The need to acknowledge and support children who have experienced trauma is increasingly urgent in our schools. Trauma can occur as the result of physical, emotional or mental distress. It has a direct impact on a person’s wellbeing. Sources of trauma include sexual violence, being restrained, domestic abuse, and the loss of a loved one, among others.
The symptoms of trauma that we feel are linked to our fight or flight response. We may experience a rise in blood pressure, feel palpitations, have difficulty sleeping, experience nightmares, fatigue, have mood swings, feel hypervigilant, and so on. These symptoms may appear immediately after the traumatic event, or they may develop many weeks or months afterwards.
Understanding the impact of trauma is key in understanding the behaviours that are played out in classrooms across the country each and every day. Being responsive to trauma and using a trauma-informed approach helps to ensure that children remain at the heart of all recovery interventions.
How common is trauma?
The WHO World Mental Health Surveys (2017) Trauma and PTSD in the WHO World Mental Health Surveys - PubMed (nih.gov) found that 70.4% of respondents across 24 countries had experienced at least one traumatic event (the average being 3.2 traumas). This means that many children in classrooms will have experienced trauma of some degree and may be dealing with the aftermath of trauma daily.
The trauma-informed classroom
Helping children who have experienced trauma to learn, safely and calmly, is a skill all teachers need. Author and trainer specialising in relationship focused practice, Lisa Cherry, explained, "Trauma informed approaches to learning are not simply about focusing on 'those children over there' (although they can be); they are about all children. We never know what is going on in a person's life, even less a child's life. It is about ensuring that where there is trauma, the system that we are working in, the responses that we give, the environment that we are asking children to be in, is not adding to harm. It is seeking to mitigate harm.”
Mike Armiger, an educator, trainer and coach focusing on trauma, mental health and suicide prevention explained that trauma often means you have wisdom that no one else understands. “Trauma’s symptoms are often misinterpreted as a disorder,” he said. “But when you hear people’s stories, often what they feel makes complete sense. And when people tell me that the problem purely exists within the person, I ask them to step outside and open their eyes.”
Trauma does not need to dominate a person’s life. With the right support and an encouraging environment, positive progress can be made. Armiger explained, “I have seen many young people go on to live healthy lives despite trauma. But if there is to be a better tomorrow for these young people, we must give them reasons to believe that, through our hopeful actions, profound understanding and courageous compassion.”
Trauma-informed teaching ideas
Educational psychologist Dr Chris Moore points to clear features of a trauma-informed classroom. He explained that our starting point should be safety. He said, “The environment should be structured and predictable, with visual timetabling and scheduling and consistent routines so that the children know what is happening now and next. Timers and countdown strips can be used to give advanced warning of the end of an activity or a transition, as children who have experienced trauma and loss can find it difficult to cope with sudden change. Some children may benefit from a key adult – a consistent figure who can engage in a meet-and-greet at the start of the day, check in with how they are feeling and act as a secure base during less structured periods.”
Small changes can have a big impact. Dr Moore explained, “The ‘keeping in mind principle’ can be crucial in letting children know they are being thought about. If the child is asked to work independently or wait until an adult is free, give reassuring messages such as “I haven’t forgotten about you” or “I’m going to come to you in two minutes” (and live up to the promise of the timeframe).” He also suggests positive affirmations such as “I belong here”, “I am safe here”, “It’s okay to ask for help” and “It’s okay to feel… (insert feeling)” can be helpful to display on the walls and corridors to emphasise safety and acceptance.
Play is also key in the trauma informed classroom. “This can be as simple as talking about the child’s personal interests and experiences outside school, sharing a joke, being humorous about making mistakes and using exaggerated facial expressions and tones of voice,” Dr Moore said. “Children who have experienced trauma and loss may feel consumed by negative experiences of the past. It’s important to help them gradually reframe situations. You can talk about what went well or three good things at the end of the day. The use of visual scales or feelings thermometers can track the intensity of a feeling over time – if yesterday was a 7 out of 10 and today is a 4, what made today easier to cope with? What was different about today and how can the conditions be replicated on other days?”
The 3 Rs – Regulate, Relate, Reason – are a really useful model for how to respond to powerful emotions and more challenging forms of behaviour. “There is a clear sequence to follow,” Dr Moore said, “starting with helping the child to manage their emotions through teaching techniques which involve movement, breathing and grounding. When they are more regulated, we can connect with and validate their feelings. This involves wondering out loud about their experience and offering empathy rather than judgement. The final stage, when the child has achieved a more calm and alert state, can include offering positive choices, redirecting to more appropriate types of behaviour, repairing any ruptures to the relationship and reflecting on different courses of action for the future.”
Trauma is everywhere…
As the WHO trauma and PTSD in the WHO World Mental Health Surveys observed in 2017 Trauma and PTSD in the WHO World Mental Health Surveys - PubMed (nih.gov), “trauma exposure is common throughout the world, unequally distributed, and differential across trauma types with respect to PTSD”. Trauma is everywhere and we may or may not see its effects. But until every classroom is a trauma-informed classroom, with staff who view children through a trauma-informed lens, we may not be serving all children as well as we can.
Find out more…
- Lisa Cherry’s book, Conversations that make a difference for children and young people: Relationship focused practice from the front line is currently available from all good bookshops. @_LisaCherry
- Dr Chris Moore: @DrChrisMooreEP
- Mike Armiger: @mikearmiger
About the author
After graduating with a degree in Politics and International Relations from the University of Reading, Elizabeth Holmes completed her PGCE at the Institute of Education, University of London. She then taught humanities and social sciences in schools in London, Oxfordshire and West Sussex, where she ran the history department in a challenging comprehensive. Elizabeth specialises in education but also writes on many other issues and themes. As well as her regular blogs for Eteach and FEjobs, her books have been published by a variety of publishers and translated around the world.