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

By Judith Howard

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.

Republish this article for free, online or in print, under Creative Commons licence.

2 thoughts on “Trauma in all our classrooms: Here’s how to respond

  1. Trina McDougall says:

    Hello Dr Judy! Not surprised you have written a book. You were always set for BIG things. You have been on my mind the last month and I had no idea how to get in touch with you, until Sandra sent me a link yesterday to this insightful article. Hope to hear from you.

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