Updated: Jul 25
Think of a recent time you were extremely frustrated, stressed, and had your buttons pushed –AGAIN! Which actions did you take? Did you behave in ways you later regretted? Upon reflection, what was the reason for your behavior? Can you pinpoint the fuel contributing to the fire you felt? What need, feeling, or other actions from yourself or others drove you toward that behavior?
Realistically, when tired, stressed, hungry, overwhelmed, or just plain fed up, it is typical to become gruff, short with others, yell, complain, or even send a regretful email or text. It is no different for young children. The reality for adults and children is, the trigger to these unfortunate events may be obvious. But sometimes, the driver remains hidden. If we are able to detect the fuel starting the fire, we can identify the corresponding strategy that will help reduce the behaviors. To learn about “Why address the why?”, visit our blog on this topic. To join us for the live webinar on more methods to reduce challenging behaviors, sign up for the live webinar today. To discover one covert reason you may not have realized (and three helpful strategies to address it)... read on. To access valuable resources on this topic, skip to HERE
As staff coordinator of an early childhood program in Minnesota, I was called into assess what might be happening with “David” and how our team could help him succeed. David was extremely aggressive, disruptive, exhibited anxious behaviors, and struggled socially. In an instant, this 3-year-old would randomly react with violent behavior and let out ear-splitting shrieks. The skilled teachers had “tried everything” and were running out of ideas, patience, and energy. They were also concerned for the other children who were being subjected to unexpected aggressive acts and disturbing meltdowns. Something needed to happen soon to restore calm and provide David and his classmates with a safe and supportive learning environment.
The goal of the consult? In order to put together David's "puzzle" and identify the reasons behind these outbursts and what would help him most, it was important to keenly observe the series of events that precipitated this youngster’s outbursts. We needed to understand why he might be doing these behaviors and label which adult responses seemed to help or hamper the situation. The observation would help identify the potential reasons driving the behavior and identify the matching concrete strategies to help our little buddy thrive. Gathering information about what might be triggering his behavior will be paramount if we are to reduce his challenging behaviors.
In a short time, I became largely invisible as I sat conveniently and quietly in the corner and minimized my interactions with the children. In this bubble, focused and tuned into what might be happening with David. Over the next hour, I observed several relevant events that would help solve the mystery. It was evident David was having trouble as he tried to navigate a buzzing room full of children, a lot of free-play choices, objects he desired to play with that the other children already had, and classroom staff who attempted to redirect him numerous times. I appreciated that he had a supportive environment with a wonderful collection of great routines and transitions that resulted in the other children succeeding. But, it is evident little David is struggling to fit in here and he is causing disruptions.
Two major clues gave insight into what might be happening here:
When the adults move toward David to supportively coach him during difficult moments, he instantly lashes out, throws his arms up over his head, and then quickly retreats. They are trying to be helpful. But he continues to reject assistance, push them away, or reel back with a fearful grimace as they approach. He seems ambivalent and to even dread the presence of these adult “helpers”. Unfortunately, it becomes evident, in this child's short life, he has likely learned he cannot rely on his adult caregivers to help him when needed. I suspect, adults may have even hurt him. I watch as David continues to experience the extreme stress responses of fight, freeze, or flight to deal with difficulties rather than risk having to experience potentially hurtful actions of others.
His adult caregivers know that he has a pattern of aggression, and it is impacting their response to him. In one defining moment, David’s face brightens when he finally lands his favorite toy: The coveted shopping cart! This little guy delights in pushing it carefully a foot or two and then chooses a prized stuffed bear to ride along.
As he continues forward, a classmate who is well known for her cooperative nature, sees the bear in the cart and proceeds to adopt it for herself. He shrieks and instantly dives forward to forcibly retrieve it from her. As they get stuck in a tug-of-war, a nearby adult moves quickly to assist and promptly…Guess what they do? Yes. The caregiver takes the stuffed animal out of his hands and gives it to the young lady. It is understandably difficult for teachers to discern the who lit this fire and assume it was him. After all, they are working so hard to balance the needs and manage a classroom full of youngsters! But David is also understandably devastated and flails at her in protest, scowling with angst, screeching once again. For yet another time in his life, he has discovered he cannot trust adults (or other children). His survival instinct kicks in and he knows he must fight to make it.
During these moments, I was reminded of one heartbreaking lesson in graduate school at the University of Minnesota detailing one major reason some children exhibit reactions such as David’s. It just might be the covert reason some children are reactive, aggressive, and explosive: They have past experiences with trauma and/or toxic stress.
In this resource blog, we explore the impact of early stress and trauma on behavior and the developing brain. You will gather helpful information including:
Why is it important to learn about trauma?
The prevalence (the stats will surprise you!)
The impact of early trauma on behavior
What can you do in order to support children who have been through it
Excellent resources to learn more
One thing will remain very clear, what you do matters.
If you have not cared for someone as explosive as David, you may be thinking, “But, I don’t serve ‘those kids.’” But the symptoms of trauma vary. According to an article by NAEYC that summarizes the research on the prevalence:
Roughly 26 percent of children in the United States witness or experience a trauma before the age of 4 (Briggs-Gowan et al. 2010).
More than half of all victims (63.8 percent) were between birth and 8 years old.
More than one quarter (27.7 percent) were younger than 3 years old, 18.6 percent were between the ages of 3 and 5, and another 17.5 percent were between the ages of 6 and 8.
So, sadly, the odds are that you do care for, or will at some point care for, a child who has been through a traumatic experience. For many, this driver of challenging behaviors remains hidden (and, consequently, the personalized caregiving strategies that will help the children bounce back from these experiences).
The reality is, young child exhibiting challenging behaviors might just be telling you, “I have been hurt. I am not feelings safe. I need to trust you before I can calm. I need to know you won’t hurt me.”
The impact of early trauma on behavior
It might be difficult to understand why a 3 y/old would reject an empathetic and supportive adult response unless you, yourself, have experienced abuse at the hands of those who are supposed to care for you. Imagine a home environment where the adults aren't always consistently helpful or maybe even intentionally hurt you. As a toddler exploring your environment and "get into things", some days your parent laughs, others yells "No!", but today gives you a hard slap that comes our of nowhere. Over time, the brain becomes hyper-vigilant and the child, unsettled, wonders, “What am I going to get today? Am I safe? Can I relax and learn? Or, do I need to fight or run and hide?” Over time, the child's defenses go up and prepares for doom around any and every corner.
When children live in a constant state of fear and are not supported in the regulation of their emotions, the amygdala (the brain’s regulator of emotions and emotional behaviors) tends to be overused, causing it to overdevelop. This can result in children being highly impulsive and reactive and unable to complete higher-level thinking tasks." - NAEYC Resource
Children will learn to respond quickly and fiercely to protect themselves even when a strong threat does not exist. Early traumatic experiences can wire the brain for intense, quick, and reactive stress responses that undermine relationships, get in the way of learning, and disrupt your learning environment (NCTSNSC 2008). Unfortunately, this early pattern can make it difficult to get “off alert”, follow classroom rules, build relationships with others, and learn.
The child who may seem to be “choosing” to use aggression, explode, or whine incessantly might be exhibiting the results of early trauma and/or sustained stress. The reality is, you can’t see into the emotional storage locker in the child’s brain. You can’t see trauma. So, we must assume there is something driving the behavior. Learning about and using trauma-sensitive approaches for children supports all children but is critical for a child who has been through traumatic life events. Your sensitive response can help reduce challenging behaviors and fosters resilience to ensure future success.
What can you do about it?
The question remains, what can caregivers do to help vulnerable young humans with traumatic life experiences like David, get to reset and build the neural networks needed to self-regulate and get along well with others? Next, you will find three evidence-based methods that made a difference in our classrooms and helped transform David's behavior. You can also join the live webinar Preventing Challenging Behaviors to gain additional helpful strategies that will promote resilience. Or, at the end of this blog, check out the wonderful resources with additional tips and insight. You can't change a child’s past home life or undo traumatic experiences (even parents can’t change the past!) But, you can help build resiliency and promote critical connections in your environment today.
Advocate for the child and build trust. In our case, the adult’s made understandable missteps. Of course, educators cannot hear and see everything. And, it is easy to assume guilt with a child who has been aggressive in the past. Nonetheless, taking the toy away from David negatively impacted his feelings of trust and safety. It is to show him that this is a safe place, that he is loveable, and that he can be successful. In David's case, we had enough staff to assign a “shadow” to be his "safe person". The big goal is not to ensure he does not misbehave. Specifically, the shadow's role was to catch him “being good” and praise him for specific helpful behaviors. The adults worked to see situations from his perspective, made sure other children treated him kindly, and sent him positive feedback. All who encountered David made a point to intentionally send him positive messages. Also, when he ran into difficulty, the adult used an empathetic stance, getting at his eye level or below, speaking in a gentle, quieter voice, using open hands, and responding to him with caring. When David started to learn he did not have to fight his caregivers to survive, he started to be able to ease into play and connect with others. For environments where there is not an extra team member, it will be critical to have the same goal, to be a constantly secure base for David and help him feel loved and capable.
Keep a steady and calm mood. To thrive, children who have been through trauma need to interact with an adult with an even mood who avoids big reactions, especially during stressful moments. It will be critical to keep a stable emotional tone. Have you ever had a reaction to a child who is misbehaving where you provided compassion and support during a difficult moment? Me too! Have you also had times when you react harshly with a statement like, “JUST STOP!”…. Unfortunately, I am guilty of this one too. We are all human after all. When we're under stress, we act different than when we're not. When adults fluctuate between being helpful and hurtful, loving and critical, calm or explosive, it can further impede development and get in the way of progress. So, taking steps to master stressful moments will be critical. CLICK HERE to explore our blog posts on stressful moments.
Be reliable by prepping the child for what is next. One of the resources on trauma had this analogy that helps demonstrate why it is difficult for children with early traumatic experiences.
Imagine there's no longer yellow lights. You're driving down the road, and you see an upcoming green light and ease right through the intersection. Thrilled, as you come up to the next green light, you maintain your speed when, suddenly, it’s red! You slam on your brakes. Wow - that was stressful. Relieved you made the stop in time, you sit at wonder what will happen at the next light.
As you approach the next intersection, the light is green... How do you feel as you get closer? Do you want to keep your foot on the brake just in case? Do you constantly tap on the gas/break wondering which it will be when you arrive - Red...Green... and when it will turn? As you pull up, you note, it has been green for awhile. Maybe it will be red soon. Nope, still green. But, what if it turns red? You remain vigilant, making sure to keep your eyes out for any change in the light.
This is the experience of many children who have been through a traumatic event. They move through your early childhood environment ready to brake or hit the gas at a millisecond’s notice.
How can you help? Provide a predictable and calming yellow light will help them (and all of us) anticipate what is next and relax into it. We get more in detail in our webinar series. Here are three easy “prepping” interactions
Use a predictable verbal cue, telling the child what will happen next. "I am going to sing one more song, then we will wash up!" "I am going to give you a hug now, is that okay?" "Coming in to help... walking towards you now..." "First wash hands, then snack." "We are going to play five more minutes.... four more minutes... three more minutes..."
Sing a consistent song each time you transition during the day. Songs help prep the child in a fun and engaging way, as well as reduce stress hormone in their body. This can help all children get "off alert" during stress-inducing transitions.
Use a calming sound cue such as a chime before announcing a transition. Set a timer to help the child see the passing of time and know they can depend on when things will change.
Use a visual schedule to show the predictable pattern the day will follow. As you go through the day, encourage the child to take the picture and put it on an envelope. This will help build a secure connection and help the child feel safe and successful. The good news? You do not have to figure out how to make one on your own! Here is a great free resource to build your own with instructions of how to use it.
To reduce challenging behaviors, support a child who has been through stressful events, and ensure future success, it is imperative that adults who care for children understand the impact of trauma and the strategies that will help that child learn to trust, calm, and connect in order to learn. Since we do not have access to the emotional storage locker in the child’s brain, we must assume the child is doing the best they can. There is a real need and feeling behind the behavior. Identifying what it is, well help us provide the best care and set the child up for success, both today in our care and in the future.
Thank you for taking the time to read this blog! You can learn more from the helpful resources below or join the live webinar on Preventing Challenging Behaviors to gain additional helpful strategies that will promote resilience. And remember, what you do matters!
Early Childhood Specialist and Lifelong Learner
Wonderful Resources to Learn More!
Creating Trauma-Sensitive Classrooms
Five Ways to Support Students Affected by Trauma
Supporting Anxious Children in the Preschool Classroom
Helpful podcast on Trauma and resilience:
Effects of Trauma: Managing Challenging Behaviors
Adverse Childhood Experiences Resources:
CDC: Prevalence and information. What is childhood trauma?
The Aces Quiz: How many adverse childhood experiences have you had?
To view a list of currently offered live webinars and self-paced learning opportunities with Raelene, visit https://www.thriving-together.com/webinars