Brookside Center for Counseling and Hypnotherapy

 


School-Related Trauma

by Maurice Kouguell, Ph.D., BCETS

In school they were called "space cadets" by their teachers (who were not aware that they had sent them into orbit).  In our office, we describe them as excellent hypnotic subjects.

Education can foster human capacity, but it can also limit it. Schools have a strong effect on the intellectual and emotional development of children. This article focuses on traumatic experiences endured by people during their school  life. I  always ask my clients about their school experiences.  It could be argued that because of the nature of my work, I have developed a slanted view. It is possible. Some parents watch over their children and listen. Many take sides with teachers and reinforce punishments that only contribute to further alienation from adults and disdain of the learning process. For many people, our parents and teachers remain the most important unfinished issues.  

Early in life, children learn to discriminate between adults who pretend to show an interest in them and those who genuinely take interest in them. Adults often wish they had had teachers and parents who were willing to listen to them: to listen to them unconditionally. When we feel genuinely listened to and really heard, we feel accepted. When we do not, we feel isolated and rejected. Will we ever have requirements for teacher certification in listening skills? Will we ever have the same requirements for marriage licenses?

Some teachers are known to their administrators as being “poor teachers.” During a teacher's probationary period, some principals who have strong doubts about granting tenure resolve the issue by transferring them to other buildings thus exempting themselves from making a decision. When you work in public education, or for that matter in any institution, it seems that the major concern is "to be covered" and to be safe. When I attended administrative meetings, I fantasized that there was an invisible banner with the motto: HERE WE ARE SAFE. WE KNOW THAT WHAT WE DO DOES NOT WORK, SO WE  DO IT AGAIN. AT LEAST THE OUTCOME IS PREDICTABLE.

It is better not to take risks, for then failure is too strong a possibility. Schools deal with this problem by adding more teachers, more equipment,etc. and neglect to UNDERSTAND why the system is not working: why children continue to fail, why drugs and truancy are necessary routes of escape in order to preserve whatever little self-esteem is left or to avoid pain.  

Some students make it by playing the game. They learn how to cope with the pain. Daydreams and fantasies become great outlets as long as you can remain alert enough when the teacher calls on you. Others seek the help of the school psychologists because their coping skills in adjusting to classroom life are no longer effective in case they need to answer a question.  

Parents are told their child is not working up to potential. How can he? How can a child work up to his potential while fighting dissatisfaction, boredom and frustration? I ask my clients who are parents if they ever believed that their teachers had taught up to their potential and if their parents’ parenting skills had been the best that they could be.  

When I need volunteers for a demonstration in group hypnosis, I ask for a show of hands of those who did poorly in school and who were frequently reprimanded by their teachers for not paying attention. Not unlike abused children, those non-achievers within the school system have learned to turn inward into themselves and find solace in an altered state. They have trained themselves to go into an altered state of consciousness and can be inventive and creative in knowing how to do this.

When I was a school psychologist, some children were referred to me because they were not paying attention in class. They were referred because their attention span was short. I observed these children in class and saw them individually as well for an evaluation. Except for the very few children who were found to have neurological problems or attention deficit disorders, it was clear that, not unlike adults, children pay attention when they are interested. When not interested, they enter an altered state of consciousness, go into their own trance or choose to have their own inner dialogue which frequently is more interesting  to them at this point than what is being told to them. Those children reported by their teacher as having a poor attention span frequently had a highly developed one as revealed by the psychological evaluation. When the findings were shared with their teachers, many became defensive and highly critical of the findings because they did not validate their own perception. In order to prove that the results of the evaluation were incorrect, some teachers kept daily logs of the inattention of the students and recruited parental support to emphasize their case. The point remains that when we are bored, we focus our attention on our boredom. Parents who allied themselves with the teachers to devise all sorts of punishments to force their child to pay attention only succeeded in repressing the child's spontaneity bringing about a further alienation and a lack of trust in adults.  

Adults insist children do things their way, they do not listen to the feelings or point of view of the child. Children when bored, are able to enter hypnosis without a formal induction. They do it well both in the classroom and in my counseling office. The only difference is how we view them: in school they are called “space cadets” by their teachers. They have done it in class so they can do it in our office just as easily. The only difference is the label. In school they were called “space cadets” by their teachers who are not aware that they themselves had launched them into orbit. In my office, I refer to them as excellent hypnotic subjects. 

Albert  Einstein said: "It is in fact nothing short of a miracle that the modern methods of instruction have not entirely strangled the holy curiosity of inquiry."

It is my belief that hypnotherapists must be aware of the impact that schools can have on students and be sensitive to the resulting, often lifelong, scars. 

Practitioners must have a thorough understanding of two important institutions that are frequently dysfunctional: The Family and The School. 

As a school  psychologist, I was trained in human behavior, child development,  psychopathology, psychodiagnostic assessments, et al.  But I was not trained to work in a dysfunctional institution. Over the years, I worked in elementary,  junior high and high schools. I also taught at the college level and as a consultant to nursery schools. I worked in a system which did everything possible to change the very of nature of students' personalities. The system does not welcome children who are curious, who have a desire to learn, but rather coerces them into thinking and behaving as their teachers want them to. Children are taught that they must listen and do what they are told.  Adults do not have to listen to children. In fact, adults often lack the facility to listen even to one another.  
  
George Leonard in his book, Walking on the Edge of Their World,  makes the following observation:

I began to see first grade as a violent shock to the healthy human organism. The six year old has just completed the most awesome learning task on this planet, mastery of spoken language, with no formal instruction whatsoever. He is in fact a master learner, happy to explore, eager to try new things. Then comes school and he gets some stunning news: he must try to learn what the teacher says, when the teacher says it, whether he is ready for it or not.  He must learn to stop exploring, to reject the unfamiliar, to focus on a limited number of stimuli, to make repetitive standard responses. He must learn and what a hard lesson this is - that learning is generally dull and boring.

I  believe that every classroom should have the following facts clearly displayed...  

•Famous orator and attorney Clarence Darrow was told by his teachers and parents that he'd never be able to speak or write. •Philosopher Jean Paul Sartre had to pretend to read. •French writer Marcel Proust could not write a composition in school. •Carl Jung found mathematics classes terrifying. •Beethoven's tutor said he was hopeless as a composer. He never learned how to multiply or divide. •Agatha Christie did not want to learn to write. •Pablo Picasso hated school and seemed unable to learn to read or write when other children were proficient. •President Wilson could not read until he was eleven. •Thomas Edison ran away from school because his teachers beat him with a cane for not paying attention and jiggling in his seat. •Emile Zola scored zero in his final literature examination. 

While education can develop human potential, it can also severely inhibit it. It can also affect some individuals very deeply, especially in their self-esteem. Instead of teaching children how to learn, we acknowledge research in individual differences as a theoretical scheme and proceed to teaching with the assumption that every one learns the same way and label those who do not conform as disabled.

Educators confuse learning with meeting requirements set forth by administrators who focus their talents on running the institution and what to teach, not how to teach. Requirements are subject to change when deemed necessary by administrators. Rarely are they modified to improve the quality of the teaching-learning process. I read somewhere that a teacher told parents “Do not ask me to teach your children as you were taught but as you wanted to be taught.” Instead, we teach children to be afraid to admit they do not know.  

A 61 year old client came to me for hypnosis to learn arithmetic. This client related how her teacher had made fun of her and humiliated her in front of the other children because she could not learn how to subtract. Her parents were called in and she was punished further at home and developed violent somatic reactions in all the math classes for years to come. Even at this time in her life she continued to see herself as “stupid.”

Maybe one of the most dramatic illustrations was presented at an NGH Convention held in NYC when one of my clients, a 16 year old at that time, volunteered to be my guest. I had worked with him for about three months. For one month I never saw his eyes for he chose to look at his feet. At the convention this young adult, who 3 months earlier had drunk heavily and been consistently truant, was asked by a participant how he felt about his school experience. His answer was "like garbage." He explained that when you are told daily to go sit in the waste paper basket because you cannot learn, then you are garbage. 
  
A fifth grade teacher forbade one of her pupils to go the bathroom although he had a medical note attesting to a weak bladder and that he needed to be allowed to go to the bathroom frequently. The request was not honored and the teacher refused to respond to the directive of the principal because girls, she insisted, went to the bathroom in the morning and boys in the afternoon. She had the policy posted and refused to acknowledge the boy's physical needs or the plea from the parents. I was consulted and in the presence of the principal and parents suggested to the boy that after raising his hand and being denied permission, he should proceed to the back of the classroom and relieve himself. Since he had a medical note stating he needed to relieve himself and since the note did not state where, he was well in his right. As he relieved himself he was cheered by his classmates...not by his teacher.  

One of my clients produced a ceramic piece for a class in creative art. When the teacher removed it  from the kiln, she hit the girl because it did not look like anything, smashed it and insisted that the girl clean it up. The teacher called her parent and the child was punished. Today she paints and is a published poet...but the emotional scars are still there. 

[For more on the treatment of trauma in different situations see Healing Invisible Scars and Hypnotherapy With Non-Achievers.]

 

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