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Attachment & Trauma in Education

What is Trauma?

Although we want to think that every child grows up in a safe, loving environment, this is sadly not the case and many, many children will experience traumas growing up. So what exactly is trauma? In order for trauma to occur, two things need to happen. Firstly, there needs to be an external event that threatens the life, well being or personal integrity of the child or other's around them. This threat may be real or perceived, but either way it can still be traumatic. Secondly, there needs to be a response to this threat which may include feelings of fear, helplessness or horror. Examples of such events could be domestic violence, being abused or experiencing neglect. There can also be pre-birth traumas, such as the mother abusing substances during pregnancy and it is now becoming widely recognised that these events can have long-term consequences for children as they grow up.

Trauma and Behaviour

Children who have experienced trauma growing up will often typically be in a state of high alert, and have therefore developed strategies to help them survive. Many of these behavioural strategies are in a direct response to their early traumatic experiences. Some of the behaviours that indicate trauma may include;

  • Being superficially charming

  • Being indiscriminately affectionate with strangers - this may make them vulnerable to grooming

  • Poor impulse control

  • Being overly demanding or clingy

  • Lack of cause/effect thinking

  • Poor peer relationships

  • Low self-esteem

  • Pathological lying

  • Difficulties with organisation

These behaviours are often driven by a need for control and underlying feelings of anxiety. Managing these behaviours, especially in a classroom environment, can be frustrating and challenging but there are strategies that can be put in place to ease a child's feelings of anxiety. Check out this blog on how to support children who have experienced trauma.

Attachment Needs

In addition to trauma, many children may also experience difficulty with attachments. Attachment is an emotional bond with another person, and the earliest bonds that we form as children can go on to have extensive impact on our adult lives. Attachments can be described as either secure, anxious-preoccupied, dismissive-avoidant or fearful-avoidant. This blog explains each attachment style in more depth.

Securely attached children are confident in their relationship with their caregiver and are eager to spend time with them. They have full faith that their caregiver can meet all their needs and be there in times of distress or upset. A child who has a secure attachment will have an "internal working model" with the following beliefs; "I am worthwhile, lovable and wanted" "The world is safe" and "Caregivers are safe and loving".

Children with other attachment styles may not be confident in their caregiver, or may even act as if they don't caregiver. They can become very distressed when separated from their caregiver, and may not have any faith they will return, or they may be totally ambivalent to whether their caregiver is there or not. They may feel that their caregiver cannot be relied on to meet their needs or be there in times of need. Their internal working models may have beliefs such as; "I am bad, worthless and unwanted", "caregivers are untrustworthy and potentially dangerous" and "The world is dangerous".

As children with attachment issues grow up, the psychological issues may start to present themselves more overtly in behaviour. As well as being evident in times of stress, behaviours that indicate attachment needs may start to become present at other times. Such behaviours may include;

  • difficulty in asking for help

  • struggling to form positive relationships with peers

  • struggling to regulate their emotions

  • becoming disproportionately upset or angry with no clear trigger

  • appearing disengaged or withdrawn from activities, even ones they enjoy

How You Can Help

Working with children who have experienced trauma and/or have attachment needs can be challenging and often very emotional, on both sides! The first thing to remember is that these children may be operating at a lower cognitive and emotional age, due to their poor early experiences. Whilst you may be talking to a 13 year old, they may only have the cognitive capabilities of a much younger child to hand in order to help them cope with a current situation.

We must also teach children to recognise the emotions they are feeling. You can do this by commenting out loud or wondering out loud what a child's behaviour may indicate; "I can see you're maybe getting frustrated by the way you are raising your voice". Remember that these are comments, not questions, so do not expect an answer from the child. Another way you can help children recognise emotions is through educational worksheets such as these and using Zones of Regulation;

You need to establish yourself as a safe place for a child, especially those who have experienced trauma or have attachment needs. You may be the only person in their world that they can trust and feel close to - and I've experienced this myself. My Year 8 History teacher became somewhat of a surrogate mother to me and was the only person who comforted me, encouraged me and supported me to do well throughout school. Being a safe place for a child means that they can feel comfortable coming to you if they are upset, scared or if they need support. They can also feel comfortable explaining some of their anxieties which could be underlying some behavioural needs. For example, "I'm worried that if I don't get the answer right, everyone will think I'm stupid". When the child opens up to you, this provides a great opportunity for you to have a heartfelt conversation with them, understand their emotions and find strategies that can support them when they start to feel particular ways.

Many traditional behaviour techniques focus on reward and sanction. For children who already see themselves as "bad" and "unworthy", these strategies can only go on to reinforce these beliefs and poor image of themselves. The example of "time out" being used when a child misbehaves is an easy one to explore. Imagine being a child who is often excluded or abandoned at home, you act out in school due to feelings of inadequacy and frustration, and then you're excluded and rejected from your classroom and peers. This will only reinforce feelings of shame and rejection, which will not help their internal working model at all. Instead, try "time in", where you may remove the child from a certain activity but you spend 1:1 time with them and still offer attention and support. This will demonstrate that whilst the behaviour is unacceptable, they as a person are still valued and accepted.

It can be easy to focus on the children who externalise their behaviour and "act out", but we cannot forget those who internalise their behaviour. Children who internalise their emotions will still be feeling anxious, scared, grief and shame but they have buried it deep inside themselves as the fear of rejection makes them feel the need to conform at all costs. They may say things to keep adults and attention at bay, such as "I'm fine", "Yes, I understand" or "I'm okay" but inside they could be extremely fearful. You need to observe these children closely and look out for any signs that they may be feeling distressed, though these are often subtle changes in behaviour. When you see these behaviours, you can then offer more support and, importantly, acknowledge how that child is feeling. "I noticed you were really fidgeting before we went into assembly, so you can sit next to me if that will make you feel better" - simple but effective!

There are also certain curriculum points that may be more triggering for pupils that have experienced trauma or poor early experiences. For example, exploring family trees, activities that require baby photos or covering topics such as divorce or domestic violence in PSHE. There are ways to include these activities for the rest of the class without excluding the child, such as making up a fictional family tree or doing one for their favourite TV character. If you need family photos, ask for more recent ones or ones of a happy time in their lives so that they have the choice of what to pick.

We all have experienced anxiety and fear at some point in our lives, but for children who have experienced trauma and/or have attachment needs, these feelings are with them 24/7. For the most part, they are just trying to navigate a confusing, scary and dangerous world without being hurt, so school and learning is not exactly top priority for them. By understanding their world, offering the support they need and being a safe place for them, we can help them understand their feelings and overcome some of the obstacles they have in front of them. When they feel calm and confident they won't be hurt or abandoned by you, you will really see them open up and start to explore a new world.

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