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Creating a Safe, Trauma Sensitive Classroom

Creating a Safe, Trauma Sensitive Classroom

Too many students have been impacted by trauma, and sometimes we as educators wonder how to best help them. 

Join us for an important conversation with Dr. Janyne McConnaughey as we discuss what trauma responses might look like, what our response should be, and how to create a trauma sensitive classroom.

listen here:

read the transcript:

[Linda] Hi, I'm here today with Janyne McConnaughey, and we're so excited to talk with her. Janyne is the author of Brave: A Personal Story of Healing Childhood Trauma, as well as two companion books, Jeannie's Brave Childhood and a Brave prequel. We're so excited to talk today about helping students that have dealt with trauma and also attachment issues, so thank you so much for being here, Janyne.

[Janyne] I'm so glad to be here. Thank you for this privilege and a chance to share.

[Linda]Yes, and all I've told people so far is that you are the author of these incredible books, which we'll talk a little bit about more later, but I thought it would be better if you would share just a bit of your story. I will tell everyone these books are just phenomenal. They will really open your eyes and we highly recommend them. She goes into so much more of the story there than we have time for here, but can you give us just a little bit of background that will help frame our conversation today?

[Janyne] I was a pastor's daughter. My mother was a teacher. My grandmother was a teacher in a one room school house. My family reunions look like a teacher convention. My daughter is an assistant principal here in Washington, and my son teaches 10th grade Bible at a private Christian school here in the area also. So, when you say teacher, McConnaughey and teacher just go together. I grew up in a pastor's home, and the sad part of my story was that I was sexually abused at three in a home daycare situation, and as happens with children many times once they're abused, then it is very, very likely that they are going to be continued to be abused.

[Janyne] So, my book, Brave, is my story of how I had repressed everything that happened to me from three to 23. I grew up. I had a state scholarship to college. I lived two different lives. One, inner life full of turmoil and the outer life that everyone saw was just this phenomenal kid and so forth. I went to college, and first I wanted to be a preschool director, and I was. I taught in preschool, I directed preschool, and then I moved to teaching kindergarten in a Christian school, and then I moved to college. I don't know how you take that leap, but God does these things.

[Janyne] I was a teacher educator for 33 years after that, and a year before I retired, I knew whatever had been brewing inside of me for a lifetime was getting to the place that I couldn't control it anymore. My story included a repressed suicide attempt at 23, but I couldn't live my life and live with the turmoil at the same time, so I was dissociative. My little mind, my amazing little mind as a child just split the trauma up into parts, and they all were frozen children inside of me. I ended up going to therapy at 61. I would not recommend that anyone wait that long if they know they have trauma in their background, but that was the plan. So, Brave is the story of that, of my three intensive years in therapy and how I healed.

[Janyne] I went to therapy with a PhD, and my therapist, who is Dr. Sue in the book, she just kept calling me back from thinking my way through things and saying, “What are you feeling? What are your feelings?” I think that's how I got in the mess in the first place was that in my home and in the church, and in schools, you didn't come to school with your feelings. You left those somewhere else. And, you didn't come to church with your feelings, and you didn't live in your house with your feelings. So, I had to heal with EMDR therapy, which is Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. That was the gift that God gave me to heal my fractured mind and body and soul. So, that's in the book. That's what the book is about.

[Janyne] I came out on the other side and realized that I had been gifted with an understanding of these children that few people really could gain, and it had been a result of the deep, intensive work that I'd done with EMDR therapy. So, when I talk about traumatized children, I'm not talking about children I know who have been traumatized. I'm talking not only about me and my memory as a child, either. When I went into EMDR, I was that frozen child, and I felt what they felt. So, that's what my books do. They talk about how these children feel from the inside out, and that's kind of my story.

[Linda] Yes, thank you so much for sharing that. As I said, I really do recommend these books so much for every educator, for every mom. The story is such a powerful medium to opening the door of understanding what some of these kids are going through. It's definitely just an introduction, but I found it incredibly helpful myself, and I just really would recommend them to everyone. Today, we wanted to talk a little bit though. What are some things that we as teachers and educators need to understand about students who have been affected by trauma?

[Janyne] Oh, I have so much I could say. Obviously I write books, right? If you told me you have one minute, what's the most important thing you could say? I would say that children need to feel safe. Sometimes, because we do not know children's stories, we can't always know what it is that will help them to be safe. We have a general idea with these kids, but sometimes when I talk about triggers, the things that triggered me and sent me into a place where I was reliving my trauma and didn't feel safe, no teacher could have ever figured out that it was Brussels sprouts and several others that I mention. I mean, how is that possible? So, we can't always know. We can't always know their story, we can't always know what it is that's triggering them, but we can see the fear on their face and we can know that what we need to do is somehow help them to feel safe.

[Janyne] I think safety is relationship, but when the trauma comes by way of relationship, then trusting someone is huge. If you have a kid you know has been through trauma, and they trust you, you should just put a gold star right on your forehead because that's the hardest thing. So, I would say safety. I mean, I can go more into that, but do you have a question from what I said?

[Linda] Well, yeah, let's talk a little bit more about that. Making them feel safe, that involves so many things, right? That involves just trying to build those relationships, providing an environment where they feel safe. Do you have any other specific suggestions there, or what can an educator do when they do see that fear come, and how can we help them through those moments?

[Janyne] I did a workshop at the Attachment and Trauma Network: Creating Trauma Sensitive Schools, which I highly recommend. I'm on the board of directors for the organization, and I highly, highly recommend that if people can at all attend they do so. I forgot a slide that had all the things you’re asking about on it, but it’s on my website now. 

[Janyne]  I think that I have to take it from my personal experience and say when I walked in the room I needed to know that there was an exit that I could get to, and I needed to know what was coming next. In other words, schedules. I love a schedule. I mean, as an adult even before I understood what I was dealing with, I told my husband never, ever throw a surprise party for me. Ever, ever, ever. I mean, you can hear me. Ugh, please don't throw one. So, they need to know what is coming next. They need to know that they can count on you to be consistent.

[Janyne] The interesting thing about kids is that when abuse happens, their brain becomes hypervigilant. There's a lot of brain stuff I could go into, but it wires them for hyper-vigilance and they can recognize a facial expression before anyone has even spoken a word. So, I was constantly watching facial expressions. I understand it now. As a kid in the classroom, I could not listen to directions because I was so busy watching your face and trying to see what was going to happen next. I was that kid. Just give me the paper and let me start working. That was survival to me. I needed not to look at your face. There's a lot involved in helping them. They need to be able to move. Really, trauma is the energy stored from the event along with internalized messages and it's embedded in the body.

[Janyne] One of the worst things we do is after a traumatic event, we try to stop crying and we try to keep ourselves from shaking, and those are the two main ways that we get the trauma out of us. So, these kids have this energy from the trauma in their body and they need to move and run and jump. A lot of times, trauma is misdiagnosed as ADHD.

[Linda] Oh, wow.

[Janyne] They can't sit still. And, I couldn't. I remember being in church as a kid, and looking down the aisle and thinking, “How are these people sitting still?” I can't sit still. I have to keep moving, so I would cross my leg one way, cross it another way. All my friends know I'm just constantly crossing my leg because that was the only acceptable way for me to get my energy out while I'm sitting in church. Yeah, so you can see the movement. They need to be able to move. There's a lot out there on brain breaks. There's a book by that title that just has short activities that you can do in the middle of your day to help. 

[Janyne] I have a group of former students and we talk about this. One of them asked me, “How do you have a classroom management strategy for the rest of your class, and then a classroom management strategy for these kids who've experienced trauma?” I say, “Well, anything that works for trauma kids works for all kids.” Right? Having a relationship with the teacher? Okay, good. That works for everybody. Consistency? Okay, good. That works for everyone.

[Linda] Movement. Yeah, movement's good for everyone, too.

[Janyne] What I'm saying works for all children, but it is especially necessary for these kids.

[Linda] That is so helpful. I do think as I was reading your book, and as you're talking, it's sometimes just really helpful to recognize some of these things as just the possibility. You might not know what went on in a child's life, in a child's home, but when some of these things happen, sometimes we take behavior personally and just realizing there might be something way more going on here that you don't realize. I just found that so helpful.

[Janyne] Yeah, so I was wandering around in the group yesterday. I wanted to jump in, but I'm like no, I need to introduce myself through the podcast first and not be that person. But, I think that there is a lot more going on, and you're right, we need to not take it personally. One of the things I said in my last seminar is that manipulation is a skill set. It is the way a child learns to survive, and if they hadn't learned to manipulate, they probably wouldn't have survived because they don't have any power. They don't have any choices. They can't make the adults do what they need them to do. Their only choice is to manipulate. I talk about that a little bit in the second book. Because I would have said, “Oh, I just can't stand people who manipulate”, and I was doing it all the time. I didn't even know it. You know, like my family. They're used to me. I need a drink right? I can't just say, "Could you get me a drink?" No, I have to say, "Wow, that drink you have sure looks good."

[Linda] So rather than asking, you wanted to get someone to volunteer it for you.

[Janyne] It's really, really difficult for them to ask for something, and you can help them. It's not that you just accept it. You realize it and you say, “You know what? I want to help you learn to ask for things because I'm more than happy to give you what you need, but I need you to learn to ask for things.” It's a huge hurdle for them to just ask. They'll try to manipulate you. The ones that have developmental trauma, they will triangulate because they will pit a parent against the teacher and all sorts of interesting dynamics. They're not doing any of this consciously. They're just trying to figure out how to survive and had the unthinkable happen to them. They just want to figure it out.

[Linda] Yeah, and tell me if I'm understanding this correctly: When we're dealing with these things, it's not that we as educators would just say, “Okay, this is happening because of the trauma, so we're going to ignore it.” These kids need help learning how to handle this in a healthier way. Am I understanding that correctly?

[Janyne] Correct, correct. If you think about a healthy family situation, that's what parents do, right? They take them, “Well, let's see. You tried hitting your brother on the head with a block to get what you wanted. Okay, so let's step back and see what other things we could have chosen to do.” Right? But, most of these kids were just punished and so they didn't go through that process of learning those things. I mean, and it's awkward to be 61 years old and sitting on a therapist's couch and realize you never learned that. I would so carefully disguise everything, but I realized that I missed some building blocks as a little girl because of my mother. Everyone who knows her understands that she was probably traumatized in the same way as a child.

[Janyne] So, when I was abused, it was a trigger for her and it set off a whole series of interactions between us that were the worst possible thing that could've happened to me. I dedicate the first book to her. I was trying to think which book. The first one is to my mom because I'm committed to help other people find help and heal so they can know their children, because she never knew me.

[Janyne] You mentioned lying. Can I talk about lying for just a second?

[Linda] Yes, please.

[Janyne] I remember as a young adult deciding that I was not going to be a liar. I knew I was really good at it. I was so good at it I convinced myself of stuff that wasn't true, but I decided that that wasn't a part of who I wanted to be.  I also realized that I no longer needed to use the strategy because I no longer lived with my mother, and the strategy was built out of protection from my mother. A child who feels completely safe and hasn't been pre-trained to lie won't lie. Okay? I mean, you think back to when you were a kid and you told a lie, it was because you were afraid you were going to get in trouble, right? Really, that's the basis for lying is fear that you're going to get punished, you're going to lose privileges, whatever, so you take that and just exaggerate it for these kids.

[Janyne] Lying is a survival skill and they get really, really good at it, but there are many different reasons why they lie. Some are subconscious, they don't even know. It's a survival. And, you have to understand that when the brain gets triggered, you're just going to do whatever it takes. I talk about seeing a bear. You saw a bear, and you're going to lie, you're going to run. Whatever it takes to get out of that situation.  I don't even like the word lying actually, because it's really surviving. One of the ways I appeared to be lying was because I was dissociative and more than one of me was walking around in the world, and I would shift between the two of them.

[Janyne] So, I tell the story of the Easter basket, which was the classic story when I realized that I was dissociative as child. I'm told not to get in the Easter basket so I sit on the bed and my other child self, my twin self, goes and gets a piece of chocolate and eats it. When she hears my mother coming, she wipes it on her dress, but then I, the one who did not eat it, gets up and stands in front of my mother and she asks, “Did you eat it?” I said, “No”, and I have chocolate on my dress. It's what we call crazy lying, right? We see it in the classroom a lot where they're caught dead to rights and they lie to us. That's one possible reason is that they may not actually remember that they did it.

[Linda] In your book, when you tell that story,  you mentioned maybe it would have been better if someone would have just talked with me a little bit about that. I don't know if you remember that part of the book. What would be a good response for an educator in one of those situations?

[Janyne] Right. If my mother had walked in the room and simply said, “There's chocolate on your dress”, and I would've looked down, and I would have been like, “Huh? There is chocolate on my dress.” It might have given me the opportunity at that age to realize that I wasn't always present and that I was doing some things that I didn't actually know I was doing.

[Linda] Right, so rather than accusing, which is going to bring up those defenses and force a lie, or at least this struggle that might come out with a lie, you're just making a statement. You’re presenting something that's getting them to think and reflect on what happened?

[Janyne] Right.

[Linda] That's really helpful.

[Janyne] In the slides that I have on my website, I talk about the fact that you need to come in low. You've got to come in low because as soon as you try to get bigger than the child whose been traumatized, they're going to get bigger. It's just going to escalate and get bigger and bigger and bigger as you both try to get bigger. You try to control and they try to control, and when I say they're trying to control, they're not doing it because they're rebellious or a bad kid. They're trying to control because they feel like their survival is at stake. So, for my slide, for the picture, I sat one night, probably for four hours. I was obsessed with finding a picture that portrayed an adult in an interaction with a child who was clearly troubled.

[Janyne] I searched the worldwide web to the end of the Internet and every picture I found had the adults standing tall over the child in an imposing posture. Then, I finally found one where the little boy was standing, and you can find it in my slides. I found it on Adobe. Abode, yes. I have an account so I can get the pictures I need. The dad was sitting down and looking up at the boy. Okay, do you see the difference there? The adult is in a receiving position. I'm here for you. I want to know how you're feeling. I want to know how I can help you. I want to know what you need right now. I want to know. I hope that the dad isn't asking, “What were you thinking?” I wish I could demonstrate, but when you are triggered your brain, the part that thinks, goes offline and you are just working out of your very central core of survival, the very root part of your brain.

[Janyne] So, a lot of the strategies that we have that ask children to go and sit down and think about what they did for a while, they can't do it. They weren't thinking and they may not even understand their reaction. I had so many things I reacted to in my life that I look back now and I'm like whoa, that was way out of control. I was a three year old in a 50 year old body at points, right? So, I think that yeah, just come in low. You've got to come in low. Your voice has to be low, your posture has to be low. One of the strategies  is just ask them to do something simple. It doesn't have anything to do with what's going on. You just set a pencil down and go, “Oh, could you put that pencil on the table?" They will automatically do it, but it will take their brain out of the deep, uncontrolled part and bring them back into the present where they can start-

[Linda] Dealing with it. Wow, that's very helpful. I'm looking at the picture right now and it is a wonderful picture so I definitely recommend people go over to your website and check that out. Well, we don't have a ton of time left, but  do you have any other things we need to know or do? How can teachers best help and support students that have been affected by trauma?

[Janyne] There was another quote that you mentioned when you emailed me.

[Linda] “Never be fooled by the apparent resilience of a child.” I thought it was a very helpful quote.

[Janyne] Through my stories, I weave Alice in Wonderland. She's the epitome of a resilient child, but actually she was surviving, right? She was just trying to figure out this crazy world she was in and she was surviving. She was really smart, and these kids are so smart. They're surviving because they're smart. I think the important thing to understand is that kids react in two different ways to trauma. If you study the window of tolerance and hyperarousal and hypo-arousal, they can either go into a fight and flight or some kids shut down. It's easy to spot the kids who are out of control or displaying behaviors, which are symptoms. Every behavior is based on a need, and so they're acting out their need.

[Janyne] They don't know how to get what they need. But, if you look at the kids who just shut down, absolutely shut down, a lot of times it's easy to miss those kids, and that would have been me, because we don't cause a problem in the classroom. But, we are equally troubled. I flew under the radar for 61 years. If you know they have a story, and they seem to be doing great, don't assume that because they may be overachieving to cover up or feel validated and so forth. Me. Anyway, yeah, so much. That's why I wrote a book because I just have too much to say.

[Linda] Well, I'm hoping that this conversation will be just an introduction for so many teachers that they will grab your books and that they will follow your website. I was on it the other day and I was reading some of your blogs and they were all so helpful, so I hope people will grab your book and start following you. What are the best places to connect with you? Is it your website or are there some other places too?

[Janyne] Anyone can email me at my website. I used to be afraid to say that, but generally very few people actually email. There's a contact on my website, and they can email me through there. Then, you know, I'm on Twitter. I try to do everything. I'm not horribly good at it, but I try. I'm very present in many different areas, and I have blogs specifically for teachers at The Attachment and Trauma Network. In fact, on my website, I have a guest blog link, and if you go in there, I've linked every blog I've done for any other organization.

[Linda] Wonderful. I'm seeing it right here under resources and then guest blogs and publications. Wonderful, we'll link to that, too. That's great.

[Janyne] It was just too hard for people to find it otherwise, so I went and linked them all.

[Linda] Wonderful. Well, thank you so much again. We really appreciate your taking the time.

[Janyne] I never said during this that I actually ran a program preparing teachers specifically for Christian school, so I just want to give a shout out to those that are working in Christian schools and that they will find everything that I say maybe a little different from what other approaches are, but I think that they won't find anything that is not compatible with what we believe about how God created children.

[Linda] Yes, that's wonderful. Thank you so much.

[Janyne] And, I thank you. This has been great. I will go write another book.

[Linda] We can't wait to read them.

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