Trauma in all our classrooms: Here’s how to respond

Children and young people who have been victims to complex trauma are sitting in most school classrooms and early learning settings across our country. 

Complex trauma results when infants or children experience physical, emotional, or sexual abuse, significant neglect, or family and other types of violence, without the buffering support and protection of nurturing and available adults. 

One in 32 children under the age of 18 are identified as accessing child protection services due to this type of harm but this is a considerable underestimate of the numbers of trauma-impacted children across Australia.  There are many others who are not receiving these services for a range of reasons and unfortunately, there are also those children who continue to be harmed and yet remain unidentified.

Neuroscience has provided abundant evidence that, due to what is happening to these young children and around these young children, there can be a worrying impact on the development and functioning of their nervous systems.  This can lead to an equally worrying impact on their learning, emotions, and behaviours. 

These young victims can struggle with feeling safe, with attaching and relating effectively to other people and with regulating their emotions.  Also, overactive threat responses in the parts of their brains that manage distress and other interpersonal challenges, can shut down the pre-frontal cortical activity that is needed for them to engage effectively in learning environments and to connect to the curriculum.

If you are not good at feeling safe, you are not great with relationships, and you struggle with your emotional regulation, you are very likely to behave in a way that will lead to disengagement with learning.  Also, concerning behaviours can result from an overactive “flight, fight or freeze” response and this can unfortunately lead to many young learners experiencing quite significant discipline, and for some, suspension or exclusion from school.

Thankfully, the growing awareness of the impact of complex trauma on the development and functioning of young bodies and brains has led to a global reassessment of how the behaviours of these learners should be “managed”.  So, rather than depending mostly on techniques that are informed by behaviourism and reward/consequence methodologies, education sites are now exploring supports and strategies that are informed by neuroscience.

The theory of behaviourism underpins many quite common behaviour management approaches in schools and early childhood education settings. Behaviourism suggests that all behaviour can be explained as responses to environmental stimuli.  It proposes that by manipulating environmental stimuli, educators can achieve and reinforce the behaviours that they want from learners and reduce or extinguish those that they do not want.

Although these approaches can work well with most young learners, they tend to be quite unsuccessful with trauma-impacted learners.  This is because the concerns experienced by these children are mostly due to internal, bodily factors that are driven by maladaptive and overactive nervous systems.  If these internal factors are not recognised and addressed, it is very unlikely that the manipulation of external, environmental factors will address any behaviour concerns, which tends to frustrate busy educators.

Due to the particular (internal) concerns suffered by learners living with unresolved complex trauma, trauma-aware education focuses on three main areas.  Strategies and processes are put in place to help learners to:

·         perceive their learning environments as safe and non-threatening

·         develop their capacities to engage effectively with relationships with other learners and with the adults within their learning environments

·         develop their capacities for emotional self-regulation.

Another important aspect of trauma-aware education is to support and enhance the knowledge, skills and personal and professional wellbeing of educators. It is undeniable that engaging with learners who live with unresolved complex trauma, day after day, can be very taxing and challenging.  Therefore, this approach emphasises that purposeful activity be embedded into organisational processes to prevent harm and enhance outcomes for educators and any other practitioners who are working in education settings.

Trauma-aware education is not a program or another piece of work for busy educators to manage.  Rather it is a shift in thinking, believing, planning and acting so that the harm that trauma exerts on the functioning of children and young people is minimised or alleviated and engagement, learning and achievement, can happen.

Increasingly, education sites and education systems are considering what they should do to address the overwhelming and debilitating impact that unresolved complex trauma can have on education experiences and wellbeing and life outcomes for young learners. To support the thinking and action of sites and systems across Australia, National Guidelines were developed in 2021 through a collaboration between the Queensland University of Technology and the Australian Childhood Foundation.

To further support the growing movement in trauma-aware education in Australia and beyond, my new book, “Trauma-aware education: Essential information and guidance for educators, education sites and education systems” is designed to provide solid guidance for individual educators, for schools and early childhood education settings, and for the education systems that provide resourcing and governance to education sites. The book explains the research that informs a trauma-aware approach in an easy-to-understand manner and describes a range of practical strategies sites and individual educators can use. 

One chapter examines in-depth a trauma-aware approach to behaviour support, behaviour policy, crisis management, case management and individual support planning for learners. The book also explores the application of this approach for learners living with disability and includes vital messages for people who are keen to lead work in trauma-aware education.

I wrote the book to meet the needs of a varied readership and I believe it provides vital and timely professional learning needed for anyone working directly with young learners. It also provides information for leaders of education sites and managers and decision makers in education systems that can inform systemic discussions and policy development. Finally, and importantly, the book can be used as a text to support pre-service teacher education in universities providing our future educators with great preparation for their future careers.

Judith Howard is an associate professor in the Faculty of Creative Industries, Education and Social Justice at the Queensland University of Technology, focussing on the concerns of young learners who have experienced complex trauma. She promotes a neuroscience-informed approach and believes every educator and worker in every school and early childhood service needs access. She oversees pre-service and post-graduate teacher education in trauma-aware education and has developed online courses reaching thousands internationally.

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

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.