Top Five Symptoms of Trauma in the Elementary Classroom & A Story from the Wild West

Trauma in the elementary classroom by Bow Tie Guy & Wife

We love stories from history. As we were perusing the Library of Congress archives, we found a story from the Wild West, circa 1865....

Two brothers were taking care of their family’s cattle in Arizona when they stopped for lunch. The 17 year old was reading a book while propped against a tree while the 11 year old played in a nearby creek. Doing typical things for boys during the mid-1800s, they never expected their day to go horribly wrong. Out of nowhere, Geronimo, an Apache War Leader, killed the older brother while the 11 year old watched. Trying to escape, he was captured by the war team where he assimilated over the next 6 months. Meet Santiago McKinn. His life was literally shaken upside-down. He was taken from his family, witnessed a murder, and had to conform to a new culture and language, all while wondering if/when he would be the next to die. Thankfully, the story ends with him so well adjusted to his newfound life that he protested leaving the Apache when he was finally found. In fact, he was angry and “acted like a wild animal in a trap” when soldiers persuaded him to go home. 

So many emotions to process, so much sadness and relief at the same time. Frozen by which language he should use to communicate. Reverted to the language he'd learned and used for the last few months, which caused even more concern for the soldiers trying to rescue him. How does a kid process all of this?

This brings us to the main point of this post. We know assessment and rigor are education buzz words, but quickly joining the #teacherlife vocab list is a six letter word pronounced trauma. Most of us read this story from the Wild West and it likely triggered the experiences of a child we know. A child that has been angry and acted like a caged animal in our classroom. A child speaking a language that we cannot understand....or doesn't communicate at all. A child dealing with some form of trauma. Trauma affecting their entire life, and with that, your classroom.

5 Symptoms of Trauma in the Elementary Classroom by Bow Tie Guy & Wife

Trauma is an event, or series of events, that overwhelms the central nervous system. Trauma occurs when one’s ability to defend, protect, or say no is overwhelmed. Even more simply, trauma is what occurs when your solution (active response to threat) does not work.”-Empowering Education

As educators, T-R-A-U-M-A is one vocabulary word that we need to study as much as possible. Learning how to recognize and identify the symptoms of trauma can help us understand confusing behaviors and rising mental health concerns in our children. You know the ones….those students that leave us royally exhausted and out of words and emotions by the end of each day. In 2020, it is vital that educators understand how trauma affects our classrooms on a daily basis. Having a better knowledge of trauma can also help us empathize with students and avoid misdiagnosis (such as ADHD). In turn, we might just be able to salvage some of our own personal emotional energy for our family and friends. 

While we certainly aren’t experts, we’ve served our fair share of children dealing with trauma and have researched quite a bit on the subject. Here are the top 5 symptoms of trauma that we've seen in students:

  1. Trouble building relationships with teachers (acting out, disrespect, ignoring authority)
  2. Inability to self-regulate (cannot calm themselves/manage their emotions appropriately)
  3. Negative self-talk (poor motivation)
  4. Jumpy, overly alert to dangers/“on edge” (constantly moving, unable to be still)
  5. Challenges with executive functions (thinking things through, planning, paying attention)

These are our students who are so easily overstimulated. They are distracted by every little thing. They have either extremely heightened (or dulled/numb) senses and awareness/unawareness of surroundings. Sometimes they respond to things emotionally in ways that don’t match the event that occurred. They may be easily attached…or withdrawn. These seem like a rollercoaster of variables to look for, but that’s really a key indicator in itself. These students don’t immediately need our discipline, they need our attention. They need instruction for physical and emotional regulation more than math and language arts. They need modeled practice of how to handle situations in and out of the classroom walls. We aren't trying to add one more thing to your already full plate. But we know that awareness is key and that once it is in our teacher brain to "look for", we are already more equipped.

Part 2 of this post will be what to do AFTER you’ve determined that you have a student (highly likely studentS) who is dealing with trauma and will provide practical tips for a more peace-filled classroom. If you have tried and true methods for helping students with trauma, feel free to share them with us! 

Resources for TRAUMA:

Trauma in the elementary classroom by Bow Tie Guy & Wife