Parents that adopt, foster, or guardian children who have experienced trauma might initially assume that the local school has a good understanding of the way trauma impacts children, especially as it relates to their social and educational needs.
Maybe I was wrong to assume this, or just plain naive. Maybe I was hoping that they, as educational experts, understood so that they could help me understand. Maybe I thought that years of research, experience and understanding in clinical settings had made its way into the minds and hearts of teachers. Or, maybe, I forgot to remember that administrators and teachers are often under so much stress of their own, existing under the thumb of politics and increasingly rigid standards for educating our children, that there is no way for them to understand all special needs.
Probably, I’d imagine, all of the above.
Having parented children who have experienced trauma for over four years now, I have come to understand that outside of a few experts who specialize in at risk children and families, there is simply little to no understanding within schools of how trauma impacts and affects children within a family and within a classroom setting. There is very little understanding on attachment disorder and even less understanding of how all of this affects the dynamics of a family, which of course, affects education and learning processes.
Our family counselor told us bluntly, “Parents must and often do become the experts.”
After one not-so-pleasent encounter with our local administrators and county officials last Fall, our family realized how little the school understood. And while there are too many children in each school for administrators and teachers to become experts in every single area, I have compiled a list of things that we wish our local school knew and understood about our family.
- Parents more than likely are the experts on their children. While you are the expert in your particular subject matter or area of expertise, I live day-in and day-out with my children and their unique needs. I have researched, read, been to counseling, sought expert advice and formed villages around their needs. In fact, ever since welcoming trauma into our family, I have had to spend countless hours every. single. week. trying to diagnose and treat any number of challenges that arise. I want to share this information with you, but…
- I am not sure that I can trust you. I mean, I want to trust you. I really do! I would like to believe we are on the same team, but it is scary for me to let people into this small circle. I don’t want you to judge, label or stigmatize my child or family. I don’t want you to think that you understand more than you do, but do want you to listen and to be an ally. I want us to be on the same team and to work together.
- There is nothing, absolutely nothing, about my child’s trauma that either I or our current family has caused. Any expert will be able to tell you that. My child experienced trauma in utero and during her first two years of life. The most important time in a child’s life, developmentally, has been disrupted and compromised in my child. I do not wish to be judged by you or any school officials simply because my family welcomed trauma into our home. It is not my parenting, our household or anything else you may want to assume or naively believe. If there is anything that upsets me most, and makes me want to advocate that teachers receiving training on trauma, it is this!
- Unless you too live with trauma inside your four walls, there is absolutely no way you can understand how ridiculously hard, tiring, draining and challenging it is to parent a child who has endured trauma. We rarely go an entire day without an episode and everyone in our house is affected. Their trauma becomes our trauma, and there is simply no way around this. Think of the most demanding child in your classroom. Now, imagine that child follows you everywhere, all day long. Are you screaming for mercy yet?
- My child needs extremely firm boundaries to be kept. All. day. long. These boundaries are needed, constantly, to keep everything moving along and the child feeling secure. This is needed in the classroom too. If you relax the boundaries, I guarantee you that she will overstep. She recently came home from a friend’s house where her friend’s mom told her she could help herself to whatever snacks that she wanted. You know what she ate? An entire tray of brownies. No, wait. She gave one brownie to her friend and ate the other 23. And she wasn’t even sick.
- When triggered, everything, everything, everything becomes about control for my child. Fear and control are her two motivators, with a side of food due to the lasting consequences of early malnutrition. Everything she does or does not do is about her controlling the situation. The more adults she can have looking at her and catering to her, the more she wins and we all lose. While parents and adults are not keeping score, she is. These control battles sometimes begin the first thing in the morning, when routines like getting dressed for school become the ground on which she will stake her claim for control. Sound like fun?
- She will probably display odd, controlling and manipulative behavior in your classroom. Don’t be upset though, this may mean she is beginning to trust you. These behaviors will range from mildly annoying to downright unacceptable. You may or may not catch it. You might want to write-off some of these behaviors as normal childhood antics. You may be right some of the time, but you may also be missing the underlying triggers. Whenever my child’s anxiety rises, which can be caused by any number of circumstances where she perceives a loss of control, her behavior will immediately change. Incessant humming, speaking in a baby’s voice, hiding, refusing to listen or refusal to comply are some of the milder signs that you are dealing with unique needs. I’m confident you will be calling me with any major situations on hand.
- Typical reward and punishment systems often do not work. Remembering that so much of what my child does is about control (and loss of control) means that behavioral systems designed to encourage good behavior will not work if she also perceives a loss of control. This truth is one of the most difficult aspects of parenting and/or teaching children who have experienced trauma. What do you do to encourage behavior when nothing seems to have long-term results?
- Children who have experienced trauma can be incredibly divisive. They like to pit people against each other and may or may not be telling you the truth. They may be telling half-truths. They may believe what they are saying is true. Oftentimes, children who have experienced trauma do not even know why they are lying or being manipulative. Fear and control are often at play, but nevertheless this reality sucks. Big time.
- My child is incredibly intelligent and can be a whole lot of fun to be around. She is witty, strong-willed, independent and genuinely compassionate. She has a caring heart, when it is not being manipulated or triggered by past hurt. Often, she does not know why she does some of the things that she does. She expresses sadness and confusion after an incident occurs, and the time we spend together processing what happened and talking about how we felt is priceless and necessary. I never want her to experience shame for behavior that she has not learned yet to regulate. I want to help her develop better coping strategies and learn to trust those around her. As a family, and with the help of professionals, we have experienced so much growth and healing. We want this to continue, but…
- You and me, we need to be on the same team. My child spends at least six hours, five days per week, in your care. I do not expect or wish for you to be a parent or nanny to my child. I’ve got that covered! I do, however, wish that you will genuinely care for my child and educate her. In order for her to be successful in the classroom, you will have to understand at least a little bit about how trauma has affected her. Her brain, body and behavior are permanently altered due to early childhood trauma. This affects the ways she will learn and process new information, and the ways she will socialize in your classroom.
So what do you say? Can we be on the same team? Can I trust that you will not label or judge me or my family? Can you trust that I value your expertise and input?
Like you, I am armed with education, research, a love of learning and a desire to see children grow and succeed. There used to be a time when parents and teachers were on the same team, each trusting and encouraging the other; each with a vested interest in a child’s success. There used to be a time when families and educators formed a wonderful community around the rising generation. I would love the opportunity for that to be a reality again.
I don’t know about you, but I tired of living in my silo, scared to share with you the realities of our family out of fear that you will misunderstand, judge or simply be too busy to care. Maybe you feel the same way? I am saddened by the loss of trust and relationships between parents and educators. Yet, I am hopeful that we create a better way. Together.
After all, if not for relationships, nothing that you or I do, will ever truly matter.