Essentials: How To Recognise and Support Pupils Affected By Trauma

Essentials: How To Recognise and Support Pupils Affected By Trauma

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If you are supporting a pupil who finds it difficult to manage their emotions, struggles to focus and seems to over-react to situations, then they may be affected by early childhood trauma.

Join us for this episode of School Behaviour Secrets as we explore the impact of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) on a pupil's emotional well-being and discuss the vital role of relationships in helping them to cope with their emotions.

Ready to make a difference in a child's life? Tune in now!

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Click here to hear all of episode 35.

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Show notes / transcription

Simon Currigan  0:00  

Are you working with a child who has difficulty regulating their emotions over reacts to situations, or just finds it hard to concentrate? If so, then it might be that they were affected by early trauma in their life. Keep listening to find out more. Welcome to the School Behaviour Secrets podcast. I'm your host, Simon Currigan. My co host is Emma Shackleton. And we're obsessed with helping teachers, school leaders, parents, and of course, students when classroom behaviour gets in the way of success. We're going to share the tried and tested secrets to classroom management, behavioural Special Needs, whole school strategy and more, all with the aim of helping your students reach their true potential. Plus, we'll be letting you eavesdrop on our conversations with thought leaders from around the world. So you'll get to hear their latest evidence based strategies before anyone else. This is the School Behaviour Secrets podcast. 

Hi there, Simon Currigan here and welcome to another essentials episode of School Behaviour Secrets where I share with you one important strategy or insight from an earlier episode that can have an impact for the students that you work with in your school or your classroom. But before we go any further if you enjoy listening to our podcast, please remember to subscribe, so you never miss another episode. This week, join me and my co host Emma Shackleton as we explore the impact of trauma, or adverse childhood experiences on a child's ability to regulate their emotions, and what key strategies you could use to support them. 

The impact of toxic stress on kids ability to regulate is really interesting, because once you're in this continual high stress state where your body is pumped full of cortisol, the stress chemical, it's like your regulation system gets stuck. So your body moves to this state of high alert. And then you get stuck there and you can't come down. You can't down regulate like other children and other adults can to a sort of general benign, neutral, calm state, your amygdala, the part of your brain that is constantly scanning for threats get stuck on high alert. And what's fascinating is, if you're in this state for a long enough time, your amygdala actually grows in size, as it sits there constantly over identifying risks in the environment, things other people don't find threatening your amygdala find some threat, some thing to worry about the way it perceives the world is the world is out to get me. And I'm constantly looking for the smallest threat because I need to react to it. 

Emma Shackleton  2:37  

And that's really what hyper vigilance is all about. And you can see hyper vigilance in schools. It's those children who I always think of them a bit like Meow cats. So their heads are up. They're constantly scanning the room. They're looking around, they're checking out threats or potential threats. They're listening in on conversations, and they know exactly where everybody is, and what everybody is doing all the time. hyper vigilance is basically a survival strategy where we scan the environment to help us to register a possible threat early enough to do something about them. The aim of this behaviour is to be alert to dangers so that we can confront them or avoid them. So that's back to fight or flight. And then we can stay alive, linked to hyper vigilance, many trauma sufferers are intently focused on the now. So they live in this moment, and they are alert to their present situation. So they find it really difficult to reflect on the past or even to project into the future. Staying alive now is their number one priority. 

Simon Currigan  3:44  

And of course, all of this to some level is unconscious, it's going on under the hood the kids aren't consciously aware of this is what I'm doing. This is happening subconsciously. This is their body, keeping them alive without them knowing about it. Another impact of toxic stress in the long term is a decreased reward response, which lowers your ability to experience joy or rewards, or indeed learn about cause and effect action and consequence. And that's because your brain starts producing so much dopamine when an experience happens to you. And Dopamine is a chemical that allows you to link I did X so y happened. So again, that's another interesting impact of toxic stress in the long term. 

Emma Shackleton  4:24  

So what we see then, is children who we think are overreacting to the slightest thing, or they become aggressive for no obvious reason, because what we perceive to be a very small event will be enough to tip them over the edge. So an example might be a child in the cloak room in the hustle and bustle of the cloak room. Somebody accidentally knocks into their bag and they feel like they have been hit and they react accordingly. So maybe they scream or they cry out or maybe they hit back because to them that Small occurrence because their senses are on high alert, it's been magnified, and it feels much bigger to them. So their reaction they feel is justified because they feel like they've matched the intensity of their reaction with the intensity of the sensation that they felt. But from our perspective, that was actually a small thing that happened. So their reaction was way over the top. Conversely, some children will do the opposite. And they kind of flatline their emotional response. So they shut down. They don't want to give too much away, they become very closed, they move less, they talk less, they look less they interact and engage less. So you can think of this as a runaway dysregulation and anxiety problem really.

Simon Currigan  5:48  

So let's have a think about what adults can do to support kids who have experienced adverse childhood experiences. Well, the first thing to realize is that research shows that everyone adults and children can benefit from neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is the process by which the brain rewires itself to react differently in different circumstances. Essentially, our children can learn to adapt and overcome those aces that have affected them in an early childhood. And it really starts with relationships. And I can't stress this enough, a strong parent child relationship has been shown to really buffer the effects of trauma and adverse childhood experiences. And that's because when the child spends time with the adult, the adult can help the child interpret and understand what happened to them, help them understand that they're safe now, and when that child begins to get upset or distressed role model what it means to regulate and help co regulate the child. For more information about this, see episode two, where we spoke to Dr. Stuart Shanker all about regulation and stress, but that parental role modeling, that parental interpretation of what's happening to them now, and what happened in the past is really important. Now, many parents won't naturally have these skills. So there are courses available that will help teach them about the impact of stress on their kids, and how to regulate and CO regulate with their child successfully. 

Emma Shackleton  7:18  

So you might be thinking, what if the parents in that child's life are unable or unavailable to develop those skills with them? While the great thing is that other adults can also act as strong role models about how to manage those emotions, and they can use techniques such as emotion coaching, for example, where children are guided to recognize, name and build strategies for coping with their emotions. Obviously, then strong relationships with adults in school are vitally important. We need to invest time in forming powerful connections. And remember, any adult can step up and do this work that could be a teacher, teaching assistant learning mentor, school counselor, you don't have to be a mental health professional to support children's mental health.

Simon Currigan  8:10  

And when you speak to young adults who have been affected by trauma and adverse childhood experiences, it's interesting because many of them will say, You know what made the difference for you. And they will say, it was a relationship with a member of staff or a teaching assistant. They weren't mental health professionals, but they just invested the time and just unlocked something in the child gave them a good bit of role modeling, good advice, and that helped the child overcome those difficulties. And of course, as adults, we need to help children identify the triggers that cause them to overreact and then learn a new response. We have to help them interpret if someone knocks you in the cloakroom, we have to help them understand that that wasn't necessarily on purpose to understand what a normal reaction you know, an average reaction to someone knocking you in the cloakroom might be to frown or something like that, you know, or say stop at a normal reaction isn't to fly in with your fists, that's an overreaction to that specific trigger. And learning those new responses with an adult in a mediated way can be really powerful. And to do this, we need to rehearse that situation over and over and over so the child's new response to the old trigger becomes automatic, creating new automatic, helpful responses and replacing the old negative responses. 

So that's just a very quick insight into how trauma can impact on a student's emotions and behaviour and some key strategies you could put in place to support them today. For more strategies and information about how adverse childhood experiences actually change the way the brain functions pop back to the original episode, episode number 35. And I'll put a direct link to that in the show notes. And of course, if you're working with children with challenging behaviour, there could also be other causes for what you're seeing in class and we've got a free download that can help It's called the SEND behaviour handbook, and it will help you link behaviours that you've seen in the classroom with possible causes like autism or ADHD or attachment. The idea here isn't for teachers to try and make a diagnosis because we're not qualified to do that. But if we can link behaviours to possible causes quickly, it means we can get the right help and get early intervention strategies in place without delay. I'll put a link to the handbook in the episode description as well. If you found today's episode helpful, please take a moment to rate and review us. It takes us 30 seconds and when you do, it prompts the algorithm to recommend school behaviour secrets to other listeners, and that helps us grow the podcast and get this information out to other teachers, school leaders and parents who would benefit from it. Thanks for listening and I look forward to seeing you next time on School Behaviour Secrets.

(This automated transcript may not be 100% accurate.)