A vital message for teachers everywhere: how to help traumatised students

By Tebeje Molla and Damian Blake

We are constantly exposed to life-threatening events that result in trauma. Natural disasters such as seasonal bushfires and floods have affected millions of Australians. The COVID-19 pandemic has also brought about loss of life, extended isolation, and exposure to increased domestic violence— for some youth, all these events can be traumatic.  

Likewise, human-induced traumatic events (e.g. violence, neglect, abuse, and household dysfunction) leave indelible marks on emotional and physiological wellbeing of Australian children and youth. For refugees from war-torn regions of the world, the trauma of violence, forced displacement, and resettlement stressors can be debilitating. Young people who grew up in foster care, experience extreme poverty, or identify themselves as LGBTIQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, or questioning) are also likely to experience trauma that can interfere with their learning and social interactions. 

But What is Trauma?

Trauma is the emotional, psychological, and physiological damage resulting from adverse events that overwhelm our ordinary coping abilities. Trauma can be caused by a single event (e.g. a car wreck), a series of events (e.g. sexual abuse), or collective historical wounding (e.g. forced removal of Indigenous children).

The impact of trauma can be multifaceted. Dr Bessel van der Kolk, one of the world’s leading trauma experts, describes trauma as a profound shock with lasting effects on one’s psychic, brain, and body. Trauma-impacted children and adolescents experience intrusive negative thoughts, anxiety, irritability, and feelings of numbness. 

Why do teachers need professional learning on trauma-responsive education? Because, we argue, trauma affects student performance and teacher wellbeing. Traumatic stress associated with emotional and psychological wounding interferes with people’s ability to manage ordinary daily activities, including learning. 

The Epidemic of Trauma in Schools

Trauma is a pervasive problem. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) estimates that in a classroom of 20 students, at least three are likely to have had traumatic experiences. 

In the US,  the National Council of State Education Associations called for a policy action to address ‘the epidemic of trauma in schools. In Australia, the damaging effects of the ‘hidden epidemic of early trauma’ are yet to gain increased public attention. The prevalence of the problem notwithstanding, there is still a lack of awareness about trauma and its impact. A secondary school principal in Melbourne told us: 

People think that there are only certain areas that are affected by trauma. No matter where you are, children will be impacted by adverse childhood experiences, sometimes up to 40% of students within a class. There are many forms of trauma. [But] people aren’t recognising or appreciating that there is trauma. 

In a recent survey of close to 900 young people (16-25-year-olds), 42% of the participants reported that the pandemic worsened their mental health condition. Although not all individuals with mental health conditions have a trauma history, those exposed to traumatic events are more likely to suffer from mental health issues. 

Trauma Inhibits Learning 

Exposure to adverse childhood experiences is positively correlated with poor school performance. Traumatic stress during the early stages of life impairs brain development and affects memory. 

Trauma also results in prolonged activation of the body’s stress-response system. Students cannot focus on the present and effectively engage with learning experiences when the stress-response system is activated for an extended time. Traumatic reactions such as anxiety and hyperarousal affect how students feel, think, and act on schoolwork. Trauma also diminishes memory

Trauma Drives Disruptive Behaviour

For traumatised students, the slightest hint of danger triggers anxiety. Overwhelmed by feelings of fear and helplessness, trauma-impacted students may display emotional outbursts and act out in the classroom. Such disruptive behaviours are not wilful; traumatised youth have limited capacity for emotional self-regulation. 

Seen through a trauma lens, disruptive behaviour can also be a language of communication. Traumatised children often adapt disruptive behaviours as a survival mechanism. Trauma turns their learning brain into a ‘surviving brain’. For instance, children who have experienced chronic neglect tend to use disruptive behaviours to communicate their desire for attention and attachment.

In schools where trauma is not recognised as a serious factor that affects engagement and learning, survivor students are less likely to get the necessary support. In fact, as Baldwin and Korn (2021) noted, “When traumatised children are restless and aggressive, they often get labelled as ‘bad,’ and their suffering gets missed.” 

At a societal level, trauma is costly too. It is estimated that annually unresolved childhood trauma costs Australian taxpayers as much as $24 billion

Student Trauma Increases Teacher Stress 

Student trauma can produce a negative ripple effect on teacher wellbeing. According to the OECD Teaching and Learning International Survey, one of the primary causes of teacher stress is student behavioural problems. Working with trauma-impacted students can expose teachers to excessive fatigue and draining stress. In other words, dealing with recurrent disruptive student behaviours and hearing trauma stories can result in secondary traumatic stress that generates emotional duress and makes teachers feel overwhelmed. Extreme stress may force teachers to leave school. 

In 2019, a nationwide study showed that many teachers were concerned about their wellbeing,  saw student behaviour as a serious challenge, and indicated an intention to leave the profession. Increased teacher attrition in state schools, in turn, widens the educational divide along the line of socioeconomic status of schools and communities. 

In a recent Australian study that surveyed 749 teachers, over half of the respondents reported being stressed due to environmental factors, including disruptive student behaviour. The study also revealed that the stressed teachers ‘were considering leaving the profession’.

What Can be Done?

Teacher trauma awareness matters. One in three young people who participated in the 2019 Mission Australia survey reported that they “would turn to a teacher as a source of help with important issues”. Further, the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) shows that students who establish positive relationships with their teachers display a greater sense of belonging at school. 

But without timely and relevant professional learning, teachers may find it challenging to help traumatised students learn. 

Teachers need to be trauma-responsive, but this does not mean that they should be trained to treat trauma. Instead, it means that teachers should use a trauma lens to understand student learning and behaviour. Trauma-responsive teachers are non-judgemental. They ask trauma-affected students: “what happened to you?” rather than “what is wrong with you?”

Schools should promote trauma-responsive practices. Professional learning opportunities on trauma-responsive education are instrumental in equipping teachers with valuable  knowledge and skills for supporting trauma-impacted students. Without the necessary awareness about trauma and its impact on student behaviour and learning, teachers may find it taxing to cater to the learning needs of their students. 

In closing

Teachers equipped with current knowledge and skills on the causes and consequences of trauma are well-positioned to promote learning for all. They are also likely to avoid misdiagnosing student behavioural problems as a marker of innate mischievousness. They take time to understand the message of disruptive behaviour and re-engage students in learning. 

Trauma-responsive teachers create positive learning environments that provide a protective buffer against triggers and additional stressors and nurture resilience. Widening access to professional learning opportunities on trauma-responsive practices is critical in preparing teachers for the task.

Tebeje Molla is a senior lecturer in the School of Education, Deakin University. His research areas include student equity, teacher professional learning, and policy analysis. His work is informed by critical sociology and the capability approach to social justice and human development.

Damian Blake is a professor and Head of School for Deakin University’s School of Education and a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. Damian’s research and teaching experience focuses on applied learning and teacher education aiming to improve young people’s educational outcomes and well-being.

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