Psychological trauma refers to an experience or series of experiences that threatens someone’s safety, belonging or dignity (Haines, 2019).
There are many different experiences that can be classed as psychological trauma. This can include physical, emotional or sexual abuse, neglect or bereavement as well as ongoing stress such as living in poverty or bullying. Trauma is any experience that someone finds particularly distressing. Experiencing trauma can physically alter the brain’s development which can lead to social and emotional difficulties as time goes on. Many children will face upsetting events that are considered Adverse Childhood Experiences but most will bounce back and ‘return to normal’ relatively soon. However, depending on their experiences and other interacting factors such as temperament and resilience, some children can have ongoing difficulties such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Although ACEs can lead to negative outcomes later in life, protective factors have a stronger impact on children’s development than risk factors. Outcomes are ultimately determined by the balance between risk and protective factors.
A study by Bethell et al. (2019) suggests that the following serve as Positive Childhood Experiences (PCEs) which can modulate the negative consequences of ACEs:
Able to talk with my family about my feelings
Felt that my family stood by me during difficult times
Enjoyed participating in community traditions
Felt a sense of belonging in high school
Felt supported by friends
Had at least two non-parent adults who took a genuine interest
Felt safe and protected by an adult in the home
Social and Emotional Development
To understand the effects of trauma we need to take a look at our brains. The human brain is made up of tiny cells called neurons. Neurons connect with each other when we have experiences. These connections form neuronal networks These networks are strengthened through repetition – things that are not repeated can get forgotten. By 3 years of age, children’s brains are 90% of their full adult size, and many networks have already been formed.
It makes sense that early experiences wire the brain. According to Bowlby (1969), children are born pre-programmed to form an attachment – an emotional tie with another – in order to help them to survive. His theory suggests that for a secure attachment to develop, basic needs must be met through nurturing and responsive caregiving experiences. For example, if an infant cries when they are hungry and they are consequently fed, they form an association between that person and having their needs met. The neuronal connection between the caregiver and food gets strengthened every time feeding happens.
Bowlby’s theory suggests that people form an Internal Working Model (IWM) based on their experience of their early attachments. This provides them with a ‘blueprint’ for relationships in the future. He also suggests that if an infant does not have their needs met, neuronal pathways won’t form in a typical way and there will be an interruption to the caregiver attachment which will result in social and emotional difficulties throughout the infants later life. Therefore, a child’s behaviour can be an indication that there has been an interruption or gap in their development.
Some behaviours are labelled as ‘naughty,’ ‘defiant’ or ‘aggressive.’ but it is important to remember that all behaviour is a form of communication – that is the first step to supporting a child who has experienced trauma. Further details of how to recognise and manage some of these behaviours can be found in our anger and conduct disorders pages.
Emotional Regulation and the Brain
Much like learning Maths or English, there can be gaps in a child’s social and emotional development if their needs have not been adequately met or if they have been exposed to certain experiences. When an infant is very young (<3 years of age), they experience the world through their senses. They learn through sensory input. Children who have experienced neglect have had poor sensory input from their caregivers and as a result, their nervous system does not develop typically. If a child has experienced a gap in their development at this stage, they may show sensory-seeking behaviours. Children that are sensory-seekers underreact to input from their five senses so may need more of it to function well. Sensory-seeking can look very different in different children; they might give really tight hugs, crash into things, or rock backwards and forwards more than is typical. We have developed more information about emotional regulation.
As with all matters of wellbeing taking time to focus on areas such as emotional intelligence and social confidence helps to build an outlook that feeds into the interactions a teacher has with the young people they support. Whilst we are preparing ourselves to help others we must also look after ourselves, we’ve got some advice and guidance on this in the teacher wellbeing section.
It is natural for teachers to feel apprehensive talking to a young person regarding trauma. Many teachers fear it would make things worse for the child; there is no need to feel like you know exactly what to do – willingness to help is the most important thing. Ignoring trauma can often give the subliminal message to young person that nobody wants to talk to them about it and can even reinforce the ideas of shame or guilt connected to their experience. It is perfectly fine to say to someone “I don’t really know how to help but I will come with you to find out.” or “Is there something worrying you as I can help you find someone that does know how to support these things”. Offering to just be there and support someone is a large part of starting the recovery process.
Now you have an understanding of what trauma is and how it can affect a child’s development, you will understand that all children’s behaviour is a form of communication. Seeing behaviour in this way is the first step for any intervention programme to support the child.
Interventions should try to change the balance from vulnerability towards resilience by increasing protective factors in children’s lives. The approaches we take need to cover the following bases in order to promote resilience:
When a child has experienced gaps in their social and emotional development, this is similar to when a child has experienced gaps in their cognitive development e.g., if they have missed out on lots of place value teaching, they are likely to have difficulty with other areas of maths. For this reason, children who have experienced trauma may behave in ways that are more appropriate for a much younger child. Therefore, it is useful to determine a child’s social and emotional age before devising any intervention for them. The Thrive online assessment tool can do this and identify at what point in the child’s life the gaps were likely to have occurred.
As already discussed, we have seen how school staff play a major role in children’s recovery from trauma. By providing a child with a key adult, this can provide an opportunity for second chance learning. It can adapt the child’s Internal Working Model. The ideas of permanency and constancy should be utilized. Where the child has a key adult, the key adult should tell the child things such as “I saw this on TV last night and I thought of you” to let them know they’re being kept in mind. The amount of time a child should spend with a key adult depends on the child’s needs. They should experience a gradual separation from them.
An evidence-based way to help children to regulate their emotions is by Emotion Coaching. This is to do with the language you use with a child when they are experiencing high emotions. It is a high empathy, high guidance approach to helping a child to regulate their emotions.
Another way of being with children who have experienced trauma is the PACE model (Hughes and Golding, 2012). This stands for playfulness, acceptance, curiosity, empathy. Hughes suggests that by adopting these qualities when we are speaking and interacting with young people, the best emotional learning can occur.