A trauma-informed organisation, such as an early childhood setting (ECE), is one which ‘realizes the widespread impact of trauma and understands potential paths for recovery; recognizes the signs and symptoms of trauma in clients, families, staff, and others involved with the system; responds by fully integrating knowledge about trauma into policies, procedures, and practices; and seeks to actively resist re-traumatization’. Trauma-informed practice in schools and early childhood centres has grown in recent years, and educational settings are increasingly implementing educational programmes and school policies to help teachers become more aware of the impacts of trauma on children and young people. Trauma-informed programmes and policies are important to support teachers who are tasked with supporting the complex needs of children and families impacted by trauma.
The impact of trauma on children and young people
While the types of trauma experienced in early childhood are similar to those experienced by young people and adults across the lifespan, trauma in early childhood can seriously risk a child’s cognitive, social and emotional functioning, and their ability to learn. Young children are more reliant on their parents for survival and are less able to seek help, to make sense of their experiences, or to protect themselves from danger. Due to this, parents, guardians and early childhood teachers play an important role in developing trusting relationships, fostering safe environments, and supporting the social and emotional wellbeing of young children exposed to trauma. For more information on types of childhood trauma and the many ways it can impact a child or young person, see Childhood trauma and its impact.
Signs that a child has experienced trauma
Noticing the signs of trauma is the first step in responding to children exposed to trauma. Trauma can present in various ways, including behavioural, cognitive, social or emotional difficulties. Students who have experienced trauma may have behavioural problems which is their way of communicating their distress and soothing unpleasant emotions, or because they lack interpersonal and impulse control skills. These behaviours can sometimes be misinterpreted as trouble-making by teachers and other children. In ECE settings, a child who has been exposed to trauma may present in the following ways:
- Reluctance to attend ECE settings, possibly because they have concerns about interacting with teachers or peers
- Reluctance to leave ECE settings and distress about returning home at the end of the day
- Avoiding questions about their home and family
- Playing out violent themes or stories during play
- Regressing in their ability to care for themselves or engaging in risk taking behaviours. For example, younger children may show regressive development or changes in how they communicate (for example, using ‘baby talk’)
- Changes in behaviour such as withdrawal, aggression, impulsiveness, inattention, anxiety and/or negative moods.
Recommendations for trauma-informed practice in ECE settings
Early learning settings can support children who have been exposed to trauma by implementing the following recommendations:
- Assess the readiness of the centre or setting to determine whether appropriate resources, time and leadership support are available to implement trauma-informed practices
- Increase the knowledge and understanding of cultural differences in the presentation of trauma symptoms in children and parents.
- Increase educators’ personal awareness and acknowledgement of their own cultural and belief systems.
- Encourage the inclusion of parents in understanding their child’s development and the use of techniques and tools at home.
- Engage in educator training and professional development that addresses trauma and children’s emotional and social wellbeing.
The evidence base on trauma-informed practice in early childhood education
Research concerning trauma-informed practice in early childhood settings has occurred mainly in the USA. Some of the trauma-informed programmes that have been evaluated in early childhood education settings include:
- The Supportive Trauma Interventions for Teachers (STRIVE), a resiliency-based intervention that is implemented with individual children, teachers, schools and early childhood settings. STRIVE aims to improve children’s learning environments by increasing teachers’ understanding and self-efficacy in supporting the needs of young children who have been exposed to trauma.
- Head Start Trauma Smart (HSTS), an early education intervention that is implemented within early learning settings. HSTS aims to reduce the stress reaction experienced by children who have been exposed to trauma by building children’s and caregivers’ resources and skills.
- Attachment, Self-Regulation and Competency (ARC), a flexible framework for trauma-informed interventions that aims to integrate children’s trauma experiences through strengthening the caregiving system, building awareness and skills in self-regulation, and developing children’s resilience.
Evaluations of these programmes have found that teaching early childhood teachers about childhood trauma and trauma-informed practice can increase their knowledge and confidence, and improve the early childhood learning climate and relationships between educators and children. However, broadly, there is a lack of research concerning the benefits of trauma-informed practice in educational settings, especially in early learning programmes.
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