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Episode 38: Navigating School Challenges with Children Who Have Experienced Trauma

By November 20, 2017January 3rd, 2023Podcast
man and woman sitting on chairs

"Maintain control of your emotions…if you go in crazy, crazy’s all they’re going to see…and the reality with your kid will get lost in that."

Parents of foster and adoptive children often face additional considerations in school situations regarding the well-being of their child. Mike and Kristin Berry, adoptive parents of eight and advocates for foster care and adoption, talk about some of the things parents need to remember when talking with teachers or the principal, as well as delighting in and being an observer of your child.


What are the challenges for kids who have experienced trauma?

The biggest concern for children who have experienced trauma is that anything, “absolutely anything,” can be a trigger: a smell, the type of lighting, a specific tone of voice. In a typical school setting, the triggers can be even more difficult. Too many decorations in the room, a stern voice—anything can cause a child to tap into their coping mechanisms. One of those coping strategies can even be acting silly or funny or charming. “Our kids are coming in with a lot below the surface that you can’t see,” says Kristin. “They have a story that’s pretty difficult that they are carrying along with them.”

Mike shares that the teacher’s tone of voice being a trigger can often catch the teacher off-guard—especially in the first month or so of school. Although the first days or weeks of school or coming back after a break can seem to go pretty well because the child is on their best behavior, after a few weeks, things can go downhill.

“Transitions are always tough,” says Kristin. That’s due in large part to the fact that you just don’t know the new teacher yet. Plus, it’s a balancing act between knowing how much to share about your child’s story. “Every year we have to come up with an appropriate amount of communication.” It’s simply a matter of finding out what to tell the teacher for your child to be successful.

Often Kristin will send a “heads up” email at the beginning of the year or in anticipation of specific events (the holidays, for example). She simply lets the teacher know, “Hey, my child was adopted and went through some significant trauma, and here are some things you might want to watch for. And, if my child starts using certain coping skills (being overly endearing or cute) or starts exhibiting certain behaviors such as storing food in his desk or pockets, please call me.”

You just want the information you share to be enough to keep communication open, yet not embarrass the child. You want the school year to be as successful as possible.

Being proactive about talking with the school principal and your child’s teacher(s) helps everybody win. Mike learned this from Kristin’s dad, a retired middle school principal who realized, after Mike and Kristin had shared about understanding trauma and how it makes kids act, that some of the kids he thought were just “bad” kids had most likely experienced some form of trauma. Had he known through a simple conversation with those children’s parents or guardians what was going on in their lives, it would have made a huge difference.

Bottom line, the advice Mike and Kristin would share is to get to know your kids’ principal and teachers—they are real people too, and they might even be able to relate on a personal level because of their own situation. Don’t wait for them to call when something is wrong.

Off to a poor start?

What if things haven’t gone well so far for your child and your relationship with the school personnel is not great?

“You can always start over,” says Mike. “It’s important to own your actions, bad choices and mistakes. Apologize, ask for forgiveness and start fresh.” They [teachers] are people too—they are parents, husbands, wives…and professionals.

Another important element of interacting with your child’s teacher is to maintain control of your own emotions. Mike says the advice they share with parents of children who have been traumatized is to control your environment, meaning control both your emotions and the structure of your day.

“If you go in crazy, crazy’s all they’re going to see…and the reality of your kid will get lost in that. And crazy never wins,” says Mike.

Kristin adds a practical strategy as well: “Find someone who will be a sounding board—someone you can talk through the issue with so that you don’t damage your relationship with your child’s teacher.” Find that person you can get your “crazy” out to, then they can help you figure out what to really say in an appropriate way. And remember, you are all on the same team—you want good things for your child.

When a child realizes he/she is “different”

Often kids who have been through trauma, especially trauma that has permanent effects, get to an age when they realize they are different. Things might not be coming as easily as they used to, or they start lagging behind their classmates.

When this happens, Mike suggests taking a non-shaming, non-scorning approach with your child. Find other ways to delight in this child—“take the position of observance over teaching when you’re at home.” By observing, he means to see their heart, then focus on providing a nurturing, uplifting environment. Don’t focus so much on the academic achievements they may never attain—that’s not success.

“A child succeeds when they have integrity and character and they nurture and care for others,” he says.

Shift the perspective to their heart over teaching a lesson or behavior modification. “Create an environment that kids know they are loved and delighted in and cared for. I would rather win my child’s heart than win an argument,” says Mike. “Your kid knows they’re different. Pretending they don’t or scorning them for not being a straight-A student doesn’t help.”

Advocating when triggers of pain or loss are part of school work

Sometimes kids from trauma backgrounds get triggered through projects at school. A common trigger for pain or loss would be when a teacher asks students to bring in a baby picture—something adopted kids may not even have. What should a parent do in these circumstances?

“Stay in communication with the school and/or the teacher,” says Kristin. “Try to stay calm, although it’s not terrible to show your emotion on behalf of your child to the teacher. Then communicate with your child—just put it out there that you realize this activity might have caused them pain or sad feelings.” Feel the hard feelings, work through them, then come up with a solution—because that’s a skill that will last all their life. “Just be there—help them walk through it. It’s an opportunity to talk through hard things.”

Holidays can be hard as well. “Feelings about the holidays can play out in strong emotion,” says Mike. Be proactive about this possibility, especially if you are fostering a child who may not get to see their family during the holidays. “At home, we do a lot to let our children, especially those we’re fostering, know they were a part of what our family does,” he goes on to say. Be aware, be sensitive…be sure to communicate.

Additionally, “some kids just can’t handle all of the holiday things,” says Kristin. The holidays are just so packed—class parties, choir performances, decorations, family activities—it can be a lot. The key, again, is to communicate with your child’s teacher about what your child has the capacity to do. And cut things out if necessary. “Say to the teacher, ‘We have ten things going and we need to cut five,’” she suggests. Then stand your ground, but also be willing to compromise as needed. And keep communicating.

At home, create your own ideal. Take a step back and consider what would make this a good holiday season for your family.

And when you’ve blown it…

Invariably, because we are all human, we are going to blow it sometimes.

“Everybody makes mistakes,” says Mike. “We’re human…it’s okay to not be okay, to not get it right all the time.” The important thing to remember is to go back and try to correct it—don’t wallow in your mistakes.

“You either fail backwards or fail forward—the point is, you are going to fail. But no one failure is going to end the game for anyone. Give yourself grace!”


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Hopefully, this episode has helped you right where you are on your foster care journey. That’s the goal. If you enjoyed it, will you tell others?

The best way to do that is to rate the podcast on Apple Podcasts and leave us a brief review! Your ratings and reviews help us get this podcast in front of new listeners. Your feedback also lets us know how we can better serve you. Thank you so much!


Meet Our Guest

Mike and Kristin are former foster parents and the parents of 8 children, all of whom have been adopted. They launched the blog Confessions of An Adoptive Parent in 2012 to be a voice of hope and encouragement for fellow foster and adoptive parents. Since then, it has grown to be a global platform, reaching over 100,000 readers monthly in 25 different countries around the globe. Together they host the Honestly Adoption Podcast, and are co-creators of the support and resource site Oasis Community.

Mike and Kristin are also authors and public speakers. Kristin’s book, Born Broken: An Adoptive Journey, is available now, and Mike’s upcoming book, Confessions of An Adoptive Parent will be available in stores on February 1, 2018. The Berrys live in Indianapolis, Indiana.

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