January 01, 2015

Strategies for Managing the Needs of Special Education Students with Early Trauma Histories

Susan Craig

The views expressed herein have not been approved by the House of Delegates or the Board of Governors of the American Bar Association, and accordingly, should not be construed as representing the policy of the American Bar Association.

This is a companion article to Supporting the Mental Health of Trauma-Exposed Children in the Child Welfare System by Lisa Conradi.

Many court-involved children with early trauma histories receive special education services. These services are provided when children’s poor self-regulatory skills and limited executive functioning restrict their ability to learn and develop social skills. Children identified for special education are often coded as learning disabled, behavior disordered, or language delayed. Some are diagnosed as having Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), Attention Deficit Disorder with Hyperactivity (ADHD), or Asperger’s Syndrome.

Regardless of the label, an early trauma history usually affects how children think and reason, how they view themselves and the world around them, and how they process information. Weaknesses in these areas make their involvement with the courts challenging. When an attorney knows what to expect, positive outcomes are more likely.

Recognize Faulty Logic

Children develop their understanding of core concepts like cause and effect, prediction and estimation, sequence, and self-awareness by interacting with predictable, loving caregivers. When deprived of these formative experiences they make faulty assumptions about themselves and others. They have little insight into the effect their behavior has on others, and they are incapable of learning from their mistakes. They see themselves as victims and feel powerless in their own lives. 

Interpret Sullenness as Despair

A learning disability or limited expressive language deepens an already complicated set of cognitive distortions. Children with these issues can appear sullen, and lack remorse for what they have done. The sullenness often reflects their frustration and despair over their inability to stay out of trouble. They are unable to use language to explain their behavior or how they feel. They are out of touch with their bodies and memories. These details are inaccessible to them and those trying to help them. Neither consequences nor rewards help motivate the desired behavior because they see no relationship between what they do and what happens to them.

Strategies for building relationships with these clients include:

  • Establish a timeline of events that led to the client’s court involvement. Let the client tell you his version first. Listen neutrally. Write each step on a separate index card. Then review the sequence with him. Correct or clarify any areas of faulty logic or misrepresented facts. Using this type of visual timeline addresses the inability to think sequentially observed in many children with early trauma histories.

  • Give the client “court appropriate” language. Include how to address the judge, what words or phrases are not allowed, etc. Do not assume the client knows any of this, or is capable of generating them spontaneously. Stress hormones shut down the area of the brain responsible for expressive language. When children with early trauma histories are anxious, they are quite literally “at a loss for words.”

  • Use role playing and rehearsal strategies to practice appropriate courtroom interactions. These strategies help children with early trauma histories compensate for deficits in their ability to meet behavioral expectations of a new environment. 

  • Familiarize the client with the courtroom. If possible, visit the courtroom with the client before his appearance, so he is familiar with the physical plant. At the very least, show the client pictures of the courtroom, explain who sits where, and what role each person plays.

  • Walk the client through what happens in court or when they meet with you. This strategy helps the client anticipate a sequence of events and prepare to participate in it. The client is less likely to be caught “off guard,” a common trigger for traumatized children.

Expect to Be Rejected or Ignored

Children’s early experiences define how they see themselves, their caregivers, and the world around them. When parents are deeply attached to their children and have good coping skills themselves, children tend to think of adults as available and competent. They expect to be taken care of, and feel comfortable exploring the world around them. They are well prepared to meet the challenges of a dynamic and ever-changing world view.

Children with early trauma histories or poor attachment relationships seldom have this kind of relationship with their caregivers. Their parents often have poor coping skills, and have trouble managing stress. Parents often neglect their children’s need for protection and reassurance. These children experience adults to be unavailable or incompetent. They don’t expect to be cared for, and view the world as dangerous and insecure. They have a limited vocabulary to explain what they think. They have a rigid mindset that makes it hard to meet new challenges, accept help, or allow others to change their mind about themselves.

Strategies for establishing trust with distrustful clients include:

  • Emphasize safety when a client’s distrust of authority stems from an early trauma history. This is most easily achieved by using the same, predictable framework for all conversations and interactions with them.
  • Practice “empathic objectivity.” Take nothing that your clients say personally, and frequently remind yourself to avoid confrontation. Children with early trauma histories are masters at drawing professionals into a “re-enactment” of their destructive relationships with early attachment figures. If necessary, walk away until you can deal with the situation in a neutral manner.
  • Manage the “double struggle” of keeping your own emotions in check as you de-escalate the client’s arousal and/or threatening behavior.
  • Praise the client for positive behaviors. When possible, give specific praise for behaviors that show an ability to take responsibility for positive behaviors or a willingness to accept help from others.

Reduce Stress to Improve Problem-solving

The brain uses one of two networks to process incoming information. The first monitors incoming information for evidence of any potential for threat. It operates somewhat unconsciously regulating the body’s stress response. Protective in nature, it triggers the “fight, flight, or freeze” reaction when it perceives danger. 

The second network is less reactive, and can override the impulses of the lower brain with logic and reassuring self-talk. Referred to as “executive function,” this area of the brain is responsible for planning, goal setting, pattern recognition, and other executive functions.

Both information-processing systems develop within the context of children’s early attachment relationships. Children learn self-control when caregivers are available to help them regulate their emotions and internal states. Their capacity for executive functioning grows with repeated experiences of predictable routines, interactive play opportunities, and ongoing conversations about what they are doing and why.

Children with early trauma histories seldom develop age-appropriate executive functioning skills. As a result, they have poor problem-solving skills, are easily aroused, and overreact to perceived threats or dangers. They resist change in routine and are vulnerable to “meltdown” for no apparent reason. They have difficulty generating other ways of looking at a situation, or solving a problem. When threatened, they are prone to depression and self-mutilation, sometimes cutting themselves as a way of managing their anxiety. 

Strategies for interacting with clients who display these behaviors include:

  • Give clients choices about how to complete tasks. For example, if paperwork needs to be done, give the client a choice to complete it alone or with help. This prevents power struggles and noncompliant behaviors.
  • State your case simply. Avoid long explanations, and unnecessary words. 
  • Use space and silence to de-escalate behavior. If the client appears agitated, say “It looks like you need some time to re-group. I’ll wait until you’re ready. Take your time.” Maintain a neutral body position and facial expression until the client is ready to talk to you. If necessary, set a kitchen timer, so they know how long they have.
  • Give alternate solutions to client problems. Put each solution on a separate index card. Say, “Here are some alternative solutions to the problem we’re trying to solve. Do you want to try one of these or do you have another idea? We need to pick one.”
  • Do not demand eye contact from clients with autism or Asperger’s Syndrome. It is difficult for people with these disorders to process what is being said while looking at the speaker. An averted glance usually means the person is listening, and if given enough time will respond.
  • Avoid surprises and sudden changes in routine. Children with an early trauma history have trouble “shifting gears” or dealing with novelty.
  • Use rituals to engage clients. Use the same greeting each time you meet, follow the same sequence of events during meetings, and whenever possible meet in the same room. Give clients a topic list to be covered so they can cross items off as they are addressed.

Court experiences will almost always be difficult for children with trauma histories, especially if these children also suffer from cognitive disabilities. Patience and client-focused strategies can help manage the stress and lead to better outcomes. 

Susan Craig, Ph.D. is an author and educational consultant who provides training in school districts throughout the United States. She blogs about topics related to children and trauma at www.meltdownstomastery.wordpress.com