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What is Trauma-Informed Education and Why is it Relevant to You?

A guest blog from teacher and researcher Kat Stern about the nature of trauma and the the consequences for trauma-informed education that affect all teachers.

“We have learned that trauma is not just an event that took place sometime in the past; it is also the imprint left by that experience on mind, brain, and body. This imprint has ongoing consequences for how the human organism manages to survive in the present” - Dr. Bessel Van der Kolk

One of my many “failures” as a teacher was a boy called “L”.

He was one of three students with autism in a large PE class that I took over and, having seen him around the school, I had concerns before even starting with them about my ability to include him safely and effectively in lessons.

I went in, armed with my general knowledge of autism, details of his EHC plan and information from his key worker in the SEND department about specific strategies that might come in handy… but in terms of the reality of getting him to be safe with dangerous equipment, to work with others and to follow instructions, I was simply not successful. The best way I could describe what I felt is that I just didn’t understand his brain. I couldn’t understand what he was feeling, couldn’t decipher what he was thinking and couldn’t predict what he would do next.

That same year, a girl “J”, with no diagnosis and no EHC plan, was referred to the unit that I was running, with the information that on the first day back to school she had walked out of every one of the five lessons she had that day.

Strange… she had clearly planned to go to all of them, had gone into the classroom but then left at appearingly random moments. She was frequently excluded from school, but would refuse to leave the site, hiding around the building, running away from staff and being extremely abusive when subsequently found or cornered. She would beg to go to an activity, but then stand in the corner refusing to become involved. Most staff found themselves in the same position as I had found myself with “L” – armed with behaviour management strategies, relationship skills and their years of teaching and leadership experience yet they just couldn’t understand what she was doing or why she was doing it.    

If there is one thing I have learned in my years working with children such as "L" and "J' it is how important it is to remember that, ultimately, we are teaching a brain.

We have all learnt that there can be structural or functional differences in the brain of a student that can have an affect on their ability to learn in a similar way to others in our classroom setting, for example as seen in neurodiverse students with ADHD. But what led to them being diagnosed with ADHD in the first place? In my experience it was usually someone, perhaps a parent, a teacher or an educational psychologist, who noticed something very different about their behaviour.

After all, at its most basic level, differences in the brain can produce differences in behaviour.

And, when it comes to supporting children who have experienced trauma*, there is longstanding research that that trauma changes both the brain AND the behaviour. What's more, that idea children who have experienced trauma are more resilient as a result of that experience is a common myth. In fact, the opposite is true. They are more vulnerable to its impact, because their brains are still developing (this is not at all to imply that children are not capable of being “resilient” in the sense of being incredibly brave and mature in the face of adversity).

“These images illustrate the negative impact of neglect on the developing brain. In the CT scan on the left is an image from a healthy three-year-old with an average head size. The image on the right is from a three-year-old suffering from severe sensory-deprivation neglect. This child’s brain is significantly smaller than average and has abnormal development of cortex.”

Child Trauma Academy led by Bruce D. Perry, M.D., Ph.D. 

Here’s a scary fact: children don’t even have to be consciously aware of the trauma or even have a particular memory of it – see The Boy who was Raised as a Dog by Bruce Perry & Maia Szalavitz for a fantastic explanation of the impact of adverse experiences during the first few years of life.

So what kind of trauma-impacted behaviours might be presenting in a school context?

In a literature review of complex trauma in childhood, Cook et al. (2005) included the following:

  • Difficulty with emotional regulation (control)
  • Problems with boundaries
  • Self-destructive behaviour
  • Aggression
  • Difficulties with perspective taking
  • Problems understanding responsibility
  • Difficulty maintaining attention
  • Difficulty labelling and expressing feelings
  • Distrust and suspiciousness
  • Learning difficulties
  • Substance abuse…

Trust me, this is only a small part of the list, but many of us may recognise students we have taught who demonstrate some of these to an extent that they are persistently impairing their education.  “J” certainly did, and sadly by the end of that academic year, she had been permanently excluded.

And if you are asking yourself whether “J” was a traumatised child, I’d like you to consider this question “off-limits”, regardless of whatever your instinctive response was. As educators, it is never our job to diagnose any child with a trauma-related condition, but what should happen is that we pass information about our concerns to the right external agency (CAMHS). 

Trauma-informed education is a journey that involves learning from a large, long-standing body of evidence about these behavioural changes and trying to adapt our everyday practice to better support, include and promote these students - the same as we would with any other difference.

We cannot punish a student with ADHD out of their impulsive behaviour and we cannot punish a traumatised student into responding appropriately when their brain is telling them they are “under attack”. Indeed, when we tale this approach, for example for the sake of upholding a school-wide policy, we compound their vulnerability, compound their low self-esteem, and potentially push them closer to the permanent exclusion that disproportionately happens to young people with special educational needs, those with mental health difficulties, those who live in poverty and those have been taken into care.

As a sector, we can learn more, hence my research into this area, and as educational professionals we can do better than that. [ITL] 

*Trauma can be acute (e.g. a single-instance sexual assault), or chronic (e.g. living with a substance abuser) and these factors, along with whether the trauma was interpersonal (e.g. physical abuse) have been found to have differing impacts. Clinical diagnoses are constantly shifting, but two that are commonly referred to are PTSD, which can be caused by a single event,  and complex PTSD, which typically refers to more chronic trauma. There is also a large body of research currently focused on Developmental Trauma Disorder, which is specific to multiple forms of adversity during childhood, but hasn't (yet) been recognised as a formal diagnosis. Many are aware of the list of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) but they are really designed for population studies.

Kat Stern is a behaviour consultant (www.expectopatronumconsultancy.com) who is working across mainstream and alternative provision. She is currently putting the finishing touches to a randomised controlled trial of trauma-informed education in a Young Offenders’ Institute (results will be published @KatStern4 as soon as available). She is passionate about supporting schools with their behaviour systems, and always looking to collaborate and learn, so please get in contact! 

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