Educational trauma? What’s the difference?

How do we tell the difference between educational trauma and other kinds of trauma? (this is an expansion on one of the Commonly Asked Questions from an earlier post)

“How do we tell the difference between educational trauma and other kinds of trauma?” is one of those questions that isn’t verbalized often, but lurks at the heart of many conversations about educational trauma. Well, to the extent that we’re having those conversations because we mostly aren’t. Yet.  But those conversations are growing, so how should we think about trauma in the classroom?  I’ve found it helpful to reframe this question (and many others) through a non-therapeutic trauma-responsive perspective.  I propose we ask “What information about lived traumatic experience do teachers truly need to support students?

Why reframe the question?

The general response to that reframe is “Doesn’t knowing how to tell the difference between educational trauma and other types of trauma help teachers? Why do I think the first question needs to be reframed?”  My answer is almost always “no,” and I have several reasons.  A caveat is that these answers may change over time, as we learn more about educational trauma and ability to learn.

  1. It isn’t the role of teachers to diagnose (or speculate) about any type of trauma.
  2. No one owes us entrée into their life stories.  Trying to find out what happened to someone is more often about our curiosity, not their learning. 
  3. Creating learning spaces that are broadly trauma-responsive gives us the freedom to treat our students as whole people, not just as a survivors or victims.
A being's head with what looks like a door, opening into the sky (because education is expansive!); the head is emanating bolts of lightning and is surrounded by rainbows and hints of a galaxy
Image credit OmTimes

Layers of educational trauma

We know a lot about how trauma affects the brain, but not much about how educational trauma impacts learning (more here and here).  In part, our lack of clarity is because the individual experience of educational trauma can have many layers including

  • shaming or punishment for perceived mistakes or failures,
  • forced assimilation into unfamiliar structures of knowing and learning
  • bullying or violence
  • feeling ignored, invalidated, or overlooked
  • systemic and structural oppression and domination

Trauma doesn’t follow a linear path, so untangling exactly what happened in the classroom from what happened elsewhere may be impossible outside of a therapeutic environment.  There are so many invisible impacts and connections, that trying to sort them out is rarely your best path forward – especially when you don’t have the training, time, or resources to help a student resolve the issue.  My approach has evolved into something along the lines of “the root cause of whatever is going on doesn’t matter in the moment unless there is an immediate safety concern.” 

Handling the moment in a way that preserves relationship and dignity is our first priority. Investigating what prompted the behavior, conflict, or issue can happen later.  Finding the precipitating factor may be important avoid similar isssues, especially if you aren’t sure what happened.  But – and this is a big one – we all have to develop a sense for when asking questions does more harm.  There is a LOT of gray area in the space around wanting to be supportive, and opening doors we don’t know how to close. 

Trauma-related behavior in learning

All of that said, here are some common behaviors that are likely responses to educational trauma.  There are more, but I have witnessed these in almost every classroom I’ve observed or taught in:

  • ALL test anxiety,
  • perfectionism (shows up in lots of ways),
  • extremes in response to feedback (giving up, pretending not to care, anger or perseverance on why they were right)
  • apathy and appearing to lack motivation (this one is difficult as it can have many originating factors)

Thoughts on certifications

As a final note, let’s talk about teachers rushing to get certified as ‘trauma informed’, or other teaching/counseling/social work combinations.  I understand the urge, but I don’t consider teachers rushing to take the responsibility (and cost) of combining these fields with teaching as a positive move.  Given that we currently view “trauma-informed” teaching as a clunky mashup of all these things, here’s my reasoning:  

  1. All of these fields require different institutional structures and resources. Social work, for example, is time intensive and requires extensive institutional resources that schools don’t offer teachers.  Teachers who take a more ‘social work’ approach to their classrooms can quickly become overwhelmed and burned out by the immense need for scarce resources.
  2. Taking this approach, on an individual basis, can set students up for inconsistent and chaotic educational experiences. For example, the difference in a classroom with an intensive range of supports (both inside and outside the classroom), and one with ‘only’ standard, in-classroom support is stark.  This sets up unfair comparisons between teachers, as well as confusion for students.
  3. Individual certificates do nothing about systemic issues.  They can disguise the responsibility held by institutions and systems to provide necessary resources and support for students and families.

I appreciate why teachers are making these decisions.They face growing numbers of highly stressed students, even as they burn out and drop with exhaustion.  There are so few professional development opportunities that acknowledge trauma in classrooms, that anything offering even a shred of hope feels like a lifeline.  I don’t think of these certifications as lifelines. Although they have useful information, it is still largely through a health/therapeutic perspective. This is harder to apply in educational contexts, and may not be well-aligned with public, non-therapeutic, group learning environments.

Ultimately, I think there is very little we need to know about our students’ experiences.  We may end up knowing more, whether we want to or not, but our teaching practice shouldn’t require that knowledge.

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