Teachers need to understand effects of trauma on behaviour

Urgent and timeous discussions are needed to address developmental trauma disorders in our classrooms, of which teachers may often be unaware, says the writer.

Urgent and timeous discussions are needed to address developmental trauma disorders in our classrooms, of which teachers may often be unaware, says the writer.

Published Sep 5, 2023


Milandre Vlok

Twice a year, it is my role as lecturer in Foundation Phase Education to assess third and fourth-year university students doing their teaching practice in diverse Grade R - 3 classrooms across the Western Cape.

Most students’ lessons are well prepared and interesting, which should awaken interest and the joy of learning in them.

However, it concerns me that many learners appear disruptive, aggressive, anxious, and/or restless or are detached or dissociated from the learning experience.

They find it difficult to be present. The talk show icon Oprah Winfrey’s visit to South Africa to discuss the importance of trauma-informed responses to trauma within learning environments comes at an opportune time.

Urgent and timeous discussions are needed to address developmental trauma disorders in our classrooms, of which teachers may often be unaware.

Teachers should not take on the role of therapists, but they should help children regulate their emotions and process their feelings so that they can learn.

During my assessments of students, I have discovered that teachers are so pressured to get through the Caps curriculum and get learners up to standard in terms of the three Rs (reading, writing and arithmetic) after Covid-19 that there is not much room for teaching emotional regulation techniques that involve body awareness.

It is not speculative to say that many children in classrooms are exposed to domestic violence, sexual abuse and maltreatment, gang violence, poverty, and many other environmental threats on a daily basis.

The latest crime statistics released by the SAPS once again depict the bleak reality of everyday life for women and children across the country (Crime Stats SA, February 21, 2023). Recovering from the physical and mental scars of such violence will take years.

Furthermore, related to the Covid-19 pandemic, ongoing load shedding, and other adverse factors, many parents, caregivers, teachers, and children are facing mental health challenges.

“Mental health impacts every part of a child’s life, including their physical health, which is why it’s so important that we provide the support they need now,” said Christine Muhigana, Unicef South Africa Representative in October 2021.

Symptoms of developmental trauma disorder (DTD) in children are often seen as pathological and treated with anti-psychotic drugs. Many children are treated for anxiety and ADHD, but are we looking at the total picture?

Do we consider that not all behaviour in children should be pathologised and that DTD can be the cause of many children’s emotional dysregulation? Are there alternative ways to support such children?

In research on the neuro-plasticity of the brain, the link between nature, nurture and fate is well documented.

Genes are not fixed, and life events can trigger biochemical messages that have a direct influence on children’s development.

Bessel van der Kolk writes in his ground-breaking book The Body Keeps the Score about the effects of trauma on the development of the mind, the brain, and the body in adults and children.

He states that when children don’t feel nurtured by primary caregivers who lack support, and experience their home and community as unsafe, this has a direct impact on their genetic make-up – their biology and behaviour.

When a child is exposed to a horrendous event that involves actual or threatening death or serious injury or a threat to the physical integrity of self or others, causing intense fear, helplessness or horror, they are often shut down, suspicious, anxious, or aggressive.

Even witnessing a dog bite, an accident, or a shooting in the street is traumatic for children, and any type of trauma affects development and learning.

Young children, especially, do not have the vocabulary to express what they have witnessed or experienced.

When words fail children, haunting images capture the experience and return as nightmares and flashbacks.

They may even “lose their tongues” and refuse to speak – even to teachers they can trust.

According to Van der Kolk, the profile of DTD is a pervasive pattern of dysregulation, problems with attention and concentration, and difficulties getting along with themselves and others.

These children’s moods go from one extreme to the other – from temper tantrums and panic to detachment, flatness, and dissociation. The bodies of children indeed keep the score!

How does this happen?

The child’s brain develops from the bottom up. The reptilian brain develops in the womb, and is responsible for a child’s bodily functions and organises basic life-sustaining functions. It is highly responsive to threats throughout a child’s entire lifespan.

The limbic system is the seat of the child’s emotional brain and takes off just after the child is born.

It monitors danger, pleasure, or scary situations. Whatever happens to the child contributes to the emotional and perceptual map of the world that its developing brain creates.

If a child feels safe and loved, its brain becomes wired for exploration, play, and co-operation. If it is frightened and feels unwanted, it specialises in managing feelings of fear and abandonment.

The pre-frontal cortex develops last and is also affected by exposure to trauma. This part of the brain is responsible for language, abstract thought, reflection, and empathic understanding. When children are suffering from developmental trauma disorder, the pre-frontal cortex cannot act as the watchtower to process trauma and integrate it meaningfully.

The stress hormones released as a result of trauma, such as adrenaline, take much longer to return to a baseline and spike quickly and disproportionately in response to mildly stressful stimuli such as a teacher’s harsh tone of voice or too noisy an environment.

When stress hormones are constantly elevated, children can experience memory and attention problems, irritability, and psychosomatic symptoms. Children can also dissociate, which is the essence of trauma, and can go on as if nothing has happened.

They then can show signs of anxiety and isolation.

Medication can temporarily dull their senses or obliterate unbearable sensations and feelings as a result of exposure to trauma, but they are unable to feel fully alive in the moment.

The core of recovery and healing is emotional regulation activities, which put children in touch with their inner world.

Such activities can include deep breathing exercises, shaking, free-style (unstructured) conscious dancing, drumming, humming, chanting, yoga, or mindfulness activities.

Children can be encouraged to feel the feelings in their bodies and name them by putting one hand on their tummy (fear-based feelings), touching their throat (anger-based feelings), and putting one hand on their heart (sadness-based feelings).

Feeling the pleasure of taking action, especially if trauma leaves children feeling helpless and stuck, can restore a sense of agency and a sense of being able to actively defend and protect themselves.

We need to support teachers and students in our schools to be emotionally regulated. This may involve de-constructing the status quo of teaching and learning that is very sedentary by focusing on body sensory-emotional awareness approaches that involve art, music, and dance. The body is the bridge to a child’s holistic well-being!

Dr. Vlok is a lecturer in the Department of Foundation Phase Education, Life Coach and Sexual Health Educator at Cape Peninsula University of Technology’s Wellington Campus.

Cape Times