Have you ever arrived at work with no memory of how you got there? That’s dissociation. That feeling you’ve uncoupled from yourself and the world around you, that you and everything around you is somehow unreal.
Dissociation is, basically, a way the mind evacuates when traumas become unbearable. According to the charity Mind, dissociation is one way the mind copes with too much stress, such as during a traumatic event. For children and young people who’ve experienced trauma, dissociation is a necessary survival mechanism, implemented by the mind in order to keep going when faced with the impossible.
Yet, when young people pour into our classrooms hour after hour, day after day, it can be difficult to recognise what that looks like in the room. How can we know a student has disconnected from themselves and disassociated from the moment – particularly when each person’s experience of dissociation is different?
It is all too easy to feel frustrated with the student who seems less keen to learn. In the classroom, a dissociating child can look very much like a child who has disengaged. Dissociation may well present as daydreaming, glazing over, or an inability to complete seemingly simple tasks and follow clear routines. They might take five minutes longer than everyone else in the room to pick up a pen and write, or veer between serenity and sadness with little warning or understanding of why they feel that way. The child most irritatingly unable to use the method you taught them only yesterday could, in fact, be a child who has simply dissociated.
Indeed, the ADHD Foundation assert that dissociation in the classroom can present as actively poor behaviour; students might deny things have happened when it is obvious they did, or experience extreme mood changes and insist “it wasn’t me!” – even when it clearly was.
So how can we, as educators, put preventative measures in place to make sure these children can succeed?
For me, the first step for interacting with young people in any classroom is to approach each person with curiosity and kindness. Make the assumption that every child has experienced trauma, and you’re one step closer to treating everyone with a little bit more care.
There’s a marked difference between “you’ve not picked your pen up yet and we’re ten minutes into the hour” and “would you like to borrow a pen?” and if a child has disassociated, your question might just bring them back into the present so they remember the one in their hand. Curiosity and questioning offers an avenue for giving gentle feedback to a student about what they did (or did not do!) without apportioning blame.
Celebrating the quirky ways we compartmentalise and cope as human beings can be a brilliant relationship-builder while allowing students to grow and change in a way that helps them move on from the dissociative behaviour they’re displaying without the need for discipline and sanction. In the classroom I make much of my tendency to daydream and find ways to laugh along with others in the room as they share their “little ways” too. This way, when I tap on the desk to bring a student back into the room, we can share a knowing smile, laugh at the little ways we cope, and then I can gently redirect them back to the task in hand.
Opportunities for redirection are crucial in classrooms where students may be dissociating, not least because a key principle of supporting these young people is getting them back in the room. Offering ways for students to access information you’ve already given again is essential here. For example, if you prepare bullet-point cheat sheets you can pull out of your pocket and push them under the nose of a glazed-over student, you’re holding them accountable for working hard while acknowledging their struggle…without even speaking at all. Many teachers are proponents of “3,2,1” countdowns to silence or similar, but adding instructional cues with these countdowns like “3 – make sure you’re listening” and “2 – it is time to look at me” could help ground and refocus a dissociating child.
Presenting your classroom as a constant and safe space will help all young people to do well, and a key component of creating safety comes from the way you choose to direct and instruct your students. I’m a huge fan of non-verbal gesturing as a way of managing the behaviours of complex young people in a gentle but firm way. The raise of a single eyebrow, or simply moving closer in proximity to a student who is not acting as you wish to enable them to sense their actions need to change.
Sometimes, children who dissociate will do so after conducting themselves in ways that are behaviourally inappropriate, rude or disruptive, denying their misdemeanours. In my practice, I choose to view such claims with sincerity and support the student by deconstructing the event with them so they can see they were involved. Some methods I’ve used have included storyboarding or creating quick comic strips with students where we explore how an event unfolded (look up social stories or comic strip conversations for those with ASD as a way into this) which helps the young person see their involvement in a new light. It is, absolutely, important that young people are held accountable for their actions, but where dissociation could be involved we must attempt to avoid the sense of punishment and blame that often accompany sanction.
As classroom practitioners we take the children we are presented with and respond to them in the moment. Treating all young people as if they may have experienced trauma ensures we support all of those who have. Even better, many of the strategies I’ve suggested above will work for those with special educational needs or behavioural struggles, ensuring a better classroom for all.
Ultimately, every young person is an individual, so no strategy will work for all. Curiosity, however, is a universal kindness; every child deserves adults that ask themselves “but why?”
Written by Jasmine Mulligan
Jasmine is a passionate educator, coach and mentor to both children and adults. Having spent more than 10 years in the educator sector, Jasmine has worked in mainstream schools and alternative provision, as well as within Further Education. She is currently a SENCO for a large multi-academy trust. Jasmine is driven by the firm belief that all children have the ability to achieve great success, and she is committed to supporting them to achieve this.
You can connect with her on LinkedIn here.