Those early school years, when children ages 6 to 12 are transitioning from a caregiving environment to an educational environment, are challenging from a child development standpoint.
Children are learning academic skills, socialization (how to get along with others), and structure and boundaries (how to follow rules). Perhaps for the first time, they are also being influenced by adults other than their own parents.
Primary or elementary school is a time to find out how people are different in so many ways: race, ethnicity, gender, physical abilities, culture, upbringing, values, etc.
A child’s self-esteem develops based on academic and social successes or failures. Adult expectations for responsible behaviors increase as children are expected to need less adult interactions to maintain established routines at home and school.
The adult world looks upon this transition from home to school as a natural part of what it takes to grow into a competent, capable, responsible adult. It is a time to learn what to do and how to do it. Most children make the transition easily, get into alignment with learning and do what is expected of them with the usual glitches or hiccups along the way. This is normal in the world of child development.
Children of Trauma React Differently
For other children, those who have undergone some sort of trauma in their lives, the transition is a nightmare — not only for them, but also for their caregivers and parents.
Trauma for these children wasn’t a single-incident trauma; they had experienced multiple traumas that had been ongoing their entire lives. They come from families of intergenerational abuse, alcoholism, drug addiction, neglect, physical and sexual abuse, frequent moves, absent fathers, mothers who were depressed or had to work two or three jobs, poverty, and emotionally-absent caregivers. Some children eat only when they are in school. On weekends and in the summer they may get to eat once a day.
This was the population of children I worked with in a small east Texas rural community in a drop-out prevention program. Beginning with pre-K and ending in high school, the children I worked with taught me what I knew, what I didn’t, and what I needed to learn.
I was surprised at the intense behavioral issues of the children who were referred to me in pre-K to fifth grade. For those of us who love to learn and read, it is difficult at first to understand children who refuse to read or do their work. Compounding that are those children who are aggressive, defiant and hostile to teachers. “I would have never thought of doing any of that when I was growing up,” is what I said to myself, and what you’re probably thinking right now.
As I got to know these children, heard their stories, and listened to their parents, I learned it wasn’t that parents didn’t love their children. They had been traumatized as well and did not know how to give their children what they never got. This kept them from being able to meet basic attachment and emotional needs. If that foundation has not been met minimally, a child has difficulties with social and emotional issues in groups, which shuts down their ability to learn.
Over time, I came to learn more about what these children have been going through for years at home. It’s difficult to view life from their perspective and relate to the number of stressors they experience every day at home and at school, yet that is exactly what we must do to help them succeed.
Trauma Reactive Behaviors in School-Age Children
The following is a list of trauma reactive behaviors you may observe in early school-age children:
- Regressive behaviors: clinging, crying, baby talk
- Competitiveness and jealousy with younger siblings or peers
- Hyperactivity or always on guard; can’t sit still
- Anxious talking
- A child who has been compliant may become irritable, aggressive or oppositional
- Uncharacteristic fears of people, place, objects
- Drops in school performance
- Staying off task, withdrawn, shut down
- Day dreaming, spacey eyes, pupils dilated
- Sexual acting out behaviors with siblings, peers, or in play
- Difficulty concentrating or paying attention
- Appearing confused
- Uncoordinated and clumsy
- Acting emotionally younger than their age
Children who have undergone trauma feel like no one understands them, that they are not loved and that they are failures. Imagine day in and day out going somewhere that only reflects how much you have failed, all that you do wrong, and the vast difference between you and your peers. You don’t fit in.
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