In this article we look at how striving for a trauma informed school environment empowers teachers and protects children.
Trauma is witnessing or experiencing a real or perceived threat to our safety or the safety of others. When there is that threat to one’s safety or wellbeing, that’s where trauma symptoms can develop. This in turn causes a dysregulation in the nervous system.
Using this definition lets consider the following data so that we can see the relevance to our school populations.
- Around one third of children are growing up in poverty, that is 9 in a class of 30 according to the Child Poverty Action Group (figures from 2020).
- It is estimated that around 10 percent of children have and are experiencing 4 or more adverse childhood experiences (such as abuse and neglect, parental separation…)
- Studies suggest that 15–20% of girls and 7–8% of boys experience some form of sexual abuse before the age of 16.
- In 2021, 43% of teachers said they have experienced all components associated with burnout.
In addition, the recent pandemic has meant that we have all experienced periods of living in fear and uncertainty, isolated from friends and family, suffering bereavement and loss on a range of levels.
Schools have really been struck by this global issue, seeing mental health issues in children and young people rocketing.
How a trauma informed school environment can help
The National Association of School Psychologists state that Trauma Sensitive Schools promote:
- feelings of physical, social, and emotional safety in students;
- a shared understanding among staff about the impact of trauma and adversity on students
- positive and culturally responsive discipline policies and practices;
In practice this means that if children are able to feel safe in the school environment, they are more likely to be able to function in that environment. That means being able to learn, to concentrate, to communicate, to participate.
The demands placed on children in school means that they need the more complex areas of the brain to be accessible. These “executive functions” are not readily available to us when our bodies and brains are in a state of fight, flight, freeze or flop.
Being trauma informed means the child who seems to be daydreaming and ignoring instructions might be considered to be in a state of freeze rather than a deliberate disengagement. The response of a teacher therefore may be one of grounding and connecting with the child as opposed to a sanction or punishment.
The 4 R’s Framework
There is a useful framework called the 4 R’s from the The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) which we can use to think about how this practice is applicable to schools:
To be Trauma Informed we first have to realise what Trauma is. It is important to take the time to consider:
- the child who was emotionally neglected,
- the colleague who is in a controlling relationship,
- the Caretaker who experienced a bike accident,
- the Designated Safeguarding Lead who is exposed to traumatic material on a daily basis,
- the Headteacher who has suffered discrimination because of their sexuality,
- the child who has undergone years of medial treatment…
As teachers and practitioners, we know that these are a small sample among the many traumatic experiences people go through.
How do we recognise signs of trauma in children and adults? Anger, frustration, disengagement, unable to sit still, lack of impulse control, self harm, sadness, anxiety.
Trauma symptoms can present in many ways and are easier to recognise when we understand what dysregulation might look like in the body and in behaviour.
There are so many ways in which our nervous system can experience an overload of too much, too soon, too quickly and maybe “without enough of the good stuff” as Gabor Mate puts it.
Responding in a “regulate, relate and reason” order for instance, can transform the way in which children are supported and understood in a noisy and busy classroom.
- Do we place teaching staff and children in positions which are likely to trigger their trauma responses?
- Do we isolate children who are already frightened and alone?
- Do we actively seek to minimize situations which we know can increase stresses on our staff and pupils?
How a trauma informed approach can transform your responses
Taking a trauma informed approach can transform the way in which we respond to stress and overwhelm.
We can provide a nurturing environment where staff and pupils feel supported and understood.
We can respond in a way that demonstrates compassion alongside utilizing valuable practical tools that support good regulation in the nervous system.
In the long run, this could reduce staff sickness, increase retention and produce happier and more confident and able students.
Suzi Moore Training can help your school nurture a trauma informed environment
Whenever I train staff who work in a trauma informed school and I ask them if it has been helpful, the unanimous answer is yes. Nurturing a trauma informed school environment has transformed their teaching practice.
If you would like to know more about becoming a trauma informed school please get in touch.