A child was screaming non-stop, so much so that other students had to be removed from the room, despite teachers’ attempts to calm him down.
Javier Gonzalez, co-ordinator for mental health and addictions at School District 8, happened to be at the school and was called in.
“It was kind of chilling,” Gonzalez told the Nelson Star. “He was screaming at anybody that would show up.”
The techniques the adults were using to calm the boy down were not helping, he says. So he asked all the adults to go out into the hall, “to calm the room down.”
He realized that as a large, unfamiliar man wearing a mask, he could appear intimidating to the child.
“I knelt down without looking at him. I got him to be curious about me, rather than me curious about him. Then he looked at me, I looked at him briefly, and he screamed again.”
Gonzalez didn’t react. He looked at the toys the boy had been playing with and asked him what his favourite colour is.
“You can utilize distraction,” Gonzalez says. “Sometimes if you pick it right, the child will oftentimes not know how to respond, but they will pause. That pause in the brain causes a reaction of different chemicals. Those are the chemicals that we’re seeking to have when we are trying to connect with a child.”
The child told Gonzalez his favourite colour was green. Gonzalez said the car the boy was playing with was a nice one, and the boy responded that it was not a car, it was a dragon, and then offered to show Gonzalez the rest of the toys.
“I took an interest in his life for two minutes.”
Gonzalez asked the boy if he would be able to go back to class now and do his work. The boy said yes.
This does not mean the problems between the boy and the school were solved, but it illustrates a useful technique that can have a big payoff over time, he says.
“I’m not a rocket scientist. I am not the guru of these things. But it is the calmness that I think I presented to the child that he was tapping into. I wasn’t upset at him.”
Gonzalez wanted to lower the stress the child was feeling. The longer the stress lasts, the longer the neural connection to a possible past traumatic event will last and strengthen. Stress can be good, and can help us deal with many life situations, he says, but after a certain point it becomes destructive.
“So the ability for people to calm a child down to break that cycle is where we need to go.”
Gonzalez says kids’ states of mind, especially younger kids, depends on that of the adults confronting them.
“The child will have an emotional reaction to that. And oftentimes we see this as bad behaviour.”
How do you confront “bad behaviour” when you, the adult, are triggered into responding in habitual ways? How can the adult be not upset?
It starts with learning about how trauma affects kids, Gonzalez says, and lately he’s been organizing training, delivered by an outside psychological consultant, for local teachers and other adults in the schools, in trauma-informed practice.
What is trauma-informed practice?
He provides this definition of trauma:
“Trauma is the response to a deeply distressing or disturbing event that overwhelms an individual’s ability to cope, causes feelings of helplessness, diminishes their sense of self and their ability to feel a full range of emotions and experiences. It does not discriminate and it is pervasive throughout the world.”
Gonzalez says trauma can affect the development of the brain, and that disturbing experiences will impact people in different ways.
Trauma-informed practice – carried out by a psychologist or teacher or anyone else – means “learning to utilize negative events or behaviours as tools to know ourselves better and become less reactive,” Gonzalez says, adding that the desired result is kids who feel safe and supported.
Danielle Klassen, a Grade 6 teacher at Trafalgar Middle School who has taken the training, says a teacher’s instinctive reaction to “bad behaviour” might be traditional punishment or giving the child a negative consequence.
“But for these kids, that sort of thing doesn’t work,” she says. “And now I know why. We can work to retrain the brain in how to react to certain triggers and situations.”
Gonzalez says current brain science shows that if adult intervention in a child’s behaviour is consequence-based, the only learning that takes place is how to avoid that painful experience.
Klassen says she did not fully understand how powerfully traumatic events can affect a child. These events, which will affect different children to differing degrees, can include such things as a parental separation, parents who are abusing drugs or alcohol, or family violence.
Trafalgar Grade 7 teacher Chris Mieske, who also took the training, says he has worked extensively with marginalized and at-risk youth, and has observed that many of them have had a traumatic experience in their past.
For him, this means working differently, not just with individual kids, but with the whole class, working on how they can show kindness and acceptance each day toward their classmates.
He helps them learn that they all have different histories.
“They need to understand that many of the students have lived very, very positive lives, and they may be unaware that somebody else might be living in poverty, unaware that somebody might have had a tragic loss.”
He says some kids are surprised that he spends so much time on this, but based on their journal entries and on comments in class he thinks they are learning it.
“One of my students, kind of with a laugh, said that being kind is as important as English and math, and he’s right. Everybody needs to feel welcome.”
Trauma and the pandemic
Gonzalez says COVID-19 has been tough for some students and for parents who are having difficulty raising them.
“Teenagers are built to take risks,” he says. “The basics of becoming an adult is for them to explore the world. And we’re having to say, ‘Do not experiment, do not do these things.’”
It’s especially challenging for students who don’t have good support at home or solid friendships, he says. He is seeing more family disruption and more depression than usual.
The pandemic, he says, has pushed some students into situations where they need professional therapists, and many school counsellors are not trained in mental health.
With the trauma training, Gonzalez hopes to partially fill that gap with more adults at school who have at least a minimum of training.