When children are exposed to trauma, the effects can be widespread and long-lasting, not only on behavioural and social skills, but also in the classroom. So, how can education leaders ensure their schools are trauma-informed?
Monash Educational and Developmental Psychologist Dr Emily Berger examines the key research.
Understanding childhood trauma
Trauma in childhood and adolescence can include abuse, neglect, disadvantage and other adverse family circumstances. The terms developmental trauma, complex trauma and toxic stress are often used to describe child and adolescent traumatic events that occur in the family home.
Children and adolescents exposed to childhood trauma are more likely to experience poor academic performance, have difficulty forming friendships and have challenging classroom behaviours. They are also at risk of developing post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety disorders and conduct problems.
Psychological disorders following childhood trauma are characterised by:
- heightened arousal of the fight-or-flight stress response, including running away or becoming physically or emotionally aggressive
- intrusive and distracting thoughts related to the trauma, leading to difficulties with attention and concentration
- avoiding reminders, people and events related or perceived to be related to the traumatic experience
- increased sadness, low self-esteem and reduced trust or increased anger towards others.
Psychological distress following trauma in childhood and adolescence is associated with:
- disrupted attachments and connectedness in schools
- anti-social and withdrawn child and adolescent behaviour
- challenges controlling emotions and behaviour in the learning environment
- suspensions and expulsions from school.
How exposure to trauma affects child development
The development of children and adolescents who have been exposed to trauma compared to those who haven’t is different.
Children and adolescents without traumatic exposure can achieve survival and emotional and behavioural control, allowing them to flourish and succeed socially, emotionally and cognitively.
However, children and adolescents exposed to trauma find it challenging to achieve at school due to their heightened state of arousal and real or perceived concerns about their safety and security.
Adapted from Holt and Jordan, Ohio Department of Education.
The benefits of trauma-informed practice in schools
Trauma-based educational practices have gained ground over the past 10 years. These practices:
- improve realisation and recognition among educators of trauma and its impacts on children and adolescents
- improve educator responses to children and adolescents experiencing trauma
- limit re-traumatisation of children and adolescents by increasing support and reducing punishments in education settings
- limit secondary/vicarious trauma among educators by increasing support and professional learning of educators concerning child and adolescent trauma.
Trauma-informed models in schools and early learning settings have been shown to reduce stress, anxiety and depression among children and adolescents. They can also reduce stress and feelings of helplessness in educators when responding to trauma exposed students.
Trauma-informed care models and principles
The following table shows three frameworks of trauma-informed practice and the five principles of trauma-informed care that are important for all education settings.
|Trauma-informed principle||Berry Street Education Model||Attachment, Regulation and Competency Model||Belonging, Routine, Attachment, Capacity and Emotions (BRACE) Model|
|Family belonging, engagement and attachment||✓||✓||✓|
|School belonging, engagement and attachment||✓||✓||✓|
|Emotion identification, regulation and expression||✓||✓||✓|
|Predictable routines, rhythm and consistency||✓||✓||✓|
|Development of strengths, identity and choice||✓||✓||✓|
Five principles of trauma-informed care
1. Family belonging, engagement and attachment
Models of trauma-informed practice show the importance of educators, family members/carers and health professionals collaborating to support children and adolescents who have experienced trauma.
Collaboration between educators and family members/carers can increase consistency and routines across home and educational settings. This improves a child's sense of safety and security, and limits triggers associated with the fight-or-flight stress response.
Common triggers for trauma-exposed children and adolescents include:
- a perceived loss of control
- anxiety around changes in routine
- fear of disappointing or upsetting others
- unexpected events, sounds, sights and activities.
Family belonging, engagement and attachment, as well as other approaches of trauma-informed care, can help reduce these triggers. It also helps to identify triggers specific to the individual child or adolescent. This can occur through observation in the learning setting, and through consultation and collaboration between educators, family members/carers and health professionals.
2. School belonging, engagement and attachment
Behaviour-specific praise (using the child’s name, naming the correct behaviour and prompting the child to behave in that way in the future), as well as the principles of unconditional positive regard, consistency and empathy between learners and educators are used to improve a child’s sense of safety and security in the school setting, and to limit triggers associated with the fight-or-flight stress response.
All of the principles detailed here are also used to increase the learner’s sense of belonging, connectedness and engagement in education services.
3. Emotion identification, regulation and expression
The approach of emotional awareness and regulation targets the capacity of children and youth to identify and regulate their own emotions, and also their capacity to identify and notice the impact of their emotions and behaviour on others.
Learners who have been exposed to trauma require more neutral and less punitive prompts to help them to identify their own emotions and the emotions of others, and to identify and use specific strategies that will help them to regulate their emotions in learning settings.
4. Predictable routines, rhythm and consistency
Creating routines, rhythm and consistency in the educational setting is achieved through:
- using visual schedules and verbal reminders around these visual schedules
- instructing and prompting learners during transitions
- using reward charts and token systems
- allowing repetitive activities and self-regulation through movement.
Modelling, practice and behaviour-specific praise around routines are also important.
5. Development of strengths, identity and choice
Children and young people who have been exposed to trauma are more likely to have impaired self-esteem and negative views about themselves and the safety of the world and those around them.
The principle of collaboration and choice provides these children and adolescents with the opportunity to have some control of their environment and to develop their identity and sense of achievement.
Collaboration involves developing well-defined and achievable short-term and longer-term goals which the child or adolescent can approach one by one and step by step. These goals are typically incremental and consider the delayed cognitive, social and emotional development, and psychological concerns of children and adolescents who have been exposed to trauma.
Berger, E. (2019). Multi-tiered approaches to trauma-informed care in schools: A systematic review. School Mental Health
Blaustein, M. E., & Kinniburgh, K. M. (2018). Treating traumatic stress in children and adolescents: How to foster resilience through attachment, self-regulation and competency (Second Edition). New York, USA: Guilford Press
Brunzell, T., Stokes, H., & Waters, L. (2016). Trauma-informed positive education: Using positive psychology to strengthen vulnerable students. Contemporary School Psychology, 20, 63-83
Perfect, M.M., Turley, M.R., Carlson, J.S., Yohanna, J., & Saint Gilles, M.P. (2016). School-related outcomes of traumatic event exposure and traumatic stress symptoms in students: A systematic review of research from 1990 to 2015. School Mental Health, 8, 7-43
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA; 2014). SAMHSA’s concepts of trauma and guidance for a trauma-informed approach (pdf).