Quick-fire strategies: Why Do Students Respond Differently to Similar Traumatic Events?

Quick-fire strategies: Why Do Students Respond Differently to Similar Traumatic Events?

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Ever wondered why similar traumatic events can have such different effects on the pupils we teach?

In this episode of School Behaviour Secrets, we unravel the intricate relationship between external events and internal responses and explore how our beliefs and the stories we tell ourselves impact our emotional well-being and behaviours.

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Show notes / transcription

Simon Currigan  0:00  

And the stories we tell ourselves about our lives are incredibly important. They shape all sorts of areas of our lives because those stories tell our brains and bodies to some extent how we should process traumatic events and how we should react to them. 

Hi there. My name is Simon Currigan. And as its the long summer holidays in England, we're releasing a quick fire episode of the school behaviour secrets this week. If you're away from work right now sunning yourself on a beach somewhere sipping a cocktail, good for you, youve earned this. In these quickfire episodes, my aim is always to give you one idea or strategy to think about related to SEMH or behaviour, all condensed in to an easy to listen to 10 minute episode. And today's episode may help you make sense of or unpick why traumatic events can have a devastating impact on one student's emotional well being and result in behaviour that challenges in the classroom and school. But the same event can have a lesser impact or seemingly no impact on another child. 

So to take an example, let's imagine two children living in the same family who live in a household where there's intimate partner violence. And just for clarity, in case that term is new to you. Intimate partner violence is when there's violence between two romantic partners. So in this case, that would be the adults the mother and the father. Domestic violence is when there's violence between any two members of the household, which could be an adult hurting a child, not the other adults. So we've got two sisters living together in a household where there's violence specifically between their parents but not directed at them. At school, one of the kids is overcome with strong emotions, which she finds incredibly hard to manage. And this results in her presenting controlling behaviours, extreme rage, walking out of lessons, aggression towards other pupils, and adults and so on. And that makes total sense, right? When we hear about trauma informed practice, we're told that traumatic early life events for children can result in huge amounts of anxiety, child living with permanently high levels of stress chemicals like adrenaline and cortisol, which fuel a highly sensitive fight or flight system which sees threats everywhere and goes off on a hair trigger. So the first child is behaving in a way that makes total sense in terms of what the trauma textbooks tell us. However, the second child at school seems okay, she's a bit quiet, but we're not getting any violent behaviour from her. She seems okay with her emotions, she's able to form friendships in school and complete her work and focus in the classroom. She doesn't appear to be internalising what's happened to her in an unhealthy way. So she's not completely passive or dissociating. Yeah, she's not happy, who would be in that situation, but she's getting on and doing okay, two children, same family, same trauma, different outcomes. Well, how does that work? What's going on here shouldn't the same trauma, the same conditions lead to the same result?

So let's unpick this, it turns out there's two parts to trauma, the external event that happened to you and your internal response to it. So let's start with the external events. And by external I mean, something that happens to you from outside your body some thing in the outside world occurs and interferes with your life. In the case of a traumatic event. It has to be something big and overwhelming. And in this case, these two children have both been through the same series of traumatic events, the episodes of violence in their home between their parents. So that event, the external events is the first part of the equation. The second part is the individual's internal response how they felt about the incident, their beliefs about why it happened. And the stories they tell themselves about why it happened to them. And the stories we tell ourselves about our lives are incredibly important. They shape all sorts of areas of our lives, because those stories tell our brains and bodies to some extent, how we should process traumatic events, and how we should react to them. And you see this playing out in the world all the time. And before I come back to the girls, let me tell you another famous quick story. It's not a true story. And it's not a story I made up so I'm not taking credit for it. But it illustrates the point, a reporter is interviewing two brothers. Now the first brother has spent his life in and out of prison, abusing alcohol and prescription drugs, has never maintained a romantic relationship and is permanently broke because he can't hold down a job. The reporter asked him, How did your life end up this way? And the man says, Look, when I grew up, my father left when I was two, and my mother neglected us and didn't care for us. We were poor. We were permanently hungry. And I lived in a neighbourhood where crime and violence were the norm. How could I have turned out any other way? The reporter then goes to visit his brother. Now his brother is the opposite. He was incredibly successful, had made millions running his own business, married for 20 years and a successful relationship, was incredibly healthy and had never been in trouble with the law. He was a model citizen. And the reporter was confused by this. And he asked him, Well, how did your life end up this way? And the man replied, When I grew up, my father left when I was two, and my mother neglected us and didn't care for us. We were poor and permanently hungry. I lived in a neighbourhood where crime and violence were the norm. How could I have turned out any other way? The exact same history of events, but one brother told himself a story about how that beginning was going to damn him to a life of criminality and failure where he was a victim, whereas the other told himself a story about how that exact same start was a springboard to escape his early life and propel him towards success, same history, different stories. The beliefs we have about the world, make a difference to how we interpret the things that have happened to us. And you see this in school at a lower level to children experiencing difficulties with their work, when they get a question wrong, one might throw down their pen and despair and cry and give up seeing making mistake is evidence that they're stupid or a failure. The other is bullet proof, doesn't care doesn't frame that event as a failure, but as an opportunity to learn and grow and get better at the subject. They both have different beliefs. They're telling themselves different stories about themselves and the world and the things that have happened to them. And for our two sisters, one of whom is overcome by the traumatic events at home, one of whom is seemingly getting on and surviving, it might be that they have very different beliefs about the world, they're telling themselves very different stories, the first might be blaming herself or her parents violence, and telling herself the story that she's a bad person, and unlovable and that the world is full of violence, and she has to be on the constant watch for attack. And the other might be telling herself an entirely different story, that she was just unlucky enough to be born to parents, where there is violence, but what's happening at home isn't her fault. She's a good person. And actually, other places in the world is safe school is a safe place. And there are people there who care about her. I'm not saying she's happy about the violence in the home, or that she is in an environment where she's thriving, or she isn't being emotionally damaged by her home life. But those different stories could result in the two siblings processing the event in very different ways. 

Now, before you pick up your keyboard to email me, or you know firebomb me on Twitter about how intimate partner violence and domestic violence can impact on kids in loads of different ways. And they're not all easily visible. I get that. And I know that some situations and mental health conditions are complex, more complex than this. But what I've done is to take an example and simplify it to make the following points. Often, our beliefs or the stories we tell ourselves about the world fuel emotions, which in turn fuel our actions, which essentially is the basis of CBT, or cognitive behaviour therapy. And interestingly CBT is often about helping people change those underlying beliefs, the stories they're telling themselves, so they don't have to experience those negative emotions and then don't engage in damaging behaviours as a result, and helping kids who are experiencing difficulties with their emotions or behaviours. If we can help them change the stories, they're telling themselves, it can be very powerful. And that means because we know a student has experienced a traumatic event in their lives, we shouldn't necessarily expect automatically for that child to have poor outcomes in the long term from it. Or, most importantly, we shouldn't say there's something wrong with that child because they aren't experiencing emotional turmoil as a result, different stories, different outcomes. 

And that's what I've got for you today. Remember, don't forget to subscribe and leave a rating and review that prompts the podcast algorithm to share school behaviour secrets with other teachers, school leaders and parents who might find this information useful. It's another quick fire episode next week. I hope you have a brilliant week. Whether you're off work or not. I look forward to seeing you next time on School Behaviour Secrets.

(This automated transcript may not be 100% accurate.)