Pupils’ ‘toxic stress’ damages your health

18th May 2018 at 00:00
When a teacher’s support for a challenging, traumatised student becomes traumatic in itself, it’s time to take safeguarding steps to protect their health and career, writes Darren Martindale

As teachers, we care deeply about the progress and wellbeing of children. We believe in the transformative power of education. As a result, we invest vast amounts of time and energy in our more challenging pupils. So when one of those challenging students turns around and deals you a swift, (hopefully) metaphorical punch to the kidneys, it can be really hurtful.

But the experienced among us shake it off; we don’t take it personally and we don’t blame the child because we understand that all behaviour is communication. They are trying to express their feelings about something they’re struggling with – it might have nothing to do with school. So you pick yourself up and carry on.

Yet for some children it gets worse. Very occasionally, a pupil continues to do everything in their power to undermine you. They appear lost and out of control. They destroy your lessons and instil fear in their classmates. You continually work with the uncertainty of how they will react and when they’ll blow up next.

You begin to experience a creeping, embodied sense of fear or dread when this pupil enters the classroom, or maybe even before they walk in (and you criticise yourself for it). The feelings might even have begun before you got out of bed that morning. In such extreme cases, the tightening knot in the pit of your stomach is likely not to be just a symptom of everyday stress, and it certainly isn’t – in case you were wondering – a sign of weakness or failure. You may instead be suffering from secondary traumatic stress.

This condition arises when support for a traumatised person becomes traumatic in itself, and it must be very carefully managed because it could damage your health and shorten your career.

The symptoms are wide-ranging, but can include cognitive or emotional dysfunction, eating or sleeping disorders and stress-related illness such as depression. Unchecked, it can lead to total burnout.

Here’s where you become your own worst enemy, as your greatest assets – your intelligence, empathy and high aspirations – can become liabilities. You overanalyse and blame yourself. You sense their pain and anger too keenly, and may start to relate to their distorted view of the world. They project their “toxic stress” toward you, which you internalise and then reflect back in an increasingly vicious cycle.

So, how do you help yourself, and them?

The pupil requires a differentiated response (rather than exclusion) and you need robust support structures. An analogy is often made with the safety advice on aircraft – put your own oxygen mask on first, then help others. But how do you stay within your “window of tolerance” (Siegel, 1999) amid the plethora of challenges that a teacher must face?

Of course, the standard advice about self-care always applies. Remember that sleep deprivation can be literally torture, but even more so when dealing with emotional exhaustion. Eat properly and get regular exercise. But try also to find more active ways of spending your “me time”. Fiercely protect those regenerative spaces – the yoga class, the spa day, the football match, the bog snorkelling. Make time for family and cultivate your friendships; good mates will help you get through the darker times.

If you’re genuinely dealing with secondary trauma, however, you may need more than that. Here are some further strategies to develop your resilience.

1. Recognise your emotions

Don’t deny or downplay what you’re feeling. It’s OK to struggle sometimes. Name your feelings; shout them out (perhaps not in class), write them down. Equally, however, your feelings aren’t the whole of you; you don’t need to be dominated or controlled by them. A negative thought doesn’t make you a negative person.

2. Reframe your thinking

Challenge those self-doubts or, taking it further, the “automatic negative thoughts” that can become so disabling. Cognitive behavioural therapy and motivational interviewing are solution-focused approaches to breaking negative cycles of thought and behaviour. Dialectical behaviour therapy can help you to regulate your emotions. Research these tools and see what might work for you. While you may reach a stage where you would benefit from counselling or therapy, you can also use these tools to help yourself.

3. Regain your perspective

You may start to “catastrophise”, blowing things out of perspective. Ask yourself, on a scale of 0-10 (0 being, well, nothing, and 10 being certain death), where would this situation fall? Positive psychology and mindful thinking can help you to keep a sense of proportion and reboot your confidence.

4. Create a stress support plan

Be proactive, though realistic: “What can I do today, this month and this year to incrementally reduce my stress and build my resilience?” If it’s just one tangible thing at a time, that’s fine – you’re still taking back some control.

5. Develop your de-escalation skills

Practice progressive muscle-relaxation techniques and deep, regular breathing. Breathe low – from the belly, not the chest. Stand slightly sideways-on to your student, at an acute angle, to reduce their perception of you as being a threat. Move your body and take regular walks around the classroom to release energy and tension.

6. Be adventurous in your teaching

As JK Rowling put it: “It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.” Secondary trauma can make you tentative, and this may restrict learning for you and your students. Our competitive, performance-driven culture doesn’t always help either, but remember that education should be an adventure. Don’t let your creativity be constricted by fear of failure.

7. Invest in training

Headteachers: ongoing CPD is needed to enable teachers to manage these situations safely and effectively. Train your staff in the management of work-related stress and in pedagogical approaches that support children with trauma-related difficulties.

8. Give colleagues support

Also for headteachers: consider the deployment of staff very carefully: is anyone taking a disproportionate share of challenging pupils? Staff should be given regular, quality supervision during which they can discuss difficulties, celebrate successes and be given constructive feedback in a non-judgemental space. Promote opportunities for team-teaching and peer-to-peer supervision as well.


Most of all, we need to understand the stresses that teaching can bring when supporting challenging pupils. Dr Robert Hart, principal educational psychologist at City of Wolverhampton Council, explains: “We advocate a ‘no blame’ approach to responding to children and young people’s needs. But ‘no blame’ also applies to adults that work with children. Working with children who have difficulties with emotional wellbeing and behaviour can be challenging and stressful. School staff need to be confident that they will be supported and not blamed when things are difficult.”

A better understanding of secondary trauma can help to develop a whole-school ethos of mutual support, so troubles are tackled in a way that’s restorative for teachers and pupils. Day to day, this means that if a teacher has taken too many shots to the kidneys and starts becoming their own worst enemy, a colleague will be able to spot the signs, step in and become the friend they need.

Darren Martindale is virtual school head for looked-after children for the City of Wolverhampton Council

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