Is your student fleeing the classroom, hiding under desks or in the bathroom, or becoming verbally or physically aggressive? This might be a trauma response known as “fight, flight, or freeze,” which is triggered by a sense of danger due to a current or past traumatic experience. That trauma may not be known to you or even to the student. This instinctive, biochemical response to danger is designed to preserve life and limb. It is not a choice, and it is not purposeful.
People from all walks of life and of all ages experience trauma, including school staff and the children they serve. Traumatized people tend to be hypervigilant and reactive. Sometimes a child comes into school with a history of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). Common ACEs include physical and sexual violence, verbal abuse, food insecurity, and housing insecurity.
Sometimes trauma is school-based. Harassment, bullying, shaming, social isolation, academic failure, restraint and seclusion, and sensory overload can be traumatizing. What is traumatizing to a child may not be obvious. Members of the self-advocacy disability community have described the traumatic effects of being coerced during interventions, misunderstood, or treated as being unintelligent.
Strong home-school communication is crucial in order to determine what is causing the trauma and the best ways to deal with both the cause and the symptoms. Physical pain that is associated with medical conditions and prescription side effects must first be ruled out as the underlying cause. Potential triggers in school settings should be explored, and adjustments made. Although fight or flight incidents can seem inexplicable, they can be addressed effectively through trauma-responsive practices.
Meet Children Where They Are Developmentally
A developmental lens matters when dealing with a child’s trauma response or reaction to a traumatic experience. Due to age, limited vocabulary, and social cognition deficits, children often do not understand what they are experiencing and cannot explain it to others when it occurs. They lack adult perspective or coping skills. They may lack a sense of time, so they may not know their negative experience will end. Many are inflexible or lack perspective-taking skills. All these factors make students more vulnerable than adults. Trauma history is an added risk factor. It is always up to the adults to control themselves so they do not fuel a crisis through their own reaction.
You can prevent incidents by providing a physically and emotionally safe school environment. This means treating children with dignity and respect. It means not violating their trust or bodily integrity. When children do get triggered into fight or flight, you can work to identify and avoid triggers. When a pattern of hypervigilance and reactivity emerges, services and procedures for responding are built into special education.
Create a Relationship-Based Classroom Culture
Get to know each child, work to foster their strengths, and build positive peer relationships in the classroom. In this way, you can create a classroom culture that is based on trusting relationships. Trust can be developed by:
- Inviting active participation to provide a sense of belonging.
- Presuming competence and asking children to share their ideas.
- Encouraging rather than criticizing or judging.
- Speaking to children as if they understand, even if they do not speak themselves.
- Providing accommodations to address the trauma profile of the student.
By contrast, it is easy to lose a child’s trust by:
- Making promises and breaking them without explanation.
- Towering over children while talking.
- Raising your voice.
- Humiliating, shaming, or embarrassing, including public punishment.
- Discussing a child or gossiping about them in their presence, as if they are not there.
- Withholding a need, such as an accommodation or access to bathroom, food, drink, or recess.
- Forcing a child into a direct gaze physically or by verbal prompt.
- Punishing a child for disability-related behavior.
- Placing hands on a child as a means to control them or isolating them.
- Physically hurting a child, even if not intended.
- Threatening to call police or other authority figures.
- Withdrawing support (e.g., comfort object) during fight or flight.
A Sensitive and Thorough Response to Incidents Is Crucial
Being child-focused means making no assumptions about the reasons for a fight, flight, or freeze response. If you can ask the child why, do. The answer might surprise you. If a child cannot share why, you should assess what happened before, who was present, what the child experienced just before an incident, how the child responded, and how the adults reacted. This way you can identify patterns and adjust adult behavior. This type of data collection is known as a “functional behavioral assessment.” Data collected can be used to develop a behavior improvement plan (BIP).
Failure to be trauma-responsive is likely to result in escalating conflict and aggression. Most important, try not to take things personally. A fight or flight response is not a challenge to your authority or your dignity. It is easy to make the situation worse by responding physically, raising your voice, talking at a child, or chasing a child in crisis. Trauma specialists recommend not asking a child to talk about an incident in the immediate aftermath. Often, it is better to wait until you can involve a clinical psychologist or psychiatrist. Even trusted adults should wait a minimum of 20 minutes after the child appears calm, with minimal verbal engagement. Psychiatrists recommend assessment after any restraint or seclusion incident. Even if incidents do not appear to be trauma-based, children should be evaluated for previously unidentified needs.
Any time a child has significant, ongoing difficulty meeting classroom standards, the child should be evaluated and classroom standards reviewed. Many parents are not aware that mental health disorders (e.g. anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder) can qualify a student for special education services or a 504 plan. Parents and school staff can request evaluation of a suspected disability and should not wait. Supporting a child with the help of speech language pathologists, occupational therapists, counselors, social workers, and psychologists can prevent a pattern of verbal or physical violence from developing.
Students who feel emotionally and physically safe are ready to learn, at home and school. Treating children with dignity, respecting their autonomy, and meeting their needs prevents trauma and violence. I have seen these trauma-responsive techniques in action. They work.
Juliet Hiznay, J.D., is a Virginia-licensed attorney-advocate specializing in education and disability rights. She is co-founder of the Coalition for Trauma-Informed Schools and owner of JD Hiznay, PLLC, a law firm serving the needs of children and young adults in Virginia.