Trauma-informed education

Childhood trauma and toxic stress are recognised as the world’s leading health epidemic and only recently have its consequences and remedies started trickling down to education policy and practice, members were told at March’s Principals’ Conference.

Recent studies estimate two-thirds of students have experienced a traumatic event before the age of 16, while new US research suggests that as many as 13 out of 30 students in an average classroom will have toxic stress from three or more traumatic experiences.

Michelle Montgomery, a training and education specialist at support group KidsXpress, said the trauma can be measured by “adverse childhood experiences”, or ACEs, which describe all types of abuse, neglect, and other traumatic experiences that happen to individuals under the age of 18.

“We’ve got 20 years of research on this but, like anything, research takes a long time to trickle down into policy and in to practice,” Ms Montgomery, a former teacher, told delegates.

“We know that two-thirds of children before the age of 16 will have experienced a traumatic event. We know that in Australia, one-in-four children are affected by family violence.

“There are events that we can generally expect are likely to produce a traumatic response in children; we have natural disasters, we have grief and loss, life-threatening medical emergencies, car accidents; most schools would have been affected by these things.

“But there is something we don’t talk about nearly as much, it’s the complex trauma, when it’s wrapped up in intimate relationships within the family setting; way more damaging usually and chronic trauma that keeps happening.

“Because it happens all the time, the impact on developing brains is so much more significant because we know now that’s how brains respond to repeated experiences. Repeated experiences of fear and danger and hurt and isolation force the brain into survival mode and it takes the activity out of the learning parts of the brain, that frontal lobe.”

Ms Montgomery said KidsXpress looked at the impact of trauma, adversity and toxic stress on learning and behaviour and works with the staff to change factors that are supportive for “grownups” and children.

She said ACEs are the greatest single predictor for health, attendance and behaviour in students and the second strongest predictor for academic failure, after intellectual disability.

Students exposed to three or more ACEs are:

  • three times more likely to fail
  • four times more likely to have poor health
  • five times more likely to have severe attendance problems
  • six times more likely to have severe behaviour problems
  • almost six times more likely to have at least one physical, at least one mental and at least one developmental condition.

In the longer term, childhood trauma has been strongly linked to a number of health and social problems including substance abuse, incarceration, chronic disease, and early death.

Early intervention changing the way schools respond to and support trauma-affected children offers an opportunity to improve outcomes for many in society.

For teachers and principals, studies show they do not feel adequately equipped with the knowledge and skills required to support the needs of students with challenging behaviours, and some strategies such as timeouts and suspensions exacerbate trauma-related behaviours.

There is a need to not only train teachers how to address the needs of students with trauma but also build the capacity of schools as a whole to support these students.

Settings that have implemented trauma-informed educational practices are reporting significant improvements in student social, behavioural and academic outcomes. Schools are reporting between 50 and 90 per cent decreases in disciplinary referrals and suspensions, and 10 to 20 per cent academic improvement.

“Over two years we are seeing the tricky kids leaping 20 places in their cohort and those results mirror what is happening internationally,” Ms Montgomery said.

“A trauma-informed system is a system where everyone who comes into contact with the school … feels safe, feels supported, and feels empowered.

“We’re all in the business of looking after our kids and ensuring their wellbeing but we also need to be considering the staff needs because for many of the schools we work with the staff are just holding on.

“And if the staff are just holding on, we cannot expect them to be viewing challenging behaviours with an empathic lens. So the staff component is absolutely front and centre, this is actually about organisational change.”

In studies of children at risk, the single strongest predictor of a resilient outcome is a positive, lasting relationship with a supportive adult, Ms Montgomery said.

“The number one thing that makes a difference for a kid at risk, a kid with lots of ACEs, is a positive relationship with an adult,” she said.

“It doesn’t have to be a parent and, in fact, the literature looking at the longitudinal studies [show] it’s usually not a parent, it’s usually a teacher.

“The nice thing about a trauma-informed lens is that it’s not adding something else to a teacher’s very packed plate, it’s just helping to reimagine the plate.

“So you’re doing all things you were doing, you’re just doing it through a pair of glasses that help you see what baggage children are carrying.”

Teachers need to prioritise a whole-school approach to wellbeing. Professional learning builds staff capacity to self-reflect, manage their own emotional wellbeing, and facilitate student socio-emotional growth as much as academic development.

“The uni grads aren’t getting this [training],” Ms Montgomery said. “The science has galloped ahead so far that we know this is what kids need, this is the neuro-appropriate development tool that’s going to help them reach their academic achievement goals, but the grads are not being given it yet. So unfortunately we need to backfill.”

KidsXpress provides trauma-focused programs to help children, caregivers and professionals transform the effect of childhood trauma into a future children deserve.

— Scott Coomber