You can read a downloadable version of this article: School-Age Youth, Trauma, and Resilience: A Qualitative Interview with a Teacher to Understand Perspective of Working with Students with Emotional and Behavioral Disabilities
A semi-structured qualitative interview with a veteran teacher is the basis of this study. I designed the questions to uncover her perspectives and look for insight regarding trauma, resilience, and students with emotional and behavioral disabilities. I elaborate on the study’s procedures and design. Included is the full transcript of the interview and forms used for informed consent as appendices. Themes from the exchange include defining and understanding trauma and resilience their connection with behavior. Boundary blurring, sincere interest in the youth, developing rapport and connection, and school reform were all included as other ideas exposed during the dialog. The participant’s perspective showed alignment with current research publications, and the analysis consists of tying in the information drawn from the interview with these other publications.
Keywords: Special Education, Emotional and Behavioral Disability, Trauma, Resilience, Teacher Perspective
Teachers’ perceptions regarding school climate impacts teachers’ classroom practices and their experience of job-related stress, teaching efficacy, and job satisfaction (Collie et al., 2012). The topics of social-emotional resilience, trauma-informed schools, and teacher resilience have been examining at an increasing rate over the last several years. Recently, two separate handbooks on trauma-informed schools were published (Berardi et al., 2019; Dombo & Sabatino, 2019).
This paper’s focus is to underscore some of the research surrounding students with special education due to an emotional and behavioral disabilities. It also looks to understand teacher beliefs regarding trauma and resilience. Furthermore, it looks at themes that surfaced during an interview with a veteran teacher with experience working with youth who have traumatic experiences in their past. I compare those themes with ideas found in the literature.
Special education services assist students with many categorical disabilities. Washington State identifies 14 different categories granting eligibility for specially designed instruction (Child with a disability or student eligible for special education, 392-172A WAC § 01035, 2007). When people consider these disabilities within schools, Emotional and Behavioral Disability (EBD) is not often the first that comes to mind. During the 2017–18 school year, about 13.7 percent of students 3 to 21 had a disability that required an Individualized Education Plan (IEP). Most frequently the qualifying category is for students with a specific learning disability or speech and language impairment (4.6 and 2.7 percent of the population, respectively). Students qualifying for specially designed instruction due to having EBD is in the middle of the qualifying categories for services and has 0.7 percent of the school population (Snyder et al., 2008).
Gresham et al. (1999) describes EBD as including externalizing and internalizing behavior. Federal law describes this as having an emotional disturbance. It defines it as portraying the characteristics of the disability characteristics over a long period of time and that it has a marked impact on the child’s educational performance (Individuals with disabilities education act, 20 U.S.C. § 1400, 2004).
Harvey, in 1996 described urban violence as a type of ecological threat to a community’s ability to provide a haven for its members and related it as analogous to “acid rain.” Urban violence is a category of trauma that impacts both individuals and the communities in which they are prevalent. Many terms describe the various facets of trauma. These include adverse childhood experiences (ACEs, Anda et al., 2006; Felitti et al., 1998), toxic stress (Shonkoff et al., 2012; Franke, 2014), and chronic stress (Evans & Kim, 2012). The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA) Trauma and Justice Strategic Initiative (2014) define
Individual trauma results from an event, series of events, or set of circumstances that is experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or life-threatening and that has lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and mental, physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being (p. 7).
I am using this definition to embody this paper’s interpretation of trauma. This definition is more inclusive than a more clinical definition, such as only persons who qualify for the diagnostic criteria for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or another of the trauma- and stressor-related disorders. The American Psychiatric Association (APA, 2013) includes the following diagnosis in this category: reactive attachment disorder, disinhibited social engagement disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder, acute stress disorder, and adjustment disorders. SAMHSA’s definition is inclusive enough to provide the context necessary to understand trauma from a broad set of needs, without having a clinical understanding. Trauma is prevalent for school-age children in the United States. Perfect et al. (2016) describes in a classroom of 30 students; it is reasonable to expect that 15–20 have exposure to some form of a traumatic event.
Dombo and Sabatino (2019) report exposure to traumatic events can have reactions that impact the child differently. The spectrum of responses varies on severity and duration of effects (see also APA, 2013; Bethell et al., 2014; Evans & Kim, 2012). Trauma can potentially impact the biology, psychology, behavior, social, and spiritual aspects of the survivor’s life. These impacts also are translated into academic concerns and impacted learning. Student’s resilience can mitigate the effects of trauma (Harvey, 1996; Bethell et al., 2014; Perfect et al., 2016; Gonzalez et al., 2016).
A focus on positive youth development and social-emotional learning (SEL) in schools has been Increasing (Taylor et al., 2017). Schools and districts that embed high-quality SEL programs, activities, and curricula may improve school climate, culture, behaviors, attendance, and academic performance (Marsh et al., 2018). Offering specific instruction on social-emotional skills can be used to enhance educational resilience and promote a trauma-informed school setting (Dombo & Sabatino, 2019).
Educational resilience includes facilities that are “not viewed as a fixed attribute but as something that can be promoted by focusing on ‘alterable’ factors that can impact an individual’s success in school” (Waxman et al., 2013, p. 1). As described by Sciaraffa et al. (2017), some of these alterable factors include aiding children in developing their self-regulation capacities, expressing emotions, and self-assertion.
Schools can enhance a student’s resilience. It is also consequential to look at a teacher’s resilience. Contextual and individual protective factors of teachers relate to the teacher’s resilience (Beltman et al., 2011). School systems can enhance teacher protective factors through professional development. Supporting staff during pre-service, practicum placements, and the early years of their placements is foundational. This professional development should develop strategies for personal philosophies, creating a supportive school climate, teaching practices, classroom management skills, and managing work-life balance. (Lombardo-Graves, 2017).
I designed the interview to understand a teacher’s perspective on trauma and resilience with EBD students. We will look at the participant selection, interview questions, and the researcher’s positionality to explain the study design and methodology. Included as Appendices A-D is the Informed Consent, which consists of a description of the study, the potential harms, and benefits of participation. It also delineates a participant bill of rights, a record to attest their consent, provide specific permissions to be granted to the researcher, and a description of confidentiality for this study. Appendices E is the transcript of the interview that took place.
Guetterman (2015) reported that qualitative researchers working in education were less likely than researchers working in health sciences to provide academic citations for sampling strategies and decisions. He noted that many studies were likely to relate their selection process as being theory-driven and purposive in looking at health sciences. While this study’s focus and intended audience are for people working within education, my social work background seems to drive me to provide a rationale for my selection process.
Acharya et al. (2013) describes both purposive and convenience sampling as the most commonly used method for research sampling. In purposive and convenience sampling, researchers selected participants due to their meeting a set of criteria. This study’s criteria included that the participant is an adult over the age of 18, works as a teacher within special education services, and has experience with youth with EBD and or who have traumatic experiences. Following these criteria, I reached out to local teachers who I know and one showed interest in participating in the interview. She is currently a special education teacher for the Pasco School District. She does not work exclusively with the EBD population now, but she has a strong history of doing this.
Kim (2016) summarizes qualitative research as “informed by different interpretative paradigms uses words rather than numbers in its analyses and focuses on understanding human action through interpretation rather than prediction and control” (p. 4). Following an interview methodology for a narrative inquiry benefits from having planned questions. The purpose of this study is to explore the relationship an individual teacher has with their students related to a common risk factor of that population of students. I hoped to uncover how a particular teacher views trauma and resilience both within their own life and the lives of their students.
I hypothesized that most teachers who work with students with severe EBD have a firm idea of what trauma and resilience are. In my experience, most teachers who work with this population, especially if they are more experienced, can clearly articulate the specific traumas their students have endured. In my estimation, many teachers might have difficulty expressing trauma as a trauma-focused mental health professional might define it. I also find myself interested in understanding their connection with resilience. In the interview with my teacher participant, this hypothesis appeared to be validated.
In general, I sought to view the teacher’s understanding of trauma and resilience and how it relates and connects to their students and their own lives. Table 1: Questions Planned for Interview enumerates the list of questions used during the interview. The interview was semi-structured, which Creswell et al. (2017) offer as narrative inquiry element. This semi-structured format allowed the flexibility to follow where the conversation went and to connect with my participant.
During the interview process, I found myself having to go with the conversation flow and move away from some of the questions I thought I would ask. I also found myself using the two-sentence format Kim (2016) describes as a practical method for framing questions. For example, when asking her to explain resiliency, I first connected it to the previous discussion we had about traumas that other educators might miss.
During TSD 6660 Narrative Research, I was paired with Julia (a course mate) to talk about our process of going through research and this class. In my experience, there is a significant amount of insight that comes from having to share our views and understanding with others. It can help us to focus and better understand our ideas. My partner described the similarity in our projects, saying we are all doing the same thing, but going about it from “very, very, different perspectives.”
In talking with Julia about my research and focus, I reported about some historical trauma that I went through and my story of overcoming those difficulties. Zerubavel and Wright (2012) describe a weariness that researchers and clinicians have to discuss and to look at the archetype of a wounded healer. Two factors that contribute to this shying away is that of social and self-stigmas. The concept of a “wounded healer,” first described by Jung, has been adapted to many different professions, including teachers (Newcomb et al., 2015). Esping (2014) describes the story of two teachers who went from extremely challenging high school experiences to become teachers. My story fits within this archetype of a wounded healer.
My own story starts before I was born. I told Julia about my father, who committed a triple homicide prior to my being born. It was a horrific crime, and I grew up until the age of 12, visiting him in prison. His case was famous in Washington State and somewhat nationally, and Charles Campbell (my father) was executed in 1994. This experience had an enormous impact on my life and its trajectory. I started making poor decisions and using drugs. I would say, looking back, it was to cope with the loss I felt. I ended up going to a boy’s ranch and making a radical change in my life. I’ve written more about this experiences previously (Campbell, n.d.; Campbell, 2019). Through the trauma that I experienced and later, my desire to help and support other youth has driven my current life position. I learned that I wanted to work with youth who were making poor decisions in their lives, had mental health disorders, or described as having EBD by the schools. My desire to help address that trauma and develop an increased ability to be resilient for my clients and students. This desire is my why for this project.
I had several assumptions going into this project. Many of the theories are based on my experience working with various EBD teachers. I believe that they will likely be able to describe the multiple traumas in their student’s experiences. They will be able to draw connections between those traumas and the impact on their lives. They might struggle more in being able to connect with how to develop resilience. It is common in many settings to focus more on problems versus the solutions used to address those problems.
For this paper, and to keep confidentiality, the name Amber is being assigned to my interviewee. She is a teacher with over 20 years’ experience working with special education students. Amber also has experience as an administrator working with a program focused solely on students with EBD and severe needs. She described herself as a high school special education resource teacher, serving students who qualify for reading and writing services. She discussed her experiences working in non-public schools in California. Amber reported many youths in this setting were involved in the foster care system and experienced a great deal of trauma. They also frequently struggled with behaviors and had extreme outbursts. In explaining the population she was working with, she said these students “who’ve come from extreme backgrounds.”
Themes from the exchange include defining and understanding trauma and resilience and the connection with behavior. Boundary blurring, sincere interest in the youth, developing rapport and connection, and school reform were all included as other themes exposed during the dialog. Each of these themes has sections and also relates her descriptions to current literature.
Many of the students that Amber has worked with don’t stand out or seem different. “I would say they present just like the average student until there’s a stressor.” She described a direct correlation between things that triggered her student’s trauma and acting out behavior. You might not know if they have experienced many of the traumatic events they have gone through or their feats of resilience if you did not know them personally.
In describing how trauma is for students, one of the descriptions she gave to trauma was a scar. She explained, “the definition in my head, but I think I’m just going to boil it down to that, that those extreme situations that leave it’s a scar.” She went on to talk about the subjective nature of trauma. She related how deep these scars are, and how much scar tissue has developed as impacting the reactions of students. Amber stated, “I feel like trauma can be different to anyone. It just depends on who you’re dealing with.”
In defining resilience, she described it as a “type of perseverance and focused on building skills to handle a difficult situation.” She emphasized the importance of relationships and connection with students as a form of developing resilience in students. Amber was able to share about her difficulties when growing up, being homeless, being a teen mother, and having “that little thing inside of me that I knew I had to keep, you know, just even doing the bare minimums of something. Right. Um, and then, and moving forward, and then I see that with my students too.”
To identify this connection between trauma and extreme acting out behavior, she told a story about an incident where a student physically assaulted her. She described having many stories of extreme trauma and acting out behaviors that she has seen over the years. She explained about one youth, who was about 11 or 12. He was “one of those average kids who just looked like that fun kid super, and he just was all, you know, just loved me” Amber explained.
In describing how this student was most of the time, she said he was “the sweetest kid.” During class, she explained that he got frustrated at a task or demand that she had given. His behavior started to escalate, and he started throwing items and desks in the classroom. Other staff moved the student outside, where his behavior continued to become more extreme. When Amber was able to attempt to deescalate the student, he was throwing rocks and trying to break windows in cars. In her attempt to calm him, he grabbed her by the hair and started punching her in the head. Amber gave the account:
He just saw red, you know what I mean? It was, it was directly a correlation. It was directly correlation [to his trauma]. I mean, and, I knew, I knew this child’s background. Do you know what I mean? So how do you get mad at that. Obviously, I got hurt pretty badly, but, um, that’s and that’s just one specific, there’s a lot more.
Externalizing behaviors can be characterized by noncompliance, defiance, disruptive, and aggressive behaviors (Lambros et al., 1998; Walker & Severson, 1992). The more aggressive and less frequent behaviors are distinctly described by Lambros et al. (1998) as behavioral earthquakes. These outbursts can be highly significant behavioral events. Amber’s account could offer a poignant example of one of these behavioral earthquakes. Sciaraffa et al. (2017) finds educators’ needs to help children identify, express, and cope with conflicting emotions in the classroom, especially with children who have experienced significant adversity.
Another theme that came out of the interview was that of the role’s teachers take on. While the teacher’s primary role is to teach, Amber described many other positions that she fills with students. A few of the roles she identifies were as an advocate, the student’s voice, professional parent, protector, and the student’s “solid.” Each of these roles and responsibilities that she takes on with her students is supporting them and helping both protect them and help them grow. In describing the difficulties she experienced, she quickly explained that she didn’t have the same severity of experiences as many of her students. “I’ve not gone through a fraction of it, but my, my childhood was not, my childhood was great, but then my teenage years, my, it was just not, it wasn’t very good.”
She described how a teacher connected with her and helped her through her high school career. She told about taking her baby to school and that teacher taking care of the baby while he was teaching so she could go to class. She seemed to see herself in some similar ways of bending the rules for her students. She described, “they know that I’m a professional [in talking about being a teacher and an authority in the classroom]. However, they also know that I [pause] This sounds terrible, but like, I’m not the one that’s going to be [pause] I will bend the rules. I will bend the rules a little bit and I will advocate.”
Many teachers work with children who have been through traumatic experiences and find it challenging to understand their role and find a blurring. Alisic (2012) describes, “several teachers struggled with their role and wondered at what point their tasks as a teacher ended and at what point those of a social worker or psychologist started” (p. 54). Taking on multiple roles and finding ways to connect with students is a vital aspect of supporting students with EBD.
As described previously, this role blurring can include taking a sincere interest in a student and their needs. Amber described as a teen mother of 16 years old, that high school teacher made a significant impact on her life. She described writing and connecting with him over and over again over the years as she earned degrees and was struggling with one thing or another. In telling stories about this teacher’s assistance, she highlighted his flexibility and sincere interest in her needs and her person. She described that she also had a great interest in youth with EBD, stating, “like I want to help all kids now. I mean, not obviously that’s shifted, but I want to and help the ones who needed it like me once who were like, rebellious [pause], trouble [pause]. I want to help those kids.”
Prather-Jones (2010) describes both teacher personality characteristics and support being notable factors influencing the decision to stay in teaching students with EBD. The personality characteristics included: intrinsically motivated, able to “not take things personally”, aware of and accept limitations, flexibility, enjoy variety, and a sincere interest in children with EBD.
Amber described herself as a relational person. She told about how she formed strong bonds with her students. She asserted
The kids who have built relationships with me, they see how they trust me. They see how the tose kids are constantly coming to me, constantly coming to my EI [Enhancement / Intervention a period where students choose what staff to engage with], you know, the times when they should be going to other places, but they’re coming to mine.
In her role as their professional parent and protector, she described having to be there for her kids and help them. She explained, “I’m not going to let anybody mess with any of my kids and really anybody who has any student. Regardless of their disability, regardless of their background, whatever, any student who walks in my room is my kid.”
Amber described having several ways of engaging with the students. She described it as follows:
I start asking questions. Like I let them know about me, and I like, I, I tend to be pretty silly, but I’m also, they see, they get to see her, the real me, you know what I mean, in a professional way, but they also, I’m not putting on a show and I’m not, um, I’m not the average adult. I’m not the average teacher.
Providing youth with a secure relationship is considered highly important in working with youth who have experienced adversity (Sciaraffa et al., 2017). Classrooms with warm teacher-child relationships promote learning (Schonert-Reichl, 2017; Merritt et al., 2012). The importance of relationship and rapport consistently shows up in the literature, and Amber’s conversation also highlights this same fact.
Amber hesitated and was a little confused when asked about resilience. She ended up defining resilience as a type of perseverance and focused on building skills to handle a difficult situation. Amber emphasized the importance of relationships and connection with students as a form of developing resilience in students. She didn’t appear to have any hesitation in discussing what trauma is and its impact on the youth. Amber used the concept of scar tissue to help exemplify her definition of trauma. She related to both the extremity and the individual interpretation of how “deep is that scar.”
She appeared to be especially worried about the lack of understanding that some teachers have about trauma. She described a within her school, there are a “lot of big-hearted educators and, but they don’t see things I see at the same time.” She describes this as especially true in this COVID 19 Era. She told me about how many of her students were failing classes, which was a trend throughout the high school. The difficulties associated with transitioning from in-person learning to an online learning format have been difficult for students across the nation. Blume and Barajas (2020) describe the number D’s and F’s increasing both in Las Angeles and San Francisco. Amber expressed her concern and frustration that even teachers she would think to be would be more compassionate and do not necessarily understand the trauma and its impact on the students. Amber stated, “when do we say let’s stop the rigor, let’s stop the rigor. And let’s start focusing on the mental health, because even in the classes that I’ve been in, like a couple of inclusion classes that I go into, or even my class. They these kids, if you give an opportunity. “ that they can be willing to turn on their camera, talk and engage in online classes, develop bonds, and work on the academic aspect Amber went on to describe.
Zolli and Healy (2012) describe resilience from the perspectives of engineering, ecology, emergency response, psychology, and sociology. For their book, they define it is as “the capacity of a system, enterprise, or a person to maintain its core purpose and integrity in the face of dramatically changed circumstances” (Introduction: The Resilience Imperative section, para. 24). There is a need to continue investigating the teacher’s perspective and understanding related to trauma and resilience. Increasing resiliency factors for youth is critical concerning the COVID-19 pandemic. Professional development around these topics would be a beneficial activity for school district to take on.
Researchers often cite the need for increased professional development around trauma and teacher’s responses (Sciaraffa et al., 2017; Perfect et al., 2016; Bethell et al., 2014). Alisic (2012) found that most of the teachers in their interviews expressed feeling a lack of competence with how they should act concerning trauma exposure. Some of these described coping through emotional processing and normalizing. They called for a need to include trauma-focused courses within teacher training.
School reform and increased training and understanding regarding trauma and resilience would be beneficial. In the light of the COVID-19 pandemic, this seems ever more important. Student with EBD have an even higher need to be supported through their trauma and to increase factors that enhance resilience. There are a number of students that have been identified in this study that have used qualitative methods to describe teacher perspectives. There is a lack of any meta-analysis that has been published to date about examining teacher perceptions related to trauma and resilience. There is a benefit to continuing to add to the professional knowledge base and understanding of teacher perceptions.
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