How To Support Students With Trauma: The Impact of Trauma on Children’s Development
The topic of childhood trauma and its long-term effects on development has received increasing scholarly attention in recent decades. Pioneering work in this field has been done by Dr. Bruce Perry, an American psychiatrist and neuroscientist specialising in child trauma. Dr Perry’s research has significantly contributed to our understanding of the impact of child neglect and abuse. His extensive work examining the effects of trauma on brain development has implications for those working with at-risk children (Delahooke, 2019).
The Neurosequential Model of Therapeutics
One of Dr. Perry’s most significant contributions to the field of trauma research is the development of the Neurosequential Model of Therapeutics (NMT) (Perry, 2006). This model is based on the understanding that the brain develops in a hierarchical and sequential manner, with the lower regions responsible for basic functions like regulation of arousal, stress response, and attachment forming before the higher regions responsible for more complex functions like cognition, language, and executive functioning. This really has an impact on how we should support students with trauma in our classrooms.
I started my journey into this element of Neuroscience via a youtube video from Mona Delahooke on Polyvagal theory, following which I bought her book Beyond Behaviors. As Delahooke (2019) discusses, Dr. Perry’s groundbreaking research centres on the concept of “neurosequential modeling”, which posits that the impact of trauma on the brain occurs in a sequential order, disrupting development in a stepwise fashion.
His work has provided key insights into the impact of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) on behavior, cognition, and overall health. Understanding trauma and its impact on students is essential for teachers who want to create safe and supportive learning environments for all students. In this article, we will explore the implications of Dr. Perry’s work on trauma for teaching and learning, and discuss how educators can use this knowledge to create trauma-informed classrooms.
Impact of Trauma on the Developing Brain
Traumatic experiences, especially during critical periods of brain development, can alter the structure and function of the brain, leading to long-term changes in behaviour, emotion, and cognition. Studies have shown that trauma can impact the prefrontal cortex, the amygdala, and the hippocampus, which are all important for learning, memory, and emotion regulation. Trauma can also lead to changes in the stress response system, which can impact physical health and lead to chronic inflammation.
The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) study is a landmark study that has explored the impact of childhood trauma on health and well-being. The study found that the more ACEs a person experienced, the higher their risk for a range of physical and mental health problems, including heart disease, diabetes, depression, and addiction.
Implications for Teaching and Learning:
As teachers we need compassion in understanding trauma and its impact on students in our classrooms. Now, post pandemic, post lockdowns, creating safe and supportive learning environments is more important than ever. Not all children were affaceted equally by this. I have written about relational approaches many times on this post but I had always avoided “trauma informed” after attending a CPD that seemed to have distilled into into an ACES tick box that seemed to revel in the shock of repeating all the bad things we know happens to kids without providing any real strategies.
Trauma-informed teaching practices align well with my personal “why” my teaching and leadership values. prioritise building positive relationships, providing emotional support, adapting instruction to meet students’ needs, and avoiding practices that may re-traumatise students.
The Implications of Dr. Bruce Perry’s Work on Trauma for Teaching and Learning
Dr. Bruce Perry’s work has direct implications for teaching and learning, particularly in relation to students who have experienced trauma. By understanding the impact of trauma on the brain, we can develop more effective and compassionate strategies for supporting these students and promoting healing and growth.
The NMT discussed above, provides a framework for understanding the impact of trauma on brain development, as well as a roadmap for intervention. When a child experiences trauma, their brain may become “stuck” in a more primitive state, making it difficult for them to engage in higher-level cognitive tasks and social-emotional learning (Perry, 2006). By identifying the specific areas of the brain that have been impacted by trauma, educators can target interventions to help students build the neural connections necessary for healthy development.
32 Strategies Teachers Can Use To Support Children who have experienced Trauma
Building Relationships and Fostering Connection
Dr. Perry’s work emphasises the importance of relational experiences in the healing process for children who have experienced trauma (Perry & Szalavitz, 2017). For teachers, this means that building strong, supportive relationships with students is a critical component of creating a trauma-informed classroom. We can cultivate a sense of connection and belonging, teachers can help students feel safe and secure, allowing their brains to better engage in higher-level cognitive tasks.
Strategies for building relationships and fostering connection in the classroom
- Providing consistent, predictable routines and structures
- Offering regular opportunities for students to share their thoughts, feelings, and experiences
- Providing positive reinforcement and praise for effort and progress
- Offering a variety of opportunities for students to connect with their peers and collaborate on projects
Addressing the Stress Response and Self-Regulation
Trauma can have lasting effects on a child’s ability to regulate their emotions and manage stress (Perry, 2009). In a trauma-informed classroom, teachers can help students build their self-regulation skills by incorporating activities that promote mindfulness, relaxation, and self-awareness.
- Incorporating movement and stretching breaks throughout the day
- Using mindfulness practices, such as guided meditation or focused attention exercises
- Offering opportunities for students to express their emotions through art, journaling, or other creative outlets
- Teach students deep breathing techniques to calm themselves. This activates the parasympathetic nervous system.
- Allow students to take short breaks when needed. This could include taking a walk or doing some light exercise like yoga.
- Practice mindfulness exercises like guided meditation, visualisation, or progressive muscle relaxation.
- Promote positive self-talk and challenge negative thoughts. Help students reframe stressful situations in a more positive and optimistic way.
- Teach students to recognise their body’s stress response triggers and signals. Help them identify their own patterns of thoughts, feelings, and behaviours under stress.
- Have students keep a journal to express their feelings and emotions. Writing can be a great way to release pent up stress and gain perspective.
- Promote good sleep hygiene and rest. Lack of sleep activates the stress response system. Students need to develop calming bedtime routines.
- Encourage healthy eating habits with lots of fruits and vegetables. A balanced diet can boost mood and resilience in the face of stress.
- Help students avoid excessive stimulation like loud noises or bright screens before bedtime. Their environment should be conducive to relaxation and calm.
- Teach time management skills and organisational strategies. Feeling like they have too much to do and not enough time activates the stress response.
- Have students engage in regular exercise which releases feel-good hormones and helps to relax the mind. Even taking short movement breaks can help.
- Promote social support through team building, community service, or group discussions. Social interaction and bonding decreases stress hormones.
- Learn coping strategies to change negative stress into positive stress (or eustress) by focusing on personal meaning or growth. Help reframe stressful events as challenges rather than threats.
- Practice progressive muscle relaxation by systematically tensing and relaxing muscle groups one by one. This releases tension and calms the body.
- Listen to calming music which can lower blood pressure and pulse rates. slow tempo instrumentals, classical music, and ambient electronica can be particularly soothing.
- Limit caffeine, nicotine, and sugar intake which can exacerbate feelings of stress and anxiety. Stay properly hydrated with water instead.
- Help build resilience through adversity and setbacks. Teach students that they can adapt and cope with difficult life events. With support, stressful times can make them stronger.
- Provide opportunities for flow experiences like art, music, athletics, games, or hobbies. Activities that produce an energised focus can help change negative stress into positive stress.
- Promote a growth mindset. Help students view mistakes and failures as opportunities to learn rather than personal flaws. This makes resilience in the face of challenges much easier.
- Be a role model for students by taking good care of your own stress levels and emotional health. Model the behaviours and techniques you want students to learn.
Trauma Informed Approaches to Supporting Cognitive Development and Executive Functioning
As mentioned earlier, trauma can disrupt the development of higher-level cognitive skills and executive functioning. To support students who have experienced trauma, educators can implement strategies that target these areas of development, such as:
- Breaking tasks into smaller, manageable steps and providing explicit instructions
- Encouraging the use of visual aids, graphic organisers, and other tools to support organisation and planning
- Providing opportunities for students to practice problem-solving, decision-making, and critical thinking skills
- Offering support for students with attention and focus challenges, such as preferential seating, frequent check-ins, or additional processing time
Dr. Bruce Perry’s work on trauma has far-reaching implications for teaching and learning. By understanding the impact of trauma on brain development and implementing trauma-informed practices, educators can create safe, supportive environments that promote healing and growth for all students. Through building relationships, addressing the stress response and self-regulation, and supporting cognitive development and executive functioning, teachers can empower students to overcome the challenges posed by trauma and reach their full potential.
References on Supporting Students with Trauma
Perry, B. D. (2006). The Neurosequential Model of Therapeutics. Reclaiming Children and Youth, 15(1), 42-47. Accessed Online June 2023 Free
Perry, B. D. (2009). Examining Child Maltreatment Through a Neurodevelopmental Lens: Clinical Applications of the Neurosequential Model of Therapeutics. Journal of Loss and Trauma, 14(4), 240-255. Accessed Online June 2023 Free
Perry, B. D., & Szalavitz, M. (2017). The boy who was raised as a dog: And other stories from a child psychiatrist’s notebook: What traumatized children can teach us about loss, love, and healing. Basic Books.
National Child Traumatic Stress Network. (n.d.). Understanding Child Trauma.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2020). Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs).
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