How To Support Trauma-Affected Students.

Key Takeaways

  1. Childhood trauma has deep and long-lasting effects. Significant and ongoing stress in childhood can undermine development.
  2. Schools can reinforce and accelerate the effects of trauma. The range of experiences students face at school can trigger and escalate maladaptive stress responses.
  3. Schools should help students become ‘ready to learn’. Schools have a profound healing power when they help students regulate their response to stress and form positive relationships.

Childhood trauma has deep and long-lasting effects

Trauma is the effect of intense stress on our brains. Events or circumstances that one finds emotionally or physically threatening or harmful may have a lasting impact on how an individual functions physically, emotionally and socially.

When children experience traumatic events, this can inform how they behave, grow and interact with others. When these experiences are frequent or intense, their impact can be broad and long-lasting.

The impacts of childhood trauma reach into adulthood in confronting ways. One of the largest and best-known studies in this, the CDC-Kaiser ACE Study asked participants to share information about traumatic events from their childhoods (termed adverse childhood experiences or ACEs in the study). The study analysed the relationship between these events and a range of later-in-life outcomes. The relationship between a person’s “ACE count” and adverse adult outcomes is linear, strong and consistent.

From How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character:

“Compared to people with no history of ACEs, people with ACE scores of 4 or higher were twice as likely to smoke, seven times more likely to be alcoholics, and seven times more likely to have had sex before the age of 15. They were twice as likely to have been diagnosed with cancer, twice as likely to have liver disease, four times as likely to suffer from emphysema or chronic bronchitis”

The ACE study didn’t just find that those with traumatic childhoods had poor health outcomes because of behavioural or lifestyle responses to trauma. People with higher ACEs were certainly more likely to drink, smoke and take drugs but the study also found that even people with high ACEs and no risky lifestyle factors still suffered from adverse adult health outcomes:

From How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character:

“When they looked at patients with high ACE scores (7 or more) who didn’t smoke, didn’t drink to excess and weren’t overweight, they found that their risk of ischemic heart disease (the single most common cause of death in the United States) was still 360 per cent higher than those with an ACE score of 0. The adversity these patients had experienced in childhood was making them sick through a pathway that had nothing to do with behaviour”

The biological mechanism that explains the relationship between childhood trauma and poor adult health outcomes has to do with stress. The way our bodies process stress is fairly complex, but research suggests that overloading this mechanism early in life can have a destructive effect undermining the development. It also makes us more likely to respond to future stress in maladaptive ways.

Schools can reinforce and accelerate the effects of trauma

At some point, our brain’s ability to adapt to early-life stress would have played an important evolutionary role. The human-ancestor who was chased by a predator early in life is less likely to get eaten. By adapting to get really stressed about situations involving predators, they avoid the predators and live longer. Today it’s unlikely that any of us get eaten, and so a highly active stress mechanism isn’t needed for survival. Now, a highly active stress response can make it harder for us to cope with everyday experiences appropriately. Schools involve a range of experiences that trigger our stress responses, and for students with a trauma background, this can sometimes be overwhelming.

From Creating Trauma-Informed, Strengths-Based Classrooms:

“Learning involves taking risks in front of one’s peers, and this can be highly stressful for students when they feel unsure about their competencies and abilities… On the surface this appears to look like lower effort, motivation and willingness in the classroom. It seems as though the student disengages from the task rather than facing the discomfort of learning difficulty.”

Trauma can affect the brain, memory, intelligence and visual/spatial skills. Yet its most common and severe impact is usually on executive functioning – our ability to plan, set goals, self-monitor and self-regulate. The effects of trauma increase the feeling of discomfort that comes with learning. Often a students’ response to stress is all we see – the student appears to disengage, misbehave, defy instructions or disrespect others. The way we respond to these manifestations of stress often reinforces the students’ belief that they are “dumb” or “naughty” which only adds to the stress of school. For many students, school is an accelerant to the flame of trauma – it constantly triggers and exacerbates their maladaptive response to stress.

As a result, students who have experienced trauma often find it difficult to form stable and positive relationships, regulate their behaviour and resist impulsive behaviours. This means they can display low levels of motivation and engagement in school.

From Creating Trauma-Informed, Strengths-Based Classrooms:

“We know from research evidence that students from vulnerable communities are more likely to miss school, have lower rates of school completion, and are at risk of economic and job instability after they finish their education… Many students we have worked with experience a range of barriers to their learning and are at risk of disengaging from their education and giving up”

Schools don’t have to be like this – they actually have the potential to be hugely healing for kids who have experienced trauma. Further, the practices that help trauma-affected kids manage their stress response have “catch-all” benefits – they help all students, even those with adaptive stress responses.

Schools should help students become ‘ready to learn’

Much of learning is about students committing things to their memory. While this is another complex process, we know that at its foundation is attention – students need to pay attention and think about something to remember it.

From Ask the Cognitive Scientist: What Will Improve a Student’s Memory?:

“…here’s how you should think about memory: it’s the residue of thought, meaning that the more you think about something, the more likely it is that you’ll remember it later…. What remains in your memory from an experience depends mostly on what you thought about during the experience. Given that we typically want students to retain meaning, we will mostly want students to think about what things mean when they study.”

For a student with a trauma background and a highly active stress response paying attention and keeping their thoughts on-task is incredibly challenging. Put simply, students with highly active stress responses are often not ready to learn; they may be physically present in our classrooms, but they cannot give learning the attention and thought it needs.

From Creating Trauma-Informed, Strengths-Based Classrooms:

“We have to appreciate that many students struggle to maintain their attention and be on task because their distressing and stressful experiences have left them ill-equipped to do so… before students have successful schooling experiences, they need to be supported to come into a state where they are ready to learn. A child who is ready to learn is not in a state of dysregulation and internal chaos. Their heart is not racing at an elevated rate. When a child is ready to learn, they can concentrate, reason, and remember. They have access to the parts of their brain that help them integrate new information and connect different ideas together.”

Creating trauma-informed classrooms

Trauma-informed classroom practice is about helping students reach a ‘ready to learn’ state. Two things are important in this – students’ ability to regulate their response to stress and their ability to form relationships with others. Let’s unpack each one.

1. Helping students regulate their stress responses and build self-regulation

When we looked at teacher well-being, we saw that there was an optimal “sweet spot” for stress where we could perform at our best – this occurs when we have some pressure to perform, but not so much that we reach a state of burnout. The same is true for students, there is a sweet spot in their reaction to stress where their brains can manage the experiences needed to learn – the “window of tolerance”.

From Creating Trauma-Informed, Strengths-Based Classrooms:

“… there is a window of arousal states that are optimal for brain processing and functioning… when a student is within their window of tolerance, they may experience a range of feelings, thoughts and sensations; however, they can self-regulate their responses and tolerate their internal experiences. At times the student will be pushed outside their window of tolerance to a state of dysregulation. Above the window of tolerance is a state of sympathetic hyper-arousal – that is a fight or flight response. A student above their window of arousal may appear chaotic, anxious or aggressive. In contrast, below the window of tolerance is a state of parasympathetic hypo-arousal. A child in this state may appear unfocused, exhausted, flat, or hard to motivate. Students may oscillate between the two extremes, showing signs of activation and aggression and then signs of withdrawal and disconnection.”

From Trauma Informed Behaviour Support: A Practical Guide To Developing Resilient Learners:

Trauma-informed classrooms can do two things to help students stay in their window of tolerance and ready to learn. Firstly, they reduce the stressors that push students outside their window. One example of this is unpredictability. For young people who have experienced trauma, unpredictable situations can be stressful and frightening. Their childhood experiences may have reinforced the idea that they end up hurt or in danger when things become unpredictable. Some students respond to the risks they perceive in unpredictability with emotional dysregulation displaying fight, flight or freeze behaviours. Trauma-informed classrooms use predictable routines and processes to increase students’ feelings of safety and calm and allow them to remain ready to learn. Examples of this include well-defined routines that guide movement between, in, around and out of classrooms. Further, trauma-inform classrooms respond to off-task behaviour in ways that help students remain in their window of tolerance – predictable interventions, emotionally constant responses from adults, and the lens of unmet needs can all be used to respond to students who are off-task without pushing them further towards a maladaptive stress response.

Classrooms can also support students to widen their window of tolerance. Students who have experienced trauma may lack the ability to regulate their emotional and behavioural response to stress meaning small stressors can push them into a state of hyper or hypo arousal. Trauma-informed classrooms teach students how to better regulate this response by building skills like somatosensory regulation through activities like mindful breathing, visualisations, yoga, music and other rhythmic, repetitive activities. When students have more skills to de-escalate their response to stress they are able to remain within their window of tolerance when faced with the range of experiences associated with the school.

2. Supporting students to form enduring and healing attachments with others

Most children receive secure, warm and consistent caregiving from adults in their lives, allowing them to form secure attachments with others. This secure attachment allows children to form trusting and positive relationships with others, improves their feelings of self-worth and supports them to see the world as a positive and exciting place worthy of exploration. Many children with trauma backgrounds develop insecure attachment because caregiving from adults has been conditional, inconsistent or neglectful. These children can find it difficult to relate to others appropriately later in life, which can see them become angry, violent, unwilling to trust others and fearful of the world around them. Teachers in a trauma-informed classroom can do a lot to heal students’ insecure attachment by modelling and building positive relationships with students.

From Creating Trauma-Informed, Strengths-Based Classrooms:

“We recommend that teachers strive to create a sense of emotional and relational safety in their classrooms and develop relationships based on empathy and warmth. We believe that teachers have the capacity to serve as frontline trauma healers for vulnerable students. Teachers have the ability to be an adult in a child’s life who consistently shows them warmth, respect and empathy – and this has profound healing power”

The idea of childhood trauma is heartbreaking. Schools can make this worse, but they don’t have to. With the right approach, the classroom can be a place of powerful healing that can break cycles of intergenerational trauma and set students up to succeed at school and in life.

Key Takeaways

  1. Childhood trauma has deep and long-lasting effects. Significant and ongoing stress in childhood can undermine development.
  2. Schools can reinforce and accelerate the effects of trauma. The range of experiences students face at school can trigger and escalate maladaptive stress responses.
  3. Schools should help students become ‘ready to learn’.  Schools have a profound healing power when they help students regulate their response to stress and form positive relationships.