Does your school have a trauma informed behaviour policy?
Attachment disorders and trauma are impacting students in every classroom across the UK, with statistics claiming that 15.9% have experienced at least one potentially traumatic event in their lifetime.
This blog will identify the impact of traumatic experiences on students and their classroom behaviours and advise on some tried and tested practical approaches that can be used to improve educational outcomes and alleviate the impact of trauma. It will also highlight the importance of integrating self-care techniques for students and staff.
As Dr Sandra Bloom (2007) notes, “Understanding trauma is not just about acquiring knowledge. It’s about changing the way you view the world. It’s about changing the helping paradigm from ‘What is wrong with you?’ to ‘What happened to you?’
Trauma can be defined using seven generalised dimensions, according to Wilson & Sigman, Preventing PTSD in Trauma Survivors, 2000:
- Threat to life
- Severe physical harm or injury
- Receipt of intentional injury or harm
- Exposure to violence or the loss of a loved one
- Learning of violence to a loved one
- Exposure to a noxious agent
- Causing death or severe harm to another
Traumatic events are external, but they quickly become incorporated into the mind and the body. According to Judith Herman’s book, Trauma and Recovery (1992), psychological trauma is characterised by feelings of:
- Intense fear
- Loss of control
- Threat of annihilation
Children and trauma
Children are more vulnerable to the stress of trauma. Their responses to trauma are complex and are different from those of adults. Children’s traumatising experiences can compromise all areas of childhood development, including: identity, cognitive processing, ability to manage behaviour, tolerance, moral development, ability to trust self and others.
Children who have experienced trauma will develop “survivor behaviours” and these behaviours help the child to survive extreme psychological stress in a hostile environment. Examples of this can be fighting, running away, substance abuse, shutting down, self-harm, eating disorders, etc.
In a non-threatening environment the children will exhibit these behaviours to deal with their ‘uncomfortableness’ and anxiety – to these children even a nurturing environment is threatening!
A trauma informed policy
The field of education cannot ignore the issue of traumatic stress if schools are to meet the expectations of parents and the wider community. As Barbara Oehlberg (2008) says:
At a time when schools and teachers are exceedingly stressed and stretched, becoming trauma informed may seem an ambitious and challenging strategy. However, the rewards for everyone involved are real and energising.
A whole school approach
A child, in order to feel safe at school, needs to know that they can approach any classroom teacher, specialist, SLT, HLTA, wellbeing support, or business manager and receive the same response. The response needs to be agreed upon by all staff, practiced, and with an accepted process when things don’t go the way we hope. For example,
- Assuming complexity, approaching with empathy
- Commitment to building trust and relationships. We can never stop working on this. For students and families living with prior and ongoing trauma, each day can bring a new struggle, and school can provide a sanctuary
- Connecting with the whole family
- Behaviour as a symptom of the problem, not the problem. This is not to say that violence or breaches of safety do not incur serious consequences, but that the consequences include a depth of investigation and a great deal of support
- Support children to build the skills that are a struggle for them, and include them in the process
- Connection with external agencies, because school can’t do it all!
“There is no more effective neurobiological intervention than a safe relationship, the relationship works to bring the brain back into regulation.” (Bruce Perry, PhD, MD, researcher & child psychiatrist)
Strategies for working with children impacted by trauma
- Clarify your role with the student
- Establish yourself as a safe individual
- Create an environment of respect
- Give the student opportunities to make choices
- Talk about safety and what steps you will take to help the student be and feel safe
- Connect the student to the appropriate resources and people
- Slow yourself down: talk slower, use a lower pitch for your voice, don’t use complex sentences, don’t use lots of body movements.
- Offer self-calming techniques, such as mindfulness, grounding, tracking, positive memories
- Teach positive self-talk to students and practice it before you need it.
- Use music, exercise, movement, stretching and incorporate more opportunities for humour and laughter in the curriculum (laughter reduces the traumatic response in the brain).
Behavioural strategies for trauma impacted students
- 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, refocus room) for students to go when they are feeling overwhelmed – it should be a comfortable space away from others, with comfortable furniture. This space should have some sensory materials for students, have pleasant colours, 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.
- Think of ways to reach out to parents/caregivers that involves them in the educational process, deepen your understanding about the community the student lives in and available resources for the student and family.
Self care to prevent secondary trauma
Secondary traumatic stress is the emotional duress that results when an individual hears about the first hand trauma experiences of another. Its symptoms mimic those of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Working with traumatised students can be overwhelming so managing personal and professional stress is vital:
- Recognise that change happens very slowly
- Know that you may never see the outcomes of your efforts
- Trust that our simple compassionate gestures are important elements of helping young people in healing and surviving
- Knowing your limits
- Improving your understanding of trauma and secondary trauma
- Taking a time out
- Seeking support from co-workers, family, friends
- Professional counselling
- Relationships and feeling safe are the first step to a young person managing their trauma
- Not every strategy will work for every child tailor your approach to each student
- Students who have experiences trauma still need clear boundaries and routines
- Students need a safe space and trusted adults in order to regulate their emotions
- Self care and recognising your limitations is vital when working with young people who have experienced trauma