Teaching in the Shadow of Trauma

When we teachers get a so-called “problem child” in class, it’s crucial to ask ourselves, “What is causing this behavior to manifest? What is occurring in this child’s life that we can’t see?”
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“Watch out for that kid.” These are words nearly every teacher has heard at the beginning of each year, as students move from one class to the next. Emails are exchanged between parents and administrators regarding one disruptive child in the class, containing questions such as, “Why hasn’t this child been expelled?” or “Does a kid like this really belong here?” 

While these questions and conversations are common, it is crucial to push ourselves to ask the next questions: “What is causing this behavior to manifest? What is occurring in this child’s life that we can’t see?” 

One afternoon in the not-so-distant past, one of my students named Bryan* ran off from class following our lunch and afternoon recess. He refused to answer any questions or acknowledge my presence, and ran and hid in the student bathroom for nearly half an hour. During class, Bryan was often unresponsive, refused to participate in discussion or complete any work, and would sit with his hoodie pulled up around his face. When Bryan chose to interact with his classmates, he would frequently draw on or rip their work, or make noises to irritate his neighbors. 

During a previous year, another student named Edgar* would frequently hurl insults at his peers, and when he grew angry, he would make screeching and grunting noises, or become almost comatose and stare blankly ahead. Overall, they were both the epitome of the class “problem child.” 

From the outside looking in, and even from the perspectives of many of the students in my class and their families, these children were difficult, disruptive and in need of severe consequences. 

After I did a little background research by contacting family members and previous teachers, larger pictures began to emerge: Bryan was neglected at home. The day he ran away from me and hid in the bathroom, he had later slipped into the school cafeteria and took an extra lunch sitting on the counter. His mood was determined by the amount of food and rest he had received at home, and on days when he went hungry or hadn’t slept more than a few hours, he was irritable and would lash out or shut down. Bryan’s teacher from the prior year confided that she had caught him stealing candies from her desk because he was hungry. 

Similarly, Edgar was coping with family members who were struggling with mental illness, and at the age of 8, he was responsible for helping to feed and care for his younger sister. His noises and breakdowns in class were caused by his fear of verbal and physical repercussions, in the event that news of his behavior would reach his home. 

Throughout my years as an educator, students from a myriad of backgrounds and needs have passed through my classroom. I have taught students who shout insults and curse words at teachers and classmates, students who throw furniture and students who attempt to slip under the radar by shutting down whenever spoken to. However, despite being stretched as thin as we are, it is crucial that educators take that extra step and understand the world that our students enter as soon as the dismissal bells ring. Even the most dedicated and mindful of teachers can succumb to the reputations—and biases from other students, families and colleagues—that certain students carry from grade to grade; understanding the root causes of their behaviors certainly does not make them any easier to work with in class. 

I often remind myself that my goal must be to focus on improving the things I can control, rather than fixate on those that I cannot. Trauma in the home and community is one thing that remains outside the realm of control for teachers, but we can control to the best of our abilities how we respond to our students and how we support them. 

For more information on responding to student trauma, see these resources:

Responding to Trauma in Your Classroom

Mindful of Equity

Shelter From the Storm

*Names have been changed to protect student identity. 

Kleinrock is a fourth-grade teacher at Citizens of the World Charter School Silver Lake in Los Angeles, California. You can follow her on Instagram @teachandtransform.

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