- Janyne McConnaughey, PhD
Ten Things I Needed at School
For a child who has suffered trauma—especially abuse, sexual abuse in particular, the main goal of every single day is to feel safe. This need for safety consumed my energy and caused me to never work up to my academic potential. I had to work twice as hard to do what should have been easy for me. I was very tenacious, but as I look back on my education from kindergarten through graduate school, I can see the effects which I was constantly overcoming. All children are different and it takes detective work to figure out how to help them, but this is what I needed at school:
Sometimes I needed to be seen and other times I needed to be invisible. I needed to be invisible in group situations, but I needed to be seen by one person—the teacher. One-on–one time was important, but when I was lost in large group situations, I simply needed eye contact and a smile of encouragement.
My need to be invisible meant I did not want to be called on to answer a question. The depth of shame I would fall into all the way through graduate school is hard to describe. No quality thinking occurs when the fight/flight/freeze instincts take over. I needed to know the question ahead of time and exactly when my name would be called. This goes against all methodology taught to teachers who are told to ask the question first and then call the child’s name. I understand the reasoning behind this, but it terrified me and I never adopted the practice in my own classes. I had to find other methods to keep student’s attention and assess learning.
I could never sit still. Often trauma is mistaken for ADHD. It wasn’t that I could not focus. I could not relax. My hypervigilant mind needed to keep track of every movement in the room—especially the doorway. I learned to sit in the front of the classroom, near the teacher, and away from the door (but where I could turn and see the door). I hated assigned seating because it often hindered me from sitting where I felt safe. If I didn’t feel safe with the teacher, then my strategy had to change. None of this was conscious, but if teachers asked me where I would like to sit, I was very clear about what I needed. Every time I walked into a room, I was scanning for safety.
Transitions were difficult in part because I had found a spot where I felt safe, and now had to go through the process again. It was exhausting. I needed routines. They were comforting. If I knew the schedule for the day, I could prepare myself. I did not like surprises of any sort. I understand the purpose of “unplanned” fire drills, but the flash of pure terror I had to overcome to get out the door is still with me. That should have been reserved for the real thing. Nothing in my psyche enabled me to tell the difference.
Listening to instructions was almost useless because my hypervigilant mind was focused on the teacher’s facial expressions. I was the kid who read the instructions and started working. I often got in trouble for doing what I needed to do. As I got into high school, college, and grad school, the expectation of just “listen to the expectation” became increasingly prevalent. I almost always missed the mark on my first attempt, but once I was given written feedback, I walked back in with a perfect paper. When I began teaching online, I saw the great value of this type of learning for those who desperately needed to be able to absorb instructions in printed form. (This would have been different if my trauma had affected my ability to read the instructions. I would have needed a one-on-one explanation in a safe space.)
Trauma affects the way the brain processes memories and remembers information. I have never been able to memorize and my brain does not hang onto detailed information—such as multiplication facts, dates, names connected to theories or accomplishments, spelling, grammar/punctuation rules, etc. Trivia games are the very worst. I taught math to hundreds of “math-phobic” adult students. I always said, “Use your calculator and note cards. You CAN do math. You may just be terrible at memorizing.” As a child, I needed to understand the process behind the algorithms so if I forgot the procedures, I could still find my way to the answer. I also needed to be given the answers so I actually knew when I had found it. Often the answer helped me work backwards and provided safety from getting it wrong when graded.
There is a fine line between a challenge and an expectation. A timed test where I am trying to do better than I did yesterday is tolerable. A timed test where I am expected to meet a particular criterion is deadly. This probably has more to do with shame and my inability to meet my own mother’s expectations, but most traumatized children experience this on a daily basis. I needed a challenged to improve my own work and not be pitted against other children or given a criterion. I needed to feel successful.
The need for emotional safety went beyond physical safety. There was trauma, but I had also never experienced secure attachment. I was the needy kid in the class; but I was often equally independent thanks to my dissociative strategies—it all depended on my sense of emotional safety. The teachers who met my emotional needs were rewarded with my independence. Teachers who pushed me toward independence while I was in a needy state, created more neediness. If a teacher stood and talked to me for a few minutes at the beginning of recess, I would then go play. If the teacher immediately directed me to go play, I was going to return every few minutes. I needed to feel a secure emotional base in order to be independent.
My life was filled with triggers and most of them made no sense, even to me. The difference between something being a trigger and simply disliking something is that the trigger causes the child to feel like their very life is being threatened. The reaction is always over the top—in one of three ways: fight, flight, or freeze. Since I was the child who froze, this didn’t disrupt the classroom and was most often overlooked. I just suffered silently at my desk. One of my triggers was when an adult looked at his or her watch while I was talking or asking a question. How would a teacher ever know this? I am not sure, but when children overreact, there is always a reason.
My therapist (and husband) often comment on how strong I was. I understand I was able to survive in ways most traumatized children cannot—in part, because of all who supported me. This doesn’t mean I avoided the inner turmoil all traumatized children experience in the classroom. Anger helped me survive. It was a defense mechanism. Deprecating humor was another. If I could get the world to laugh with me, I felt safe. I also daydreamed—a lot. The stories I made up in my head felt safer than my reality. I was always working to get my needs met. This sometimes looked needy and sometimes appeared manipulative. I was constantly moving and fidgeting to release my anxiety. If lying seemed safer than truth, it was going to happen. And I always knew how to turn on the charm when necessary. I was an endearing challenge to most teachers. I am very appreciative of every teacher who took on the complicated challenge and helped me survive and succeed!
The reality is, all children would benefit from a trauma-sensitive classroom. All children benefit from feeling safe in the classroom. All children thrive when a teacher is focused on meeting emotional needs. Teachers make a difference every single day for all children.