I didn’t understand how trauma impacted kids but I knew what was happening was not normal. With no children of my own, young kids were a bit foreign to me.
I was brought in as a substitute in a class of First through Eighth graders. Multiple sets of brothers and sisters in the same classroom was extremely abnormal. In fact, I had never heard any district permit siblings in the same self contained classroom.
I had never witnessed such brutality from children. The desks being thrown captivated my full attention until I realized the students were reacting to the teacher’s intimidation. There was nothing calming about this man’s nature and he justified his approach by handing me a gaggle of educational theory books. I stood by as long as I could take it and I went to the Principal’s Office. “Something is wrong with…” my words locked up until I realized I didn’t care if I was fired. “That guy…I don’t know. If he is using some restraint technique or approach, I’ve never heard of it. I need to be trained immediately if you want me in there. What I’m seeing in there is wrong.”
For the next two days, I was trained in some awkward restraint technique that seemed to be used to punish the kids rather than prevent danger. The morning after my training was complete, I walked into the classroom. The Superintendent, Assistant Superintendent, and the Principal were waiting for me. “We have reassigned the teacher. We want you to take over the class.” the Principal said. I was stupefied.
I quickly thought about what was most important to the safety of these students. “I have two conditions. First, the restraints have to stop. A student cannot be restrained unless I say it is ok. Second, I have to teach these kids not to be so violent which means academics will take a back burner. I don’t want to be questioned if the kids are not working on Math. We will get to the core subjects in time. They can’t learn anything as things sit now.” These administrators had no reason to trust me but they knew I had the heart and the patience to help these twelve kids learn how to react calmer.
I pulled aside the two teacher’s assistants and I asked if they would agree to not restrain the kids unless I agreed it was necessary. I asked if we could be a team. “That teacher was crazy. We did our best. Yeah, we are with you.” These ladies looked relieved that someone wanted to do something.
The children were violent. They would punch, kick, and throw anything at anyone. After school, I read their files. Everyone had been abused in every way beyond comprehension. The school was on the campus of a therapeutic facility only there was no therapy. Their parents had abused and violated the children. The house parents/staff at the facility used restraints as a penalty and their last teacher restrained kids for more than two hours without interruption. The students didn’t have any reason to trust adults and I was a male authority figure who they didn’t know and towered over them.
At every opportunity, I made sure to get down on my knees in order to be on their eye level. I was more physically vulnerable to assault but I could not use any approach that seemed threatening. I noticed a pattern quickly. Restraints had to continue until I could eliminate the kids’ survival reactions and resulting violence. If I had to restrain a kid’s brother, their sibling would punch a kid next to them. I realized it was to distract the adult’s attention in order to protect their sibling.
I started calling the sibling over during the restraint. These kids were professional evaluators. They could see when an adult was being forceful, causing pain, and leveraging coercion to get the kid to stop their “ defiance”. “Am I hurting your brother right now?”I would ask.
“Nah, he’s just mad.”
I would process with the kid afterwards. I asked the child why I felt it was necessary to restrain and what choices they could make differently. I, also, processed with the sibling about why I restrained their brother or sister. “When I restrained you last week, did I hurt you?” I questioned.
“No but I didn’t like it,” was the common answer. Deconstructing the incidents, I expressed I wasn’t trying to hurt them.
We got each student to reduce being restrained several times a day to once a week and even to as far as once a month. We managed to reduce the duration of the restraint and get back to school work. I even started to see the kids smile and laugh during the day.
I still didn’t fully understand trauma. I recognized the long term effects my choice to restrain a child would have on the individual student. My psyche stayed in shock. I was deeply upset how ferociously some children fought during the restraint. Some would shake before a violent thrashing fit as the head butts, scratches, and kicks struck me. There was no preparation during the training to do any self-care. I guess I was supposed to suck it up and bury those feelings.
No matter that completely logical reasoning for the use of a restraint, my heart echoed the same question: “Will they ever forgive me?” I physically restrained kids. First graders! I put my hands on a child as they scratched, spit, snotted, and peed on me. The child would be beating another student, the restraint was used to protect the other students. Even in the obvious facts, I wondered, “Would they ever forgive me?”
The year ended and I had plans to find a different job. I left that campus with an uneasy feeling. I got a call a week later and they wanted me to come work during summer to move classroom equipment. I needed the money. I took the job.
At lunchtime, I walked in the cafeteria to get a salad. I saw the students. Each cottage had the students sitting at assigned tables. I thought I went unnoticed. I sat near the entrance with my back towards them. I could hear my heart beat in my head.
I had lost my appetite and started gathering my stuff. I wasn’t cut out for working with kids who have endured abuse. I was tormented by the question. “Would they ever forgive me?”
One by one, the kids ran over to me. They brought their lunches. They told me about their summers and they asked me about my dog.
I am not a brave person. It shook me to the core to have to guide a child’s survival reaction down to reality and let them know they were safe in my classroom. I don’t know why adults hurt children. Having to do the restraints had obviously affected me deeply.
For the next few weeks, the kids got permission to leave their assigned tables to sit with me for lunch. I listened to the stories of swimming in the pool, going to the recreation center, and plans for the afternoon. While they laughed and recounted their day, my thoughts wandered to my unanswered fear.
When they came over. When they chose to sit with me and they authentically smiled, I found a resolution. I got the answer to my question.