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Trauma Informed Teaching: Supporting Learners Suffering from Complex Trauma

Updated: Dec 23, 2022

Being trauma informed in your teaching practice is essential these days. More and more children are experiencing social, emotional and mental health difficulties related to trauma and this clearly impacts on their ability to learn and develop socially and emotionally. Small adaptations in your teaching style and your understanding will make the world of difference to these children.

We all want to think that the children in our classrooms, our after-school clubs and in our community are living safe, happy and flourishing childhoods with a supportive network of family and friends. We want to see their smiles, hear their laughter and see them practically skip into school everyday. Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case.

1 in 10 children suffer neglect, 1 in 14 are victims of physical abuse and 1 child a week is killed by their parents/carers in the UK. Most of us will have heard the horrific cases of Victoria Climbié and Baby P, children who were subjected to unprecedented levels of abuse and neglect by their parents and carers which ultimately resulted in their untimely deaths. Both of these cases resulted in serious case reviews, but the more recent cases of Arthur Labinjo-Huges, Logan Mwangi and Star Hobson show that these horrific incidents still continue to occur.

Whilst cases that end in the tragic death of a child are extreme, there are tens of thousands of children who experience trauma in their daily lives and sometimes we simply have no idea what is going on behind closed doors.

Adverse Childhood Experiences

Hundreds of thousands of children in the UK are experiencing Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE’s) throughout their young lives and, as we will explore, these go on to affect their brain development, behaviour and learning abilities. Trauma informed teaching centres around knowing that any child in your class could be experiencing one or more ACE's at any time, and that the way in which we approach them should be adapted.

ACE’s range from experiences that directly harm a child (such as suffering physical, verbal or sexual abuse and physical or emotional neglect), to those that affect the environment in which a child grows up (including parental separation, domestic violence, or the incarceration of a family member). At least 67% of the population have experienced 1 ACE, and 1/8th of the population have experienced 4+ ACE’s in their lifetime.

Neurodevelopmental Changes to the Brain

Starting from birth, children develop millions of brain connections through their everyday interactions and experiences. The first years of a child’s life have a profound effect on future learning, behaviour and well-being. Stable, nurturing environments help children develop cognitive and emotional skills as well as the resilience they need to thrive as adults.

Unfortunately, negative experiences, such as ACE’s, can hinder this development, often leading to risky behaviours and health problems in adulthood. 3 main areas of the brain that are affected by ACE’s are;

  1. The Brain Stem - responsible for ‘primitive’ actions and the Fight vs Flight response to perceived threats. Traumatised children often show overactivity in the brain stem.

  2. The Limbic System - made up of the hippocampus and amygdala. The hippocampus, responsible for memory functions, emotion and stress management, shrinks when the brain is under chronic stress. The amygdala is responsible for fear-processing, and MRI’s have shown reduced gray matter here in traumatised children.

  3. Prefrontal Cortex - the executive functioning area of the brain, responsible for decision making, personality expression, planning and moderating social behaviour. Overactivity in the brain stem causes the prefrontal cortex to temporarily become impaired, leading to disinhibition and acting without ‘thinking’.

In School & What You Can Do

Children who are experiencing ACE’s within the home can often display challenging behaviours at school. They may show signs of difficulty regulating their emotions, staying on task or relating well to peers/teachers. Children experiencing traumas will develop “survivor” behaviour to help them cope with the psychological stress they are experiencing in class; this may display in running away (out of class), back-chat, shutting down and may even progress to self-harm or the development of eating disorders.

This is stressful for any teacher or teaching assistant to manage, especially when you potentially have up to 30 other children who also demand your attention and support.

Here are 5 tips for how you can support traumatised children and 3 as to how you can support their behaviour.

  1. Clarify your role with the student and establish yourself as a safe individual.

  2. Create an environment of respect.

  3. Give the student the opportunity to make choices rather than always telling them what to do. Obviously, both choices should be favourable and work towards a common outcome.

  4. Slow yourself down; talk slower, use lower pitch and use simple language with few gestures.

  5. Use music, movement, exercise, humour and laughter into the curriculum - laughter reduces the trauma response in the brain.

Behavioural Strategies

  • Have a predictable environment with clear expectations for behaviour and have structure during the class day – try not to deviate from it often.

  • Establish a quiet, safe place in the classroom (or a bespoke wellbeing, sensory or calm room) for students to go when they are feeling overwhelmed. This space should have some sensory materials for students, have pleasant colours (blues are very calming!), pictures of nature, etc. that students can focus on when emotionally dysregulated.

  • Practice active listening with students and demonstrate empathy, 10:1 (Ratio of positive to negative statements for traumatised children), active ignoring of negative behaviour, consistent expectations and behaviour plans that are based on rewards systems, not punishment and collaborative problem-solving with students.

It is vital to reach out to parents/caregivers and involve them in the educational process, deepen your understanding about the community the student lives in and gain insight into the available resources for the student and family. By fully understanding a child's background and living situation, you'll understand more about what that child experiences day-to-day and why, actually, school may be their safe haven.

Further Reading;

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