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Supporting traumatised children in the classroom

Research from neuroscience, psychology and education highlights new understandings in childhood trauma research, which can help educators better understand the broad influence that trauma exposure may have on child development.

Research in psychology and education suggests that trauma is associated with poorer education outcomes, according to a new ACER report, Childhood trauma: Developmental pathways and implications for the classroom, by ACER Research Fellow Mollie Tobin.

The report aims to help educators working with traumatised children to understand the key developmental pathways that may be affected by childhood trauma, and how to support resilience through these pathways.

New understandings of childhood trauma

‘Developmental trauma research now argues that trauma exposure during childhood affects children’s self-regulatory capacities by disrupting the normal functioning of the body and brain stress-response systems, which can affect emotional and cognitive functioning,’ the report states.

Neuroscience research emphasises the understanding that the brain is the central system linking neurobiological and psychosocial development.

According to the report, this can explain how trauma exposure may help initiate a ‘cascade’ of impaired functioning across seemingly unrelated pathways in childhood, adolescence and adulthood.

While trauma exposure includes many types of experiences, the child’s body and brain stress-response systems are finite, so the developmental pathways affected by trauma are more important to understand than the specific trauma experienced. Trauma will be physically ‘remembered’ by children as physical states and sensations in response to experiences in their environment.

‘Developments in neuroscience research have helped change understandings of how the brain develops during childhood and how physiological changes in response to stress can interact with children’s neurodevelopment,’ the report explains.

‘Children’s brains may be particularly susceptible to the timing and severity of trauma exposure as brain development in childhood is not linear.

‘This means that brain structures and processes have different timing and patterns of development. For example, some regions develop most during childhood, others during adolescence, and others into adulthood. This may help explain, in part, wide-ranging variation in subsequent emotional and cognitive functioning among children after trauma exposure.’

What this means in the classroom

According to the ACER report, research has identified three areas where teachers and schools can focus attention to meet traumatised children’s needs:

  • attachment – developing positive attachment to a teacher or mentor helps traumatised children normalise their disrupted body and brain stress-response systems, and to develop self-regulatory capacities   
  • competencies – teachers may provide traumatised children with opportunities to improve competencies and to develop a self-concept that may be unrelated to academic achievement, and
  • self-regulation – different approaches to behaviour management in schools can help traumatised children learn to regulate their emotions and behaviour.

‘A better understanding of the developmental pathways associated with trauma exposure may help stop trauma symptoms from being attributed to “low ability or behaviour problems”,’ the report states.

‘Educators and schools already have many of the skills and resources to help traumatised children, and can promote healthy development through a holistic focus on attachment, competencies and self-regulation.’ ■

Further information:

Read the report Childhood trauma: Developmental pathways and implications for the classroom by Mollie Tobin. This report is the third in a series of papers, Changing minds: Discussions in neuroscience, psychology and research, published by ACER.

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