José was one of the calmest, quietest, most peaceful boys in the classroom. The kind of boy everybody loves.
José had thick, coal-black hair and shiny black-marble eyes. He was always in an immaculate, crisp school uniform. José’s family emigrated from a small town in Panama, shortly before José’s birth. They now live here in a quiet working class neighborhood.
José is proud of “his country”, Panama, and he loves soccer. He brought his own ball to school often. If there was a televised soccer game involving Panama, José knew all about it.
José’s strong academic performance started in first grade. His reading level at the start of second grade was about half-year ahead, in the top 10% of the class. His math results were in the top quarter of the class.
WHEN YOU PEEK INSIDE A CLASSROOM THERE ARE SOME THINGS YOU CAN NOT SEE
A few weeks into the new school year José’s reserved social traits began to intensify. He had been polite and respectful, but he became unusually silent and spacey.
José’s evolving behaviors were more than ‘daydreaming’: he was detached, stunned, almost ‘robotic, with muted responses, low energy, chronic fatigue and more.
José had poor vision, yet now he frequently forgot the glasses he needed just to see the board. “I think they’re on my bed”.
He stopped participating in class.
When called on to answer a question, José often hadn’t even heard the question. He sometimes completely checked-out with his head down on the desk. He was unresponsive and avoidant with classmates.
By late fall, José’s academic pattern was wildly inconsistent. A student’s literacy results are usually in a narrow range, but José’s pattern had broad swings between ‘A/B’ and ‘D/F’, week by week.
I had suspicions about deeper, life issues for José, but other more aggressive, distracting kids seemed to always demand my focus. I am too embarrassed to admit how long it took me to hear directly from José. . . In private I shared with him that I was surprised at his score on the latest reading test, because I knew from his other tests that he was able to do the work. I mused aloud that sometimes when things change at school, it’s because things had changed at home first. I asked if everything was okay at home?. . .
Developmental, or “Childhood” Trauma is a response of overwhelming or helpless fear: a response to abuse, neglect, divorce, death or household violence or dysfunction and more. These traumas are sometimes called “adverse childhood experiences” or ACEs.
Children defend against trauma in a wide spectrum of defensive behaviors, as in “fight, flight or freeze”.
The child who is hyper-aroused, aggressive and disruptive is often the ‘Poster Child’ for defensive behaviors after abuse. See “Jasmine” at “Peek Inside a Classroom“. Those aggressive children usually get the attention.
One very different defense to chronic fear and toxic stress is “dissociation.” The same damage to brain architecture. Different defense.
Dissociation is defined along a continuum of disengaging from the environment, including disconnection between thoughts, memory, sensation, emotion and identity. A way of splitting off oneself from ones’ memory, or from current reality. See Sandra Bloom, M.D. p103. The dissociation continuum continues up to catatonic and even ‘multiple personalities’.
Whatever the child’s defense, adverse-childhood-experiences, or “ACE”s, are no respecter of demographics, zip code or socio-economics. Researchers at Centers for Disease Control (CDC) found that even in beautiful suburban San Diego, about one-fourth of the mostly middle class, mostly white, college-educated, working folks with medical insurance had experienced 3 or more ACEs!
Three or more ACEs is significant because three+ ACEs correlate over a lifetime, with doubled risk of depression, severe obesity, drug abuse, lung disease, and liver disease. It triples the risk of alcoholism, STDs and teen pregnancy.
There is a 5X increase in attempted suicide.
Over time trauma changes children’s physical brain architecture and functioning.
Unaddressed, the changes damage cognition, and impair ability to interpret social cues, predisposing children to hypervigilance, suspicion and hair-trigger defenses.
Specifically, changes to brain architecture damage memory systems, ability to think, to organize multiple priorities (“executive function”), and hence to learn, particularly literacy skills.
Ultimately, the CDC research correlates six (or more) ACEs with early death by as much as 20 years.
DISSOCIATION: One thing you can not see when you peek inside a classroom.
Dissociating students are more likely to be unnoticed and unsupported. It is tempting to ignore children who are quietly dissociating, to focus on teaching the other 30 children.
José stared blankly that day in the empty room. I waited. I repeated “Is everything okay at home?”. . . He shared that he “missed dad”, even though José described him as a “rough (violent) man”. “He doesn’t come home any more”. Instead dad goes to José’s aunt’s house in the evenings “because dad says ‘it’s more fun there. He thinks it’s boring at home’”.
José believed final divorce was near. Divorce, no matter how “friendly”, rocks the child’s world with a terrifying perceived loss of security and love. In José’s eyes, a stressful, earthsplitting re-definition of his entire world.
José hung his head. He turned away, “hiding”. A blank, powerless, fear-full posture. I waited to talk with Mom until we could talk in person. I knew that children’s versions of their parent’s lives can be hazy and incomplete
Two days later, on a gray rainy day, Mom came to school to pick up José. I shared what José had said earlier. Her response was fragile: emotional, and softly spoken, with quivering lip and almost immediate tears.
I told Mom that I planned to refer José to the school counselor, and I suggested that it might help if he also had someone to talk to outside of school. She took José home, promising she would find someone.
Mom returned the following week and abruptly announced that “all that stuff José talked about” last week was “fine” now: the father was “not an issue”. José was “wrong” according to her now. She was curt, did not want a discussion, turned and left quickly. It does happen. Guards are down, things are shared, but then later denied.
I was frustrated and I planned to be exceedingly clear about it at upcoming Report Card conferences.
Many adults dismiss the impact of fear and stress on children, thinking “they’re young, they’ll get over it”.
Actually, this common perspective is exactly wrong. Lifelong impacts are the reality.
Precisely because the child is “too young” they are still developing and susceptible:
1) Their immature coping strategies are easily undermined and their sense of helplessness or powerless fear is greater than an adult,
2) Their still-developing brain is “use-dependent”, meaning it develops in areas that are used, and therefore very vulnerable to mis-wiring, or mis-developing, from chronic usage in fear and stress.
3) The powerful, persistent chemical baths of cortisol and adrenaline during “fight or flight” cause direct damage to fragile, still-developing brain cells
José’s mom arrived for our conference cuddling José’s new 5 month old brother. I shared preemptively, and somewhat formally, that José’s academic performance was now distinctly below average. I had struggled to give José “C”s.
I also shared that his performance continued to be wildly erratic. I described the swings as clear evidence that he still has very high ability . . . something you can’t see on “standardized tests”.
Erratic academics often mean there is “something inside” troubling him. I wondered aloud if there was anything she could think of?
The room went silent.
A dependent, a child, can not be known in a vacuum.
The child is a dependent member of a ‘family system’. See summary of M. Bowen (Cozolino; Chapter 3). When one person in the system is impacted by trauma, all others are impacted.
José’s mother and father were experiencing a variety of grief, anger, insecurity and abandonment issues. The divorce was a looming fracture to their whole system.
It suddenly became overpowering. An intense, flooding release, as Mom struggled to share through heaving sobs, her own wounds, still open and tender.
Mom blurted “Yes, ‘inside’, José is still dealing with the death of his aunt, Maria, his Dad’s sister.” Maria had died only 8 or 9 months earlier, in August. She had been José’s closest, favorite aunt.
I was only beginning to see a clearer picture of Jose’s experience.
You can not see Dissociation when you peek inside a classroom.
It got much more intense. Mom continued: Maria suffered painfully for three long weeks before dying from flesh burns which covered 100% of her body. . . the result of a gas-tank leak, explosion, and engulfing fire.
Maria’s brother (José’s dad) was working on the same street at the same time. He heard the explosion. He heard his sister’s screams, but was completely powerless to help.
Maria’s death was sensationalized via frequent replays and updates on local news and even CNN.
Mom continued: Dad then went “deep inside himself”, completely shutting out the entire family. Mom described dad as ‘totally unavailable’ for two to three months – increasing abandonment fears for the rest of the family.
Add to José’s ACEs: the shock, and pain from the horrible, gruesome death of a close relative, and the shock, fear and pain of his father’s complete disappearance.
Mom herself was grieving and preoccupied. She disconnected by wrapping herself in preparations for her baby-to-come (in October). He was a brand new “attraction” (distraction) in the family. Mom acknowledged that she also dramatically cut time and communication with José. Her words: “ignored”, “forgot”.
José was without support from the adults in his life, in the midst of multiple traumas.
At this point in the report card conference (yes, the same conference). We were all in tears.
Toward Trauma-Informed Schools
José’s reserved behaviors and erratic academics can only be understood wholistically. The neurobiological impacts of his ACEs are real and deep. José can not and will not “just get over it.”
José, dissociating “invisibly” to defend against chronic fear and stress, needs every bit as much accommodation and support as “Jasmine” does in her aggressive, hyperaroused fear. They simply defend themselves differently in “fight, or flight”.
Both defenses block equal access to a child’s education.
Schools today are not trauma-informed.
Schools do not identify nor accommodate dissociation.
There is no excuse.
Conversely, a trauma-informed education paradigm begins with: a) explicit acknowledgement of childhood trauma, b) training and supporting teachers, counselors and staff school-wide, c) creating “safety” across the school-wide environment, d) screening students, to include those who are quietly dissociating
Crucial investments towards safety include appropriate class-sizes, with limits on trauma-impacted children per classroom. One teacher alone will struggle to aid one ‘triggered’ student from among the 6, or more who have 3+ ACEs, in a classroom with 29 other kids, who are waiting to be taught. Additionally, dedicated appropriate space for children to de-escalate is needed, as well as on-site counselors and nurses. “Zero tolerance” discipline needs restructured.
Many education “reformers” pursue the opposite: disinvestment in Public Education. Most have not spent time in our classrooms. “Reformers” are blindly oblivious to classroom impacts of trauma, and to children’s injuries, continuing fears and stress.
Our national epidemic of trauma-impacted children is ignored in reformers’ misfocused “prescriptions” for their “factory model” of educating children.
We have a right to be angry and impatient:
The CDC says trauma impacts are critical to understand. The Department of Justice, the CDC and past Surgeon Generals described childhood exposure to violence and trauma as an epidemic, a “national crisis”. . . years ago.
Trauma-competent schools with equal access to education are a moral obligation and legal right for children. . . now.
- If you’re not trauma-informed , read here, or research childhood-trauma here or seek training here.
- Watch a 3 minute video on the research here, or watch a 5 minute overview video here.
- Help raise awareness of trauma in your school and community. “Share” this blog broadly. Share shorter pieces in the “Nowhere to Hide” series at LucidWitness.com
(Note: Names of all people and places in the “Peek Inside” series are pseudonyms, in true narratives.)
I still flashback now, when I see a soccer ball . . .
“Peek Inside a Classroom” is a series about childhood trauma in public education. Another part, “Peek Inside a Classroom: Jasmine:“ is here. “Jasmine” defends against childhood trauma differently, completely differently, than José. “Danny” at “Peek Inside a Classroom; Danny” uses each of their defenses at times.
Also see: Peek Inside a Classroom: Effective Education Reform(with Dr. Sandra Bloom, M.D.)
Look for another series of shorter vignettes about developmental trauma,“Nowhere to Hide”, on LucidWitness.com .
“Nowhere to Hide” series overview
Photo © Daun Kauffman
“Nowhere to Hide” series links
Each separate, individual article in the series focuses on a single component of the workings of developmental trauma, via real life examples in short “60 second” soundbites, akin to “Public Service Announcements” (PSAs). They are designed for sharing in social media networks to grow public awareness.
The children’s experiences in the vignettes are unvarnished. Their traumatic responses may trigger painful memories.
“PSA” Links for social media
Nowhere to Hide: Maria; Fight, flight or freeze
Nowhere to Hide: Andre’s Fear; What are Adverse Childhood Experiences?
Nowhere to Hide: Jamar’s Hyper-arousal
Nowhere to Hide: Roberto’s Dissociation
Nowhere to Hide: Danny’s Memory
Nowhere to Hide: Ashley’s “Normal” Education? Part 1
Nowhere to Hide: Ashley’s “Normal” Education? Part 2
More to come
“Like” us at “Trauma-Informed Schools” on Facebook
Please share a PSA link to help grow public awareness of the impacts of developmental trauma. There are so many of us who’ve never heard of the overpowering life-long impacts.
“Peek Inside a Classroom” series overview
The second original series, “Peek Inside a Classroom”, provides much more detailed looks inside my classroom, primarily focused on specific students: Jasmine, Danny and José.
Other children are captured in broader looks at education reform concepts: “Failing Schools or Failing Paradigm?” and “Effective Education Reform”, co-authored with Sandra L. Bloom, M. D..
“Peek Inside a Classroom” series links
Peek Inside a Classroom: Jasmine
Peek Inside a Classroom: Danny
Peek Inside a Classroom: Failing Schools or Failing Paradigm?
Peek Inside a Classroom: Effective Education Reform (with Sandra Bloom, M.D.)
“Click for Resources…” series overview:
“Click for Resources” posts are the theory and research behind the narrative posts in “Nowhere to Hide” and “Peek Inside a Classroom”.
Each post in “Click for Resources “ is divided in three parts:
1) general press articles,
2) Research Journals or academic papers
3) social media, often with video.
“Click for Resources” series links:
1. Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) Studies: CLICK HERE
2. Impacts of Childhood Trauma: Overview CLICK HERE
Click for Resources: Social Media on Impacts of Childhood Trauma
Click for Resources: Journal Articles on Impacts of Developmental Trauma
3. Trauma-Informed Schools CLICK HERE
4. Trauma-Informed Social Services CLICK HERE
5. Trauma-Informed Juvenile Justice CLICK HERE
6. Trauma-Informed Public Policy CLICK HERE
7. Childhood Trauma Training and Tools CLICK HERE
8. Book and Publication selections CLICK HERE
9. #800 phone numbers CLICK HERE
Developmental trauma, still “the elephant in the [class] room” for many adults.
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31 thoughts on “Peek Inside a Classroom: José”
I loved the story and the information proceeding … I am in my 10th of teaching inner-city children as I grew up in the inner-city as well… Many of our children have suffered of kind of traumatic event and most schools are not equipped to deal with the issues that arise… Our children are lost with an often a grim outlook on their future…. It breaks my heart.
Thank you so much Andrea for the kind words and your investment with the children! More on childhood trauma at “Peek Inside a Classroom” “Jasmine” and also “Danny”. Join us in building awareness and in advocating !
I found this via a trauma page on facebook today, and have reshared. Every educator should read this, be trauma informed. I was a highly dissociated child because of abuse, and would do anything to highlight the profile of the dissociated child. Thank you for writing this. – and I am glad it is still circulating.
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Brighid’s Hope: I am sad to hear about your childhood. Thank you for sharing a little bit of your story and thank you for sharing the article. The more we share the more we build ‘awareness’, the more likely to gain support for others
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