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School Resources

Being trauma-informed and trauma-aware in schools

In a webinar with The Education Hub, Dr Emily Berger (Monash University, Australia) and Dr Karen Martin (University of Tasmania, Australia) shared their extensive research knowledge and practical expertise, providing teachers and school leaders with practical ideas and approaches for supporting students who have experienced trauma. They gave details about trauma-informed practice at primary and secondary school level, including the key principles, strategies, and common barriers and solutions for schools when implementing trauma-informed practice. This webinar accompanies a set of trauma-informed resources the speakers developed for The Education Hub.

The key insights from the webinar include:

Trauma is an overwhelming feeling that is a response to an event or series of events that may be life-threatening, although not everyone will experience trauma as a result of the same event.Trauma has implications for physical and psychological development, and the impact of trauma may be immediate or delayed. Trauma is often thought of as synonymous with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but, while they are connected, PTSD is a clinical diagnosis that sits at the extreme end of the reaction to a traumatic experience. Children may often experience a post-traumatic reaction that is not equivalent to PTSD, but still carries significant impacts for the child.

A change in a child’s behaviour may be a sign that they have experienced trauma. This might include changes in emotional regulation or changes in their thoughts about themselves and the world. They may also demonstrate a change in attitude about school, or a reluctance to engage in activities they were previously happy to take part in. Symptoms may be externalising, such as aggression or irritability, or internalising, such as withdrawal, anxiety, and low mood. If you are aware that a child has been or is going through a stressful experience, it is important to monitor them for changes in their behaviour, emotions, or social engagement. Be aware that some children may display no symptoms of trauma. This resource offers some guidance about developmental trends in the behaviour of children at different ages, and may help teachers determine whether the behaviour they are seeing is developmentally appropriate or potentially the result of trauma.

Trauma-informed practice broadly means having knowledge and understanding of the impact of trauma on individuals, including students, their parents and families, and their teachers.It involves knowing that trauma can have a long-lasting impact on learning, behaviour, and emotional regulation, and being able to respond in ways that avoid triggering or re-traumatising the child. A key component of a trauma-informed response is building a strong relationship with the student. Students who have experienced trauma may display behaviour that is challenging and disruptive for other students, so it is important for teachers to focus on their own emotional regulation in the moment. Strategies for supporting students who have experienced trauma should be differentiated depending on the age of the child to ensure that they are developmentally appropriate.

Supporting students who have experienced trauma may involve taking a different approach to disruptive behaviour that does not involve excluding the student from the classroom or taking an authoritarian or punitive approach to certain behaviours. Taking an individualised response and starting from the basis of a strong, trusting relationship with the student is crucial. It is also helpful to consider how to take a preventative approach by anticipating potential triggers and building in breaks or strategies designed to help the student emotionally regulate.

If a student discloses that they have undergone a traumatic event or experience, it is very important that teachers do their best to manage their reaction by remaining calm and trying to avoid displaying horror, fear, or uncertainty. Be very careful not to make promises such as keeping the information the student has disclosed private, and make sure you are aware of your own school’s child protection policy and the local requirements for mandatory reporting in your area. Teachers in New Zealand can find more information on reporting here and here.

It is important for teachers to be aware of vicarious trauma, as hearing about a student’s traumatic experiences can in itself be traumatising for the hearer. Teachers may need to speak to a colleague or another professional to help them deal with the trauma to which they have been exposed. Teacher self-care is extremely important in this context. Read more on the importance of teacher wellbeing as part of a trauma-informed approached here.

It is important to take a whole-school approach to trauma-informed practice. This includes keeping the school community informed regarding the school’s approach, and why it may differ from what they are used to and may expect, as well as consulting with the community and being mindful of trauma and negative experiences with schools that parents and families may have experienced. Best-practice policies and principles based on international evidence can be accessed via the Thoughtful Schools Program. Examples of school trauma-informed policies are available here.

Useful links and resources

Viewers of the webinar generously shared links to tools and resources that they have found helpful. Some of these links are listed below.

Supporting students and their families through grief and loss: https://www.healthnavigator.org.nz/support/g/grief-loss/

Information on protecting children from neglect and abuse: https://safeguardingchildren.org.nz/

Mental health support for young people: https://www.sparx.org.nz/home

Counselling support for young people: https://thelowdown.co.nz/

Australian resources on supporting and promoting student wellbeing: https://studentwellbeinghub.edu.au/educators/

Information on restorative practice for schools: https://pb4l.tki.org.nz/PB4L-Restorative-Practice

Books for young children on learning to regulation their emotions: https://www.schoolessentials.co.nz/Product/8449726/Behaviour-Matters!#.YsVGeuxByLo

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