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Leadership Skills and Implementation

The Invisible Backpack: Hidden Causes of Challenging Student Behaviors

By The SHARE Team

When students act out in class, there’s often a trigger. And those triggers can be rooted in adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) that can have long-term effects such as cognitive and social-emotional impairment, high-risk behaviors, social issues, and even disease, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Understanding these triggers and what to watch for can transform your classroom from reactive to preventative, ensuring your students learn more and struggle less.

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Claire LaPoma, Prevention Specialist

We spoke to Claire LaPoma, a Trillium Family Services Prevention Specialist serving at Faubion School in Portland, Oregon. Trillium is one of Concordia University’s 3toPhD® core providers, and LaPoma provided these insights on how to better understand the hidden causes of challenging student behaviors.

The Invisible Backpack

Often, kids come to school with what LaPoma calls an “invisible backpack.” They carry with them into the classroom the emotional strains of their outside lives. What may seem like just disruptive or antisocial behaviors can be rooted in troubles the student is experiencing outside of the classroom. “A lot of the coping skills kids use are about trying to maintain power or control or security. Things like being hyper-vigilant of their surroundings, being in survival mode — they bring that into the school day. But those behaviors don’t work in the classroom.” When students bring their coping behaviors and emotional traumas into a classroom, teachers may witness things like: difficulty focusing, slow skill development, disruptive behavior, bullying, social struggles, withdrawal or attention-seeking behavior, mood swings, physical maladies, aggression, or fearfulness. When teachers become trauma-informed instructors, they can better help students shed their invisible backpack and learn.

Hunger and food insecurity

Hunger can manifest itself into classroom behaviors such as crankiness, mood swings, and an inability to concentrate. Students may report physical symptoms like headaches or stomach aches. According to the Washington Post, 13 million kids go to school hungry in the U.S. “Kids who go to school hungry may suffer an inability to concentrate and often fall behind academically. Hungry kids are more likely to miss school because of illness, and more likely to suffer from depression and anxiety, and develop behavioral problems as teenagers. They are more liable to drop out before graduation, which leads to lower paying jobs and a greater probability of being food insecure adults,” reports Jaimie Seaton in the Washington Post.

Many children live with food insecurity or homes where the ability to afford food is inconsistent. When meals and the availability of food in the home is not constant or reliable, a student can’t be sure where their next meal or snack will come from. Teachers may notice a student starting to slump, become snappy, or complain of hunger symptoms; and it’s critical to check in and see if they’ve eaten that day. Many teachers keep snacks on hand for students who are hungry, but long-term prevention programs can help alleviate the problem before it reaches the classroom.

Poverty and home insecurity

Many students face housing instability or homelessness, which can show up in the classroom by affecting a student’s behavior, academic ability, and emotional regulation skills.  According to the National Center on Family Homelessness’ report, “America’s Youngest Outcasts: A Report Card on Child Homelessness,” 2.5 million children are homeless each year in the United States. “The impact of homelessness on children, especially young children, is devastating and may lead to changes in brain architecture that can interfere with learning, emotional self-regulation, cognitive skills, and social relationships.”

What has the research shown?

The unrelenting stress experienced by parents, most of whom are women parenting alone, may contribute to residential instability, unemployment, ineffective parenting, and poor health,” according to the National Center on Family Homelessness. Schooling for children with housing instability is often interrupted, causing achievement and developmental delays. The American Psychological Association reports that homeless children are more likely to experience mental issues such as depression and anxiety, poor physical health, witness violence or be separated from their families for periods of time. Another study found that 75% of children who are homeless under age five have at least one major developmental delay, usually impulsivity or speech. Situations, like a family getting evicted, moving around, or living in a shelter, can unanchor a child, leaving them feeling insecure, anxious, embarrassed, and angry.

Relationship issues

The relationships that a child experiences outside the classroom can impact them greatly inside the classroom. Divorce, custody battles, parental separation, abuse and attachment shifts are just a few traumas that impact the social skills a child displays in school. “Children bring their interpersonal relationship templates into the classroom,” says Faubion School Prevention Specialist Claire LaPoma. For example, a child who needs to be very tough and closed off at home to survive abuse may come into the classroom attempting to exert the same power and control required to get through their home life. How can this show up in the classroom? “They might have a push-and-pull relationship with the teacher. Students learn to form attachments based on shifts in their family dynamics,” says LaPoma. If a child’s attachments are abused or ruptured at home, they may have a difficult time trusting adults and peers in schools and in life.

Getting stuck

When children who have experienced trauma develop their school persona, they can get settled into habits, behaviors, and relationship dynamics that follow them through their entire school journey and perhaps their whole lives. They may take on the role of class clown, bully, or rebel.  They might become aggressive with teachers or give up trying in school, believing themselves to be dumb or incapable of academic success.

Educators have a very important job of unlocking students from the confines of their coping roles to see the possibilities of who they can be. Says LaPoma, traumatized students “don’t want to hurt and don’t want to change. If they’ve experienced ongoing trauma, like interpersonal trauma through abuse or neglect, or a one-time traumatic event, they’ll step into a role to cope. Usually, they’ll assume one of three roles of the trauma-triangle — the Rescuer, Victor, or Persecutor — and pull the adult into a role as well. They’re trying to see if the adults will confirm their belief in themselves because what’s familiar is what feels safer. Kiddos will try to pull you into their negative self-stories and push you to confirm that they are real through challenging behaviors.”

How do we help?

Unfortunately, there’s no one magic fix for helping students cope with the myriad traumas they face outside of our classrooms. But teachers and schools can play a big role in supporting students of trauma and their families. LaPoma acts as a prevention specialist at Faubion School. She works to provide mental health care, counseling, and trauma-informed practices without stigma or financial barriers so that students and families are supported. LaPoma believes that when teachers are aware of and proactive about trauma-informed instruction, real change is possible. “So much of the healing comes from the relationships. They take energy, space, and time to develop and that’s what teachers lack.” More time, smaller classes, and a commitment to social-emotional learning are the keys to guiding our students to be stronger, healthier, and more successful.

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