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School, Troubled Kids, Trauma, the Brain and Pain Based Behaviors


The majority of teachers, administrators and other educators have very little experience recognizing "pain based behaviors" in kids.  

Pain based behaviors look like disrespect, disobedience, willfulness, moodiness, excessive anger, not being able to sit still, and a whole host of behaviors that are "punished" in our schools.  

So we continue to use the more politically correct term of "consequences" as our most troubled children behave in a manner that seems to leave very little options for the adults attempting to "keep order". 

Our most difficult children are children that have experienced and are experiencing high levels of toxic stress in their environments. 

Children with traumatic stress are operating within the mode of “survival in the moment.”


“Survival in the moment” is governed by pathways in the brain that appraise threat, sacrifice context for speed of response, mobilize the body for fight, flight or freeze, leading to behavioral responses outside of consciousness.

Higher order brain functions are temporarily put on hold when survival is at stake.  Behavioral responses are NOT DECISIONS, for they are made at the lower levels ( limbic system) of the brain. (Greenwald O’Brien, 2008)

 Neuro-=biological Consequences of Different Forms of Childhood Maltreatment--Martin Teicher, M.D., Ph.D.


Traumatic exposure can produce lasting alterations in the endocrine, autonomic and central nervous systems including the function and structure of the Amygdala, Corpus Callosum, Hippocampus, Cerebellar Vermis, Cerebral Cortex.

Impulse control can become greatly reduced leading to significant learning and behavior problems in the classroom that are beyond the ability of the student to control.  

These behaviors can easily be mistaken for ADHD and the root cause is never consider.

Here are a few facts that schools can begin to share: The National Traumatic Stress Network

FACTne out of every 4 children attending school has been exposed to a traumatic event that can affect learning and/or behavior.

FACT: Trauma can impact school performance. • Lower GPA • Higher rate of school absences • Increased drop-out • More suspensions and expulsions

 FACT: Trauma can impair learning. Single exposure to traumatic events may cause jumpiness, intrusive thoughts, interrupted sleep and nightmares, anger and moodiness, and/or social withdrawal—any of which can interfere with concentration and memory. Chronic exposure to traumatic events, especially during a child’s early years, can: • Adversely affect attention, memory, and cognition • Reduce a child’s ability to focus, organize, and process information • Interfere with effective problem solving and/or planning • Result in overwhelming feelings of frustration and anxiety.

FACT: Traumatized children may experience physical and emotional distress. • Physical symptoms like headaches and stomachaches • Poor control of emotions • Inconsistent academic performance • Unpredictable and/or impulsive behavior • Over or under-reacting to bells, physical contact, doors slamming, sirens, lighting, sudden movements • Intense reactions to reminders of their traumatic event: • Thinking others are violating their personal space, i.e., “What are you looking at?” • Blowing up when being corrected or told what to do by an authority figure • Fighting when criticized or teased by others • Resisting transition and/or change

FACT:  Treating pain based behaviors with pain based discipline will not help, it will do more harm!!  What schools can begin to do as they become trauma informed....  they can help a child to heal.



• Maintain usual routines. A return to “normalcy” will communicate the message that the child is safe and life will go on. • Give children choices. Often traumatic events involve loss of control and/or chaos, so you can help children feel safe by providing them with some choices or control when appropriate.

• Increase the level of support and encouragement given to the traumatized child. Designate an adult who can provide additional support if needed. Train all staff in how to de-escalate students by learning the conflict cycle and providing "emotional first aide".


• Set clear, firm limits for inappropriate behavior. Keep everyone safe. 

• Recognize that behavioral problems may be transient and related to trauma. Remember that even the most disruptive behaviors can be driven by trauma-related anxiety.

• Be sensitive to the cues in the environment that may cause a reaction in the traumatized child.  Children may increase problem behaviors near an anniversary of a traumatic event.

• Anticipate difficult times and provide additional support. BE A THERMOSTAT NOT A THERMOMETER. --“Without…soothing by reliable and consistent caregivers, the troubled child is unable to regulate his or her mental state and restore emotional equilibrium”-Mollon in Schore, 2003 

• Schools will need to recognize and learn how to co-regulate a student in pain. This will be a new skill for the majority of people in our schools. 

 • Understand that children cope by re-enacting trauma through play or through their interactions with others. Resist their efforts to draw you into a negative repetition of the trauma. For instance, some children will provoke teachers in order to replay abusive situations at home.

Can we begin to see underneath the surface behaviors of our most troubled and troubling kids?

Let me know what you think!!


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Thank you for posting this, Michael. There are many resources (books, articles, links to training) for educators in our ACEs in Education group, and Leisa Irwin, its community editor, has written a couple of articles about how a school can become trauma-informed:

Is Your School Ready to be Trauma Informed and Trauma Sensitive? by Leisa Irwin,  9/2/16

Setting the Wheels in Motion - Becoming a Trauma Informed and Trauma Sensitive School by Leisa Irwin, 9/7/16

Cheers, Jane

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