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Thursday, 12 June 2014

Trauma and the impact on children's education

There is a movement in the United States at the moment towards creating what are called Trauma Sensitive Schools. It is of course no surprise that when children experience trauma, many of them experiences difficulties at school. For some kids these difficulties will be short lived, but for others the difficulties will persist over time and significantly impact on their ability to learn, as well as their relationships at school. This is especially true for those children who live in environments where there is constant stress or ongoing abuse. 

Just some of the difficulties that these children may face at school include: 

  • problems with concentration and attention
  • difficulties with short term memory
  • decreased ability to follow instructions in the classroom
  • difficulties transitioning between activities and between teachers
  • difficulties in managing their emotions
  • problems trusting adults and teacher
For more extensive information on the difficulties that children may face in schools click here. 

In Washington State in the US, there has been an ongoing study looking at just how trauma and adversity impacts on children at school. Researchers worked with teachers to find out which children had experienced trauma at home. They asked teachers to identify children who had: 
  • parents divorced / separated
  • residential instability
  • witnessed domestic violence
  • been involved with child protection
  • a family member in prison
  • a family member with a substance abuse problem
  • basic needs not met
  • a family member with a mental health difficulty
  • a family member with a physical disability
  • been exposed to community violence
  • a parent or caregiver who had died. 
They then looked at key areas in the child's schooling including whether the child was meeting grade expectations at school, attendance problems, behaviour problems and poor health. Not surprisingly they found that trauma and adversity in a child's life was strongly related to how the child was functioning at school. 

Children who experienced just one adversity were two times more likely to have attendance problems and 2.5 times more likely to have behaviour difficulties at school than those children who had not experienced any trauma or adversity. When they considered children who had three or more adversities present, the results were significant. These children were three times more likely to have academic failure; five times more likely to have attendance problems; six times more likely to have behaviour difficulties; and four times more likely to have poor health. Unless these difficulties are addressed within the school, children fall behind and some disengage from schooling altogether.

These findings have led to the implementation of programs to create schools that are trauma sensitive. A school that is trauma sensitive is one that builds meaningful relationships with students and parents or carers; create an environment of safety and predictability for all students; promote skill development for all students; help to build reasoning and problem solving; and add targeted supports where necessary. In order to do this, they start by building social emotional learning into universal practice across schools. All school staff are provided with professional development on social emotional learning and trauma informed practice. This assists teachers to look at new ways to address classroom management and to recognise and reduce triggers for trauma responses amongst students. 

The results of these trauma sensitive schools have been positive. There have been fewer behaviour difficulties in children and less suspensions and an increase in teachers satisfaction and self efficacy. This New York Times article provides a good overview of some of the interventions and the successes of the program. 

Of course, changing the way any system works takes time, knowledge, resources and a willingness for change. But it can be done. And considering that the long term benefits of children completing schooling include better physical and mental health, improved ability to participate in family life and more opportunities for employment and financial security, it seems crucial that we start to take steps to make schools a safe and engaging place for everyone. 

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