Tips for Teachers: 15. Understanding the impact of trauma on children

Aug 30, 2023 | Blogs

Tips for Teachers: 15. Understanding the impact of trauma on children

Aug 30, 2023 | Blogs

‘I want all children to have the best possible start in life. Children, such as those who are in care or adopted from care, who have been neglected, or failed to form secure attachments with adults in their early years, exhibit a variety of behaviours at school and as teenagers. If not recognised, it can lead to exclusion, educational underachievement and wasted lives.’ Edward Timpson

As teachers in charge of a class we really worry if the children are not learning and/or behaving as we’d expect them to. Questions we might ask include:

  • Why am I no good at behaviour management?
  • What am I doing wrong?

Instead of focusing on the behaviour we need to ask why the behaviour it is happening or what may have happened to them. Think about the emotions and feelings involved and consider the fact that it may not be that they won’t but rather that they can’t.

If pupils perceive a threat, it creates a trigger in the brain stem; they may go into fight/flight/freeze or fawn. Previously, as gatherer hunters we needed this for our survival – we still do – but the problem with this is that it shuts down the rest of our brain, especially the frontal cortex, which we use for thinking. We release adrenaline and cortisol which gives us energy and this is why pupils who have a perceived threat behave as they do; by running away, fighting and feeling very strong, hiding under a table, or hurting others.

Trauma impacts and fragments the memory, so pupils who demonstrate behaviours due to stress, anxiety or trauma cannot often remember what they have done and certainly not why they have behaved in that way.

We may not know or understand what triggers their perceived threat. It could be a sound, smell, taste or a word. So, adult approach and mindset are vitally important, think about why the child is demonstrating the behaviour – are they anxious, stressed, upset, angry? Why have they such a strong feeling?

An attention ‘seeking’ child is actually an attention ‘needing’ child.

In our classrooms and schools, we have children for whom co-regulation, for whatever reason, has not been consistent in their early years and it is important that we as educators are there to provide it. Pupils may be chronologically above the age where co-regulation occurs but are not emotionally able to self-regulate due to a lack of co-regulation when younger. Children are only able to self-regulate after repeated and consistent co-regulation.

It is important therefore important that pupils who have experienced trauma and adverse childhood experiences have an opportunity to build a good relationship with a significant adult in school in order to improve and develop their self-regulation skills and abilities. This undoubtedly takes time and plenty of patience and perseverance, and often comes with a sprinkling of frustration and heartache, but it well worth the effort involved.

‘Trauma is not what happens to you, it’s how something affects you. It is a very individual and nuanced topic that needs reflection. Many of us have experienced adverse events in our lives – often as children – but it’s the perception and resources we have available to us throughout the experiences that can make a difference.’ Mike Armiger

This blog was written by Bretta Townend-Jowitt, Education Consultant and Trainer. 

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