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School trauma is real

Aug 26, 2022

I was so excited for my son to start big school. He loved kindergarten, although he was slow to
start in the mornings. We often dropped him off late, but the kinder teachers did not mind. He
found his groove after a few months because the play and interest-based learning suited him
perfectly. I believed big school would be the same for him.

My son’s first day of big school was an emotional day for me. He was so small his shirt was
hanging off him, he was concerned it looked like a dress, so we tucked it into his big shorts that
came down to his knees. We walked up the hill and all the stairs to finally be in front of his
classroom. Parents surrounded the entrance, swooning over their preppies, some taking
photos, some explaining to their little person that they will be back soon to pick them up. And
then there was my boy. So anxious and uncomfortable in his own skin. I felt worried as I walked
him into the classroom, helped him find his locker and desk, and left him there like a helpless
little puppy.

I walked back to my car fighting back tears, thinking this was only normal parent jitters. My little
boy was growing up and these feelings are normal, I told myself. We went back day after day,
the same anxious boy every morning, I would leave him feeling worried every morning.

Something started to shift within me. As I walked up the long hill to the classroom in the
mornings, I would hear kids playing, squealing with joy, singing songs together, and music
playing from the loudspeakers - alerting everyone to the fact that we had five minutes left to get
our butts to the classroom. Tears would fill my eyes and I would be overwhelmed by sadness. I
always managed to make it back to my car without falling apart and allowing the tears to flow.

In the beginning, I would let it out on the drive home, I would cry and let the sadness come and
then get on with my day.

It was six months into my son’s first year at school and I was still overwhelmed by sadness at
drop-off. I thought it must be childhood trauma sadness re-surfacing. I must be sad because I
had a traumatic childhood and this environment of children being happy is triggering that

When my son started grade one, he was moved to a classroom on the other side of the school,
and this meant I was no longer required to walk through the whole school to access it. The
feelings of sadness lessened, and I figured I should talk to my therapist about those feelings at
some point, but life moved on and I forgot about the sad feelings.

Covid hit and we were in heavy lockdowns one after the other here in Melbourne. My son’s
struggles with school were becoming more apparent to me now that I was doing remote learning
with him. And the teacher offered little help with this.

We tried changing schools for my son, thinking that was the answer to helping him feel safe and
accommodated at school. The first term of grade three at his new school was amazing, his
teacher was in sync with his needs, and we were all happy until she went on parental leave and
another teacher took over the class for the remainder of the year.

This teacher was new to teaching and did not get my son’s needs. They seemed to clash and
so the struggle began again. I spent many days talking back and forth with this teacher via email
and phone and I requested a meeting, but unfortunately, it was denied. It became apparent that
I was not being heard and I started to feel like the student in the scenario.

I felt anxious anytime I had to talk to my son’s teacher, that familiar feeling of being the naughty
school kid came flooding back.

I could not do anything right at school. I was always in trouble. It did not start out that way. I
started kindergarten as a shy little girl who tried hard at her work. From grade one I was
assigned an aide. I was in a private school, so the school did not need funding or a diagnosis for
me to access the aide. I would be taken out of the classroom and would work with the aide in a
small room in the middle of two classrooms with glass windows for all the kids in my class to
see me.

Year after year my report card said the same thing; a grade of D for all my subjects and Melanie
needs to try harder, if she applies herself, she should improve by next year. I did not improve by
the following year. I received a grade of D for every subject from grade one to grade six. I spent
those six years working with an aide and there was no change in my ability to read or write.
As each year went on there was a new statement added to the end of my reports; by the time I
hit grade five – it read Melanie seems distracted and finds it hard to concentrate. As I entered
high school my ability to focus was non-existent and I started being disruptive in class. Well, that
is what my report said. I would say I was bored and frustrated in class.

High school was a whole new ballgame. So many teachers, so many classes, and so much
homework! Argh! I just could not do all the things. I could not keep up with the class, I could not
understand most of the work, I could not stand up to my bullying teachers, and I could not tell
anyone what was happening on the inside.

All I could do was rebel.

I was sick of being called stupid, being told I had no future, and losing friends because at a
private school the cool kids were the smart kids.

I changed schools in year nine and all was going well until I met my math teacher. It is safe to
say that he thought I was put in his class to disrupt the class and it was not long before I was
kicked out of his class and spent my math period sitting on the bench outside of the classroom. I
loved this punishment because the pressure to understand math was off my shoulders and I
would sit there and relax before my next subject started.

The first year of my son’s schooling I was having a feeling memory of my school trauma. The
sound of the kids playing, the sound of the bell, and the kids lining up outside of their
classrooms - were all triggers. I remembered the feeling of being in trouble constantly, the
feeling of being broken, my teachers blaming me for not understanding the schoolwork, and the
endless punishments that did not change my ability to read or write - they just made me feel
broken and stupid.

School trauma is real.

It is traumatic seeing the adults in your life not believe in you.

It is traumatic trying to change learning disabilities that you have no control over.

It is traumatic getting in trouble for being yourself every day.

It is traumatic not feeling safe at school.

It is traumatic when the school believes you are intentionally being naughty.

I not only experienced trauma at home but also at school. There was not an adult in my life who
understood my needs or who believed in me. I learned a new way of reading at nineteen years
old when I discovered a love for psychology. If only the educators in my life found my interests
or passions to help me learn, if only they saw my disability and put accommodations in place -
my schooling may have been different.

Let us show up for neurodivergent kids, be the person who sees them, and help support them to
not experience school trauma.


Melanie Schoenmaker

Community Engagement Specialist and Mentor

inTune Pathways


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