Meet David and Anna. David is a seventh grade student attending an urban middle school with a strong equity orientation and also a high percentage of students from low-income families. Thirty minutes away in the suburbs, Anna attends a private school where many of the parents are in the top five percent of income earners in the country. Both David and Anna are gifted and have a history of trauma. Anna has been diagnosed with anxiety and depression as a result of having experienced severe social bullying at school. David’s teachers and parents are currently working in partnership with mental health providers to better understand David’s strengths and needs. The signs of injury in David and Anna look different. David frequently fights in response to trauma – at school he has yelled, punched lockers, cursed and turned over desks. It is unreasonable to ask David’s teachers to play the role of a therapist simultaneous to teaching nearly forty children. In contrast, Anna tends to respond to trauma by freezing. Anna convincingly hides her sadness with a joyful smile so as not to be a burden to friends or family. Still, those who know her best realize something is “off.” When Anna’s parents became aware of the relational aggression she was experiencing, they reported details to the school. Teachers were asked to play the role of investigator which felt uncomfortable and politically precarious. Sadly, by not exploring the issues in depth from multiple perspectives, the school inadvertently contributed to continued suffering. The staff at both schools have the best intentions. David and Anna remind us when students have a history of trauma, support for healing and learning in school environments becomes particularly complex.
Given the dearth of research on trauma in gifted youth, parents and educators often feel helpless and uncertain as to how to best support; moreover, adults may be unaware trauma is the root cause of challenging behaviors. Trauma occurs when an individual’s brain becomes stuck in survival mode (Walker, 2013). This article will provide a brief introduction to signs of trauma and introduce strategies to support healing while partnering with a mental health care professional.
Why Understanding Trauma Matters
High emotional development, advanced cognition and strong mental health may strengthen our resilience, but they do not immunize us from trauma. Anyone can experience psychological injuries from violence, abuse and/or neglect. Unbearable feelings can result in extreme coping behaviors.
Bullying behavior can cause injuries, including trauma in some cases. Jean Peterson’s research reveals two-thirds of gifted students have experienced bullying by eighth grade (2006) which is more than double the incidence of bullying in the overall population (StopBullying.gov, 2016). The more gifted a student is, the greater the likelihood he/she will experience bullying (Peters, 2012). If we want to end the cycle of violence and keep youth safe, it is critical educators and parents work together to further our understanding.
The National Institute of Mental Health reminds us trauma can occur independent of physical injuries. Further, trauma reactions can be immediate or delayed (2013). Trauma may occur as a result of assault, violence or subtle, chronic forms of neglect or oppression occurring over time. High cortisol production associated with trauma or chronic stress can destroy neurons in critical regions of the brain. It can also lead to disassociation or hyperaruousal (Center for Non-violence and Social Justice website, 2016). It is common for youth who have experienced trauma to have significantly elevated heart rates, even when appearing relatively calm (Devereux, 2016).
In the American Psychological Association (APA) Journal, Tori DeAngelis elaborates youth who have challenges resulting from complex trauma currently receive a variety of less than ideal diagnoses which typically inadequately describe their mental health needs. DeAngelis continues listing some of these imperfect diagnoses which include: pervasive developmental disorders, oppositional defiant or conduct disorder, reactive attachment disorder, affective disorders, anxiety disorders and post-traumatic stress disorder. Symptoms of developmental trauma could include: anxiety and depressed mood; distrust and conflict in relationships; distorted beliefs about people and the world; feelings of anger, sadness, guilt, fear and shame; dissociation, negative self-beliefs and avoidance (DeAngelis, 2007). Sadly, intense shame and guilt can often interfere with traumatized individuals seeking and receiving much needed support (Firestone, 2010).
Importantly, Devereux, the U.S.’s leading behavioral health care provider, delineates complex trauma from other forms of trauma. Devereux describes complex trauma as exposure to chronic trauma perpetrated by people in positions of power. This is contrasted with acute trauma which is a single traumatic event occurring over a limited time period and chronic trauma which refers to multiple traumatic events (Devereux, 2016). Firestone further explains complex trauma is repetitive, often exploitative, and typically occurs at a time of particular vulnerability, whether developmental or situational (2010).
Symptoms and effects of trauma can vary significantly in intensity and duration. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Kaiser Health conducted a seminal study on the relationship between traumatic childhood experiences and physical and emotional health outcomes later in life (the Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACE Study). The study found ACEs are occurring more frequently than predicted in youth. Moreover, as ACE scores increase, so do a variety of health and social problems including disabilities, teen pregnancies, smoking, substance abuse, risk of revictimization, poor workplace performance, relationship instability, suicide; as well as greater incidences of heart, lung and liver diseases (Devereux, 2016).
Signs of Trauma May Include:
- Hyper-arousal and/or Hyper-vigilance
- Irritable, Aggressive and/or Disruptive Behavior
- Shaking or Trembling
- Regressive Behavior
- Drop in Grades or Performance
- Loss of Interest in Previously Enjoyed Activities
- Confusion and Lack of Attention to Details
- Suicidal Thoughts
- Variety of Physical Ailments and Illnesses
- Feelings of Fear and Anxiety
- Sleep Disturbance
- Difficulty Concentrating
- Self-destructive or Reckless Behavior
- Nightmares and/or Flashbacks
- Guilt and/or Self-blame
- Feeling Emotionally Numb
- Organizational Challenges
- Elevated Blood Pressure
- Distorted Self-Concept
- Challenges in Mood Regulation
- Increased Resting Heart Rate
- Emotional Breakdowns
- Eating Disorders
- Truancy / High Absenteeism
- Social Isolation
The Impact of Trauma on Identification & Programming
The impact of trauma on physical and emotional health reinforces the body of research calling for early identification practices. It also reiterates the invaluable nature of parent and educator partnerships – schools and families both need data from each other to inform decision-making. If an individual is exhibiting any combination of the behaviors and signs associated with trauma, meet them with compassion. For a variety of reasons, including mental health stigma, students and their families may feel reluctant to share about traumatic events.
Until adequate healing has occurred, it is unlikely caregivers will have an accurate approximation of a student’s abilities. In the interim, educators can reduce unnecessary exposure to individuals or situations that may remind the student of the trauma. Consider substituting content that may remind a student about traumatic events and potentially re-traumatize them or cause regression in the healing process.
Learning Environment Considerations:
Spaces mindful of sensory sensitivities support youth healing from trauma and also sensitive gifted learners. Attention to environmental elements can make the classroom less taxing on a student’s nervous system. Remove fluorescent lights and utilize natural lighting whenever possible. Insure volume levels are kept low. Avoid chemical cleaning supplies. Reduce any potential upsetting or distracting auditory and visual stimulation. Decorate with soothing colors and images.
- Prepare or signal student for changes, transitions or class surprises (It is important to use a calm, soft tone of voice and to rehearse when possible).
- Avoid unnecessary exposure to upsetting stimuli.
- Identify patterns that result in student shutting down.
- Use non-verbal cues to signal the student when he or she might be starting to shut down.
- Identify staff the student feels safe discussing traumatic events and flashbacks with and a procedure for accessing those staff as needed.
- Provide an appropriate fidget item.
- Teach and practice calming techniques and emotional literacy skills.
- Provide opportunities for alternate modes of expression including art and music.
- Support students in creating a Calming Toolbox with resources to aid in self-soothing such as puzzles, art supplies, yoga poses, guided meditations, tea, mindfulness practices, inspirational quotes, etc.
- Encourage students to take breaks and ask for help as needed.
- Celebrate Mistakes.
- Include the student in decision-making and encourage them to track progress independently.
- Practice Unconditional Positive Regard.
* Collaborate with relevant mental health care professionals throughout.*
A Closing Note
Grieving is typical post-trauma; even if there was not actual loss, the survivor must cope with the loss of their sense of safety and security (HelpGuide Website, 2016). It is still unclear how a gifted individual’s healing process may differ from others. Future research is needed to determine how giftedness impacts trauma and the recovery process. Until then, we welcome you to share resources and strategies that have been helpful to you here in our SENG community.
About the Author:
Kate Bachtel is a mother, educator, SENG president and doctoral student in curriculum and instruction at University of Denver. Prior to launching SoulSpark Learning, an education consulting firm, Kate co-led the successful opening of a K-8 IB World school with a holistic vision for educating gifted and creative learners.
References and Resources
Center for Nonviolence and Social Justice Website. (2016). What is Trauma? [website].
DeAngelis, Tori. Current Trauma Diagnoses. (2007). American Psychological Association
Journal. Volume 38, No. 3, p. 34. Retrieved from: http://www.apa.org/monitor/mar07/trauma.aspx
Devereux Colorado. (2016). Trauma-Informed Care: A Developmentally Sensitive Approach.
[PowerPoint slides]. Lecture presented in January 2016 in Denver, CO.
Firestone, Lisa. (2012). Recognizing Complex Trauma: Educating Ourselves on the After-
Effects of Repetitive or Cumulative Trauma. Psychology Today. Retrieved from:
HelpGuide Website. (2016). Emotional and Psychological Trauma: Symptoms, Treatment
and Recovery. [website]. Retrieved May 11, 2016 from: http://www.helpguide.org/articles/ptsd-trauma/emotional-and-psychological-trauma.htm
National Child Traumatic Stress Network Website. (2016). [website]. Retrieved from:
National Institute of Mental Health. (2013). Helping Children and Adolescents Cope with
Violence and Disasters: What Community Members Can Do. Retrieved from:
Peters, Dan. (2012). Gifted and Bullied. Gifted Education Communicator, Spring 2012.
Peterson, Jean. (2006). Gifted Children Especially Vulnerable to Effects of
Bullying. Purdue News. [website]. Retrieved from: http://www.purdue.edu/uns/html4ever/2006/060406.Peterson.bullies.html
Stop Bullying Website. (2016). [website]. Retrieved from:
Walker, Pete. (2013). Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving: A Guide and Map for
Recovering from Childhood Trauma. Settle: Create Space Independent Publishing