Children who experience chronic, complex trauma are vulnerable to a host of
behavioral and educational problems, yet educators often feel frustrated with
their attempts to respond.
Natalie Turner, M.S., L.M.H.C., of Washington State University says
schools have alternatives to punishing "bad" behavior by children
affected by trauma.
Credit: Aaron Levin
Frequently those problems are treated—ineffectively—as
disciplinary issues, but a more helpful way of dealing with them might involve
some eye-opening training for teachers, said Natalie Turner, M.S., L.M.H.C.,
program director at the Area Health Education Center for Eastern Washington at
Washington State University in
"Too often educators focus on punishing these children, when what is
needed is accountability balanced with empathy," said Turner at the
National Association for Rural Mental Health annual meeting in Albuquerque in
Complex trauma is pervasive, episodic trauma that persists over time and
often co-occurs with poverty, family violence, substance abuse, or community
violence, said Turner. "These children grow up in an unsafe, chaotic,
unpredictable world where they see things as threatening even when they are
not, because that is what their experience has taught them."
Constant stress induced by complex trauma appears to cause changes in the
brain, leading to difficulties with motor skills, language, social behavior,
"It's hard for them to stay in their seats, to listen, and to process
and retain information," she said. It also takes time and perhaps some
teacher retraining so that the children can be helped to overcome those
Although many of these children will not develop problems, the ones who do
are often punished in the expectation that it will change their behavior.
The child may respond to a teacher's request for quiet or control by
looking away, putting his or her head down on the desk, or simply ignoring the
teacher. This may result in the child's being sent to the principal's office
for punishment for acting "disrespectful," the leading reason for
The behavior can resemble symptoms for ADHD, anxiety, or bipolar disorder,
and children are eventually so diagnosed, often because it is the only way
they can get treatment, said Turner.
"Teachers personalize this behavior, although 99 percent of the time
it has nothing to do with them," said Turner. This behavior is a
response to the trauma laying unseen by the teacher in a child's home or
The teacher's reaction makes things only worse. It publicly shames the
students, removes them from the learning setting in class, and doesn't change
their behavior. Even though the process rarely works, educators continue to do
what they've always done because they haven't developed alternatives.
Counseling or medications may help many of these children, but more might
be done to lessen the apparent conflict in the classroom before it
Changing both students' and educators' behavior isn't easy.
"Teachers may need more child-development training," she said."
They don't need to know if a child is traumatized; they just need to be
It can take a long time to create a sense of safety in the classroom and
rebuild lost attachment. Teachers have to play a consistent, safe, and
predictable role over a long period, building relationships that may not exist
elsewhere in the children's lives. Students need help with skills to regulate
their emotional responses and cope in healthy ways with threatening
"All children have the potential to overcome adversity," she
Parents need support, too. Many have grown up in households where they were
traumatized and so may need help breaking the cycle that is harming their
Turner and her colleagues have begun pilot programs in Washington state
using a model that calls for restructuring the classroom and professional
environments and helping teachers recognize, understand, and control their own
responses to children's behavior without having to send them to the
principal's office. They also have commitments from four school
superintendents to try out the program in a clinical trial randomized on the
building level. ▪