The boy can barely keep his bum still on the chair. He has so much he wants to tell me, so much he needs to do, right this moment. His limbs move with such excitement and yet he’s only at school, sat in the corridor practising his English.
He is not an easy boy to teach. He’s bright and enthusiastic but seen as disruptive and undisciplined. He doesn’t fit in the system and so he’s hard work. It’s hard work for him, for the teachers and for his fellow students.
Students misbehave and play up for all sorts of different reasons
If you’d asked me when I was at school myself about classmates who couldn’t keep their mouths shut, I would have been quite disparaging. Emotional regulation seemed like a reasonably basic concept and I couldn’t understand why some people seemed not to have it.
Of course, as time passed my own ability to regulate my own emotions became rather tested, and my emotions, so strong and so true, dominated, blinding me, delaying me from having any perspective of how I was impacting other people.
To an extent, this is normal and happens to all of us as part of regular life
People burst into tears, they lose their tempers, they stamp and the stomp and then hold grudges or feel guilty and the emotions work their way out and life continues.
A child bursts into tears on one Wednesday in March, you don’t worry too much about it. A child bursts into tears every Wednesday in March, you start to worry.
Recently I completed a tiny little course on the impact of trauma in the classroom run by the British Council. Trauma, I know from first-hand experience screws up your ability to regulate your own emotions. It can turn a sensible, disciplined adult to a wailing screaming shouting violent mess in an instant without any warning whatsoever. It can also make a determined, hard working student lose belief and become apathetic to their studies.
Trauma effects that part of the brain that gives us the self-control to study
It effects the way we process information. That internal voice that we tend to need to remind us that we’ve put the washing in the machine and we’ll soon need to hang it on the line, falters. A student might be given a task, but it doesn’t mean they recall what they were told to do five minutes before or understand why they are here in this classroom learning these verb forms. Trauma plays games with the memory. Verb forms are irrelevant if your brain is still hooked on an event from the past, an event which haunts the present. Past and present merge and mingle and you’re sitting safe in the classroom, with part of your mind wandering through hell, and someone’s asking you when to use the present perfect continuous.
I have been thinking about trauma and classrooms and students who might want to learn but don’t know how to learn and teachers who want to teach, but who can’t reach their students.
I have been thinking of all this, and studying that course, because how I think is now defined by my past. I no longer wander though hell on a regular basis when I ought to be doing something else, something more productive, but the path of trauma is embedded, neuron to neuron, throughout my brain. I don’t wander that way anymore, at least not so often anymore, because I’ve learnt to look after myself.
Trauma results in an inability to self-regulate
Students who have been, or who are being traumatised may seem uninterested, unfocused, volatile, reserved, defensive, threatening, insecure or unaware. This, understandably, makes teachers insecure and defensive.
The same drama has played out in my own brain time and time again, the critic and the victim, the pain driven need to rescue and defend, the anger and the irritation, the wailing screaming shouting violent mess.
But I am not a wailing screaming shouting violent mess today. And I haven’t been a wailing screaming shouting violent mess for some time now. I’m uncomfortable and emotionally fraught. It’s been a few tough months and at times quite distressing, but fundamentally, emotionally, I’m looking after myself.
And it’s creating safety that makes the difference
It’s a steady, genuine care that is willing to be patient. It’s providing a stable environment, structure with routine and predictability. It’s acknowledging emotions rather than trying to box them up. It’s sharing relaxion techniques, learning how to be mindful, being quiet, listening and showing respect.
We all must learn to do this for ourselves and for others. We rarely know who has been traumatised and we cannot know which of us will be traumatised next. We can all though improve how we respond to people who cannot control their pain and who struggle to fit within our rigid system of acceptable societal behaviour. Which is why I did the course.
As for the disruptive child whom I had the pleasure of teaching
For me he’s a role model.
One day, in one of our conversations I asked him about daily routines. He explained, every morning before school he runs 5km attempting to manage his energy levels and do what he can to keep his bum sat on his chair.
Often, students are working a whole lot harder than we give them credit for.