Prior to the pandemic, the best place to positively impact young people outside the home was school. After all, that is where children typically spent most of their time. With the return of more face-to-face learning this fall, it is expected that many children, once again, will be spending more time with their teachers and classroom assistants than with their own parents in the comfort — and sometimes discomfort — of home.
Let’s face it: for some kids, home can be the scary place. Schools are not only education-providers — they also need to be the “safe place.”
As Nicholas A Ferroni, an American educator and activist, puts it: “Students who are loved at home come to school to learn. Students who aren’t… come to school to be loved.”
And in the words of the American youth motivator, Josh Shipp: “every kid is one adult away from being a success story.”
Explaining childhood trauma
The National Institute of Mental Health in the United States defines childhood trauma as the experience of an event by a child that “is emotionally painful or distressful, which often results in lasting mental and physical effects.” Before they turn 18, young people around the world are subjected to various forms of adverse experiences, such as domestic abuse, physical or sexual abuse, poverty, medical trauma, accidents and natural disasters, community violence, war and conflict, loss of loved ones, as well as other traumatic events. Kids can also suffer trauma from the effects of relatively common occurrences such as parental divorce, bullying, being over-scheduled by demanding parents or moving from one country to another.
Whereas children from lower income families are more likely to be exposed to repeated incidents of trauma, trauma does not discriminate between economic or social backgrounds. If anything, children of affluent parents who are left in the company of temporary hired help for long periods often do not receive the same level of consistent care that can be expected from a devoted parent or grandparent.
Neglect is another type of trauma that is more subtle, but perhaps even more prevalent than other forms. In the age of social media and addictive phone use, neglect has been established as a documented form of trauma for many school-age children.
And while the pandemic has resulted in many families spending more quality time with one another, for children who live in chaotic environments, or whose parents are suffering their own personal traumas, the pandemic has not been kind. A study that evaluated over a thousand global research publications focusing on Covid-related mental health in children found that even young people who were not diagnosed with psychological health conditions before the pandemic are now experiencing substantial mental health issues. Another study in Germany found that children of parents who suffered higher stress and job losses witnessed greater levels of domestic and emotional abuse.
Social media forums in the region are rampant with calls for help for children suffering as a result of the sudden loss of a parent from Covid, or separation due to travel restrictions and/or visa issues. The shift to online learning has also meant that many children, while physically safer, are isolated from meaningful social interactions.
What does ‘trauma-informed’ mean?
Trauma is an experience, not a diagnostic category like a learning or developmental difficulty. It is estimated that 40 percent of children will be exposed to at least one traumatic event before the age of 18. Being trauma-informed is being curious about what is happening, or what has already happened, in a child’s life. It is educator’s asking, “What experiences are compelling this child to behave the way they do? What experiences are influencing the way these children see themselves or others?”
Being trauma-informed is not asking “what is wrong with this child?” or labelling the child in any way. It is a mindset or lens that you use to see beyond the way the child presents themselves in the classroom or on the playground.
Why should schools be trauma-informed?
Quite simply, stressed brains can’t learn. In many children, trauma manifests as angry outbursts, difficulty concentrating or remembering information, frequent absences, conflicts with peers, a loss of appetite, a feeling of detachment from others and/or delayed cognitive and language development.
Schools that have adopted a trauma-informed approach to teaching and learning have reported improved academic achievement scores, less bullying, fewer incidences of behavioral outbursts and office referrals and higher teacher satisfaction and retention. This approach has been shown to lessen the burden on special needs and/or counselling centers as well. This is because, in many cases, children who are diagnosed with attention or hyperactivity disorders are possibly suffering from the effects of some form of trauma. The characteristics of ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) for example — impulsivity, hyperactivity and inability to focus for long periods of time — are classic symptoms of trauma. Given the widespread prevalence of trauma in the population and its effect on learning, it is critical that teachers and school leaders adopt trauma-informed practices to foster resilience in their schools.
The good news is that a meaningful connection with one trusted adult can be enough to help a child develop the resiliency to overcome adversity. According to Unicef, resilience is “the ability an individual, community, society or system exposed to a threat to resist, absorb, adapt and recover from its effects in a timely and effective manner.” Knowing the impact that one caring adult can make on the trajectory of a child’s life gives teachers, parents and care-givers tremendous hope.
How do we foster resilience in schools?
The three R’s: Regulate, relate and reason
Bruce Perry, the author of the highly acclaimed book, What Happened to You?, asserts the importance or regulating and relating to a “dysregulated” child before attempting to reason with them. Before children are given the chance to learn or retain new information, they must feel safe and build a meaningful connection with their teacher.
The importance of establishing a sense of safety for a dysregulated child cannot be stressed enough. This is because the fear associated with trauma essentially shuts down cortical systems in a child exposed to a traumatic event (or repeated set of traumatic experiences). According to Dr Perry, it can take 10 to 12 positive interactions with a traumatized child to allow the neural networks in their brain to label an adult as “safe.”
Practice and teach emotional regulation
Learning self-regulation skills are just as important, if not more so, than literacy and numeracy. Children as young as four can be taught about how the different parts of the brain are involved in their emotional responses. Analogies are a great way to do this. For example, the amygdala, the part of the brain responsible for activating the fight-or-flight response, can be compared to a smoke detector. The cortex, the “thinking” part of the brain involved in creativity and language, can be likened to a wise owl that “flies away” when a child is scared, anxious or angry.
Teaching children how to focus on their present moment experience is crucial. Questions such as, “What am I feeling in the here and now?” and “What messages are my body sending me?” help children recognize different body sensations — sweaty palms, a hot head or a knotted feeling in their belly, for example — and what triggers these sensations.
There are multiple tools that teachers can use to make their classrooms more trauma-informed. Some of these include building comfort corners or “Zen Dens” into the classroom, using brain intervals and restorative circles, and choosing “time-ins” over time-outs. But before adopting any of these practices, educators first need to focus on regulating themselves, building trust and learning how to foster meaningful connections with their students.
Nadine Kamal is a science writer and educator based in Abu Dhabi. She has a BSc in Biology from the University of Waterloo and a Master’s in Education from the University of Dundee. Nadine has an avid interest in international education, refugee education and in the wellbeing of children and young adults.