In Plain Sight: What We Miss When Talking About Student Trauma

If a tree falls in the woods…no, wait. If a student experiences a traumatic event but no adult authority figure acknowledges it, does that event have adverse affects? Always, the research says. And that has been my experience too.

The ACEs study (Adverse Childhood Experiences) has documented that traumas in childhood predictably alter the quality of a person’s life later on (increased risks for major diseases, cancer, substance abuse, and other self-harming behaviors). Most people have a least a score of 1 on the ACEs scale of 1–10. Divorce, for example, counts as 1. After 6 ACEs, your life expectancy decreases. Rut -roh

Unless…

Every unhappy family is unhappy in its’ own way, so Tolstoy tells us in Anna Karenina. For 12 years, I worked in a last-chance high school full of students who wore trauma around their necks in the form of placard of friends and family killed or on their arms–tattooed trauma reminders of loved ones gone. These were clues in plain sight. No detective work required. Still, for too many of those years, I lumped traumas together (family member out of the picture, a friend killed, a major illness in the family) and avoided the personal specifics. But trauma, as Tolstoy reminds us, is always personal.

I didn’t ask about the tattoos, thinking it better if I didn’t remind students of people gone, sadness in their pasts. Only, RIP tattoos are there because someone wanted to etch a heartache into their DNA, making visible a person who was absent.

Trauma overwhelm is real and it prevents teachers from asking about students’ pasts. What I needed to say was, “Tell me about the person whose picture is around your neck. What were they like?” or “Your mom died. That’s so sad. Tell me about her.” Trauma is personal and no two traumas are alike. Addressing trauma is the least a teacher can do, and I should have known that.

The reason I should have known that is because I was that kid. In high school, for two weeks straight, I wet myself on my walk home from school. I blamed myself, never associating the terror of a bipolar dad with the sudden warmth trickling down my leg. One weekend, my dad was arrested at my brother’s ballgame for harassing my stepdad. I started leaving school early several times a week. On the softball field, I went from team MVP shortstop to a player who couldn’t catch any ball in right field. Trauma in plain sight. But no one wanted to embarrass me by saying something.

I saw my counselor when she called me in to ask about my future aspirations. I could tell she didn’t know me at all–we’d only met once before. She didn’t ask about my home life, and I wouldn’t have told her anything if she had. She did ask what I wanted to be. I said a fireman or astronaut because they held no interest for me and I could tell she wouldn’t care.

After 6 ACEs, your life expectancy decreases. Rut -roh.

Unless…An adult, a person in a position of authority, shows that they care. On a Friday during my sophomore year of high school, I was in Dr. Wendell’s science class, crying behind my hair. He saw me and handed me a tissue. On Monday, he said, “I was thinking about you. I was worried.” And I rejoined humanity.

That was everything, and that is least a teacher can can do. Because teachers are the people students see most often. Teachers are the people students look to as the authority figures when their parents are not there. That’s why teachers are the first responders, the detectives at the scene. When clues are there, ask about them. Someone could have asked me, “Jessie, tell me about your dad getting arrested at the ballgame.” It’s not nosey. It’s caring. I was thinking about it anyway. When you talk about it, you make it not shameful anymore.

I didn’t recognize my trauma overwhelm until a female student, a girl who’d had wild mood swings in class, stayed with me one afternoon finishing an assignment. I’d asked her to describe an important moment in her past. She wrote about when her mom died from cancer, how her dad didn’t know what to do, and how her teachers didn’t talk to her about it. It was then that she started acting out. The next year, her brother was shot and killed. She changed schools and started getting in trouble, and still, no one asked her what was wrong. No one at her new school knew her past. No one was playing detective. No one allowed her to share that her mom had died, giving her a chance to have a caring adult acknowledge that it was so, so sad. And her brother had died. And that was a whole different kind of sad. We talked about it as she wrote out her story, and her behavior in school improved dramatically.

Signs of Trauma: Trauma is there in plain sight in students who act out, students who drastically alter their appearance, students who come to class on mind-altering substances, those who cut, those who cut class, and those who suddenly change demeanor.

I never push students to tell me information when they are unwilling. I think of it as dropping a line without a hook: I’m just seeing if the fish has been waiting there, wanting to bite, and has never been given a chance. I use non-invasive, content appropriate prompts for students to share about themselves, structure the shares so that students can reveal a safe amount to their classmates and more to me if they want to. My workshop on trauma has worksheets and guidelines for safe prompts and teacher-led student sharing.

I always refer students to the school’s counselor, citing my concerns. I also tell the student that I have referred them for counseling, generally with the fear-calming, “I am starting the process of referring all of my students for counseling, just to check in more often with your counselor. Counselors are great people to talk to.”

When a student’s behavior is puzzling or concerning, I will often call home. I call because email isn’t appropriate for real concern. I also call because not all parents respond to email. Over the years, I’ve also come to understand that the way I was taught to make phone calls is…well…rude. I started out making phone calls by first ascertaining whether I was speaking to the right person. Parent: Hello? Me: Hi, is this ____’s mom?” Parent: “Who is this?” 

Let me try this again. “Hi, my name is Jessie Dorin and I’m ____’s teacher at ____ High School. Are you her mom?” When I get an affirmative, then I express my concern. I say clearly that I’m not a counselor, that I have referred the student to a counselor, but I also wanted to keep the parent in the loop. If it is something that the student denies (bulimia, substance abuse, etc.), I say that I may be wrong, but the student is important to me and I still wanted to let the parent know why I was suspicious in the first place. I’ve never had a parent get upset with that. I think it is because all adults want to be caring adults. But just like me, they may not know that it is a process that, with practice, is so easy and so life-altering for a young person.

To have me speak at your school about combating visible and hidden student trauma, email me at: JessieDorinCoaching@gmail.com

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