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ECE Resources

Caring and trauma-informed approaches can make a world of difference to young children’s wellbeing and learning

Taking the importance of caring and supportive pedagogies as central to early childhood education, trauma-informed approaches contribute to children’s wellbeing and resilience, and set children up with strong social and emotional skills for managing challenges across the lifespan. In our webinar, Dr Madeleine Dobson (Curtin University, Australia) explores the nature and significance of trauma-informed early childhood education for promoting and supporting the needs, rights, and interests of all children. Maddie also discusses the links between trauma-informed approaches and social justice.

You can find the research review that Madeleine has written for The Education Hub on social justice in early childhood education here.

The key insights from the webinar include:

Trauma can be experienced by children, by parents, by entire families and by colleagues. Trauma can be defined as heightened challenge and stress caused by a single experience or a multitude of overlapping experiences. Trauma may include a family breakdown, financial pressure, illness or injury, and major life changes. Children might have experienced abuse or neglect or witnessed abuse and neglect towards someone else. Trauma is also very individual, and what one person experiences as traumatic is not necessarily going to be traumatic for another.

Trauma-informed approaches are centred around recognising and understanding what trauma is and the impact it can have on people’s lives. A trauma-informed approach to early childhood education involves an awareness of people’s experiences of trauma and the knowledge and commitment to support children, families, and communities through trauma. It involves knowing how to support children and others who have experienced trauma, as well as knowledge of the resources available to children and families. Trauma-informed pedagogies align with other care-based and relational pedagogies, including culturally responsive pedagogies. These pedagogies are characterised by gentle and sensitive ways of working with children and families, as well as strong knowledge of how children and families live their lives and the best approaches for them.

Social justice issues impact on how people experience trauma. There are a lot of significant issues connected to culture, race, gender, faith, and sexuality that are not always widely acknowledged in early childhood education but that impact on people’s lives, experiences, and identities. A social justice lens can help us to understand how complex people’s identities are, and the impact of social and political issues for individuals. Trauma can be more complex for some people if they have overlapping issues in their lives, and may be compounded by challenges around rights, access, participation, and voice. An awareness of social justice issues can help teachers to understand social and political factors in a more meaningful way and to create a sense of safety and belonging for each and every person. Teachers may choose to engage in advocacy and activism related to social justice, but simple actions within teachers’ sphere of influence, such as developing caring methods of teaching, building and sustaining relationships, and continuing to learn about trauma-informed pedagogies, can also make a significant difference.

There are many different manifestations of trauma. Signs of trauma may include aggression or confronting behaviour during play, challenging behaviours, disconnection, regression (or alternatively heightened maturity), or withdrawal during activities. The experience of trauma may look very different from child to child, and the signs of trauma can be quite individualised and personal. These behaviours can also change as children get older, and may be more or less pronounced in different children. This diversity of expression means that teachers need to spend time gathering and reflecting on information about and from children, and having effective conversations about what the things they have observed about children might mean.

Trauma-based practice needs to be grounded in a strong, strengths-based image of children and families as people in communities that have rights to understanding and support. It is important to ensure that we do not take a deficit perspective on children, and recognise that children we initially see as ‘naughty’ or ‘shy’ may be experiencing trauma and need help, understanding and support. Teachers should also be careful to enact a strong and positive image of children’s families and communities, rather than engaging in blame or judgement. Genuine and meaningful partnerships with families characterised by understanding and compassion are important.

Trauma-informed pedagogies benefit all children and their families, not just those experiencing challenges and difficulties. Trauma-informed and care-based pedagogies aim to set up gentle, safe, and welcoming spaces for children and families and sensitive ways of relating to children and families. They support children in their social emotional development and promote wellbeing. They also build in safeguards of support for children that can mitigate the impact of potentially traumatic experiences that may occur for children in the future. The meaningful support of children and families in the early years is proven to have significant ongoing and lifelong effect, and sets children up to step out into their communities feeling confident that they are understood and cared for.

When trauma is suspected, there are a number of ways in which teachers may respond. Schools and early childhood centres are likely to have specific procedures and policies for child protection, which should be adhered to. In addition, it will be important to carefully document observations and concerns. A next step might be to engage in sensitive conversations with children and colleagues, and, where it is appropriate and safe, with parents and families. Taking a contextual or environmental approach in which information is sought about the other contexts and people with which the child engages can be helpful. Conversations should be one-to-one and remain confidential, and teachers should relate to parents respectfully and with compassion. The experience of trauma can be extremely private and personal, and may be difficult for families to disclose or discuss. Teachers should safeguard against further harm and be mindful of the risk of retraumatising people. The best approach here is for teachers to make spaces in which families feel safe, and to offer them a choice to engage on their own terms and to the extent that they feel able and ready. It can be useful to look into other networks and across different community organisations to see what support is available, and to know when to refer parents to other services, such as counsellors or psychologists. Support strategies for children and families are likely to be highly individualised.

Self-care and care for colleagues are important. Working in a trauma-informed way can be challenging and complex, and requires teachers to maintain an awareness of their feelings and emotions, engage in self-care, and be prepared to seek help when required. A culture of care, empathy, and compassion within a team contributes to teacher wellbeing and longevity within the profession.

Further reading

Bartlett, J. D. & Smith, S. (2019). The role of early care and education in addressing early childhood trauma. https://doi.org/10.1002/ajcp.12380

Hauser, M. D. (2020). How early life adversity transforms the learning brain. https://doi.org/10.1111/mbe.12277

Martin, K., & Berger, E. (2022). Childhood trauma and its impact. https://theeducationhub.org.nz/childhood-trauma-and-its-impact-2   

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