The Private Logic Behind a Trauma-Informed Mindset - ASCD
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April 9, 2020

The Private Logic Behind a Trauma-Informed Mindset

Social-emotional learning
Classroom Management

My son takes anti-psychotic medication to silence the voices in his head. These voices tell him he is worthless. While therapy and medication have helped him make progress, adjustments in his prescription complicate how he behaves in school. Last year, while in the throes of coming to terms with all these changes, I attended a parent-teacher conference at his high school. When I asked the teacher for an example of problematic behavior, he talked about giving lecture notes one day when he noticed my son staring out the window. He presented this as evidence of my son being unprepared, off-topic, and even disrespectful.

After hearing this anecdote, I turned to my son, who was present for the conference, and asked, "Why were you looking out the window?"

"I was thinking," he replied.

I turned to the teacher and told him my son was thinking. I received an eye-roll in response. I remember the flush of anger flooding my cheeks. I had a teenager struggling with mental health issues, literally fighting against the voices in his head, but his teacher felt miffed because he interpreted window-gazing as a personal affront. We never really know what's happening in someone else's mind, and this experience haunts me whenever I consider what it means to be a trauma-informed educator.

Private Logic, Explained

I watched my son, who is in 11th grade, become victimized by a system that often fails to consider basic tenants of a trauma-informed mindset, such as the idea that behavior is communication. Students who have experienced trauma often manifest negative "private logic," an unconscious set of beliefs that can impact our view of the world and how we act within it.

Imagine a student whose private logic says, "Nobody loves me." Such a child may lack a sense of belonging and shy away from developing meaningful friendships. How does it serve that student to label her "antisocial"? That word has a negative connotation, and using it may impart a negative attribute to a child who aches to feel like she belongs. As we seek to counterbalance students' negative private logic, we must reframe our private logic, too. That means shifting the words we use when thinking and talking.

Our words impact our reality. Consider how different it feels to speak about a student who "just wants attention" versus one who "needs attention." If somebody "wants" something, it feels unnecessary—like a privilege only bestowed upon the worthy. But if someone "needs" something, that's an entirely different circumstance. How can we deny a child in need?

A Trauma-Informed Mindset

These are not just semantic arguments. When it comes to adopting a trauma-informed mindset, our words have an impact. The more we practice reframing our private logic, the more natural it becomes to engage in new thinking patterns and habits, whether it's the things we think or say to one another about our students or how we talk to students about their behavior. Students who have experienced trauma or are dealing with mental health issues need teachers who act with an eye toward growth and healing as opposed to anger and punishment.

When working recently with a school faculty, I provided an activity where teachers had to reframe sample private logic statements. The first said, "That student knows how to push my buttons." One teacher reframed this to say, "That student knows me well."

How might those two examples of private logic impact our view of classroom discipline? If such a student were to misbehave, who would we see—someone who knows how to push our buttons and wants attention, or someone who knows us well and uses that knowledge to get the attention she needs? Would we be surprised to find the former mindset might lead to a punitive consequence while the latter might lead to a restorative conversation?

Many of us have traditionally been socialized to think of punitive consequences as a natural response to negative student behavior. But we can reframe behavior, too. A child suffering from the impact of trauma or other struggles won't learn from detention, especially if he's hungry or fighting private logic that says he'll never be worth anything. If children who need attention learn from teachers that they are "greedy"—as if seeking attention is a privilege only for the "deserving"—it becomes impossible to heal a traumatized brain.

As soon as we consider that behavior is communication, a new reality emerges. A student who refuses to work could be an example of "disrespect" or "disobedience" or it could be an attempt to communicate. Maybe he feels inadequate and avoids work for fear of failure. Maybe he feels overloaded and needs a break. Or maybe he was struggling against the voices in his head while gazing out a window.

I once collaborated with an elementary school to revise their discipline matrix. We considered what certain misbehaviors might attempt to communicate, such as "refusing to work." Maybe such a student is hungry, or tired, or just in need of a break. Instead of quickly going down a punitive pathway, we programmed interventions that could address these other needs. Now, when a student refuses to work, teachers try giving a snack, an activity break, or an opportunity to do something else while completing work later. As a result, office referrals have drastically reduced and students are responding more positively to the new school culture.

Imagine a world where everyone takes a similar tact, responding not to behavior but to what behavior might communicate. While we might never truly know what happens behind someone else's eyes, we can reframe our attitudes to be more compassionate. No matter our students' experiences, a little compassion goes a long way.

Jason A. Haap has been teaching for more than 20 years. He is currently a school improvement consultant with Hamilton County ESC. His experience includes literacy across the curriculum, problem/project-based learning, systems change, and trauma-informed systems of supports.

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