the table. The cabinets are creaking quickly, followed by clanking dishes. You sit in your seat and look at the scriptures on the wall, praying God will save you both from him. Just as you look up, Mom places plates on the table, and he walks in and sits down, scowling. He looks at you and says, “It’s your turn to pray.” Shaking, you begin.

Father, thank you for this food we are about to receive. Thank you for the roof over our heads, electricity to power the lights, and clothes on our bodies. Thank you for this day. Please keep us all safe from harm. Amen.

During dinner, he speaks few words. Instead, he sighs loudly. You think the tension is thick tonight. Last night, he was cheerful and pleasant. Why can’t he be that way every day? Why does he get so angry? You question if you are the cause of his anger and remember she stays because he threatened never to let her see you if she left. God, help us.

After dinner, you clean the table and ask if you can help with the dishes. Mom suggests you go ahead and take a bath and get ready for bed. You agree and collect your pajamas before going to bathe. After the water stops running, you hear his muffled voice through the wall. He’s demanding she finds a job to pay for someone to take better care of this house than she does. She’s not deserving of a home. You can’t hear her say anything in response. Moments later, she’s vacuuming again. He’s yelling something over the noise. You are scared and know you better not spend more time in the tub.

You have your book to read, and someone has to sign your reading log for school tomorrow. Will he snap if you mention it? What happened today? You emerge from the bathroom cautiously. Mom is scrubbing the grease off the floor from his boots. He’s on the couch, chatting with someone on his computer.

You say goodnight and give hugs. In bed, you listen carefully for signs of more fighting. Somehow, you drift off to sleep and hear nothing more.

At school, this child hears loud sounds that remind him of the doors slamming. Dishes clanking which transport him back into the kitchen where his frantic mother tries to keep the peace. Sees mops and brooms which remind him of how his dad destroys their home and his mom cleans it up. Hears the subtle changes in a teacher’s voice when they become frustrated by children not following directions. Children yelling causes tension, backpacks slammed on desks takes him to the hell at home, and dirty looks remind him of the man who claims to love him. Every single place this child turns provides a reminder of the trauma he lives through regularly.

In class, this student is silent. He refuses to respond to any stimuli. Some staff question if he has attention deficit disorder. He’s frozen, stuck in a cycle of repeating what recently happened and tried to find a way to behave differently, so his mom isn’t yelled at again. He forgot to have his mom sign his reading log, and you reprimand him. He winces. All he desires is running far, far away. You took away his recess – the one chance he had to help himself feel better so he can focus. Why would you do this? He didn’t do anything wrong. He just forgot.

There is a solid wall you, as his teacher, have to break through to gain his trust. He doesn’t have healthy relationships with which to model how to communicate or the ability to believe another person in his life will help if he does ask. Your first responsibilities as a teacher are not to educate him on addition or subtraction; it is to encourage this child to stay in the present and build trust in you. That’s a daunting prospect when you have twenty other students in your classroom, many of which are living through similar challenges like this one. What can you do?

Implement mindfulness, deep breathing, and exercise breaks in the classroom – this seems far more disruptive than it will be, I assure you! At the start of the day when students are first seating and role has been taken, ask them all to stand next to their desks and close their eyes. Have them breathe in and out ten times slowly. Once refreshed from breathing, have your students stretch high to the sky and down to their toes. Ask them to march in place. By all means, change up the rotation and activities each day, abstaining from a predictable pattern.

One to two minutes of being active and mindfulness shifts the brain from auto-pilot into engaged and aware of their current state of being. If a child zones out after something happens, “accidentally” drop a pencil or pen near their foot and ask them to hand it to you. Smile. Express gratitude. Then keep carrying forward. If you have a child who continues to zone out without an easily recognizable trigger, offer an in-class project to shift their perspective. Be available for that child to stay in during recess (ONLY if they desire) to pass a ball around. Remind them of their value, worth, and intelligence. Be aware of your moods and how each child might feel. Connect on a different, deeper level. Shift the brain from trauma survival to engaged. Give each child time.

Keep this process up for months on end. You’ll discover a complete change in how your student functions in your classroom in addition to how they interact with you. Yes, it’s hard. I do not, by any means, believe that teachers should be solely responsible for recognizing and helping navigate a child through adverse childhood experiences; I do know, however, most

A child may never open up and share their secrets with you, but you will be making a difference in their life. You will be the bearer of hope in hopelessness, love in lovelessness, and stability in turbulent waters. Years from now, you might be the one teacher they reach to when they finally feel they can speak the unspeakable. When that happens, act.

It is instrumental to gain a child’s trust; do this by taking them from panic to present and keep them active. Breathing exercises are great as a tool, but they aren’t enough by themselves. You absolutely must get a child active to reset the mind and keep them feeling safe, secure, and stable – even if only while they are in your precious care.


Additional Resources

  1. The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma (amazon)
  2. American Journal of Preventative Medicine
  3. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry
  4. Childhood Trauma Leads to Lifelong Chronic Illness