How Trauma Impacts On Pupil Behaviour (And How Teachers Can Help)

How Trauma Impacts On Pupil Behaviour (And How Teachers Can Help)

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If you're working with a child who has difficulty regulating their emotions, over-reacts to situations, or finds it hard to concentrate, then it might be they were affected by early trauma in their life.

In this episode, we explore how adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) actually change the way the brain functions, resulting in highly anxious or dysregulated pupils. And, of course, we cover concrete strategies you can start using to support pupils affected by trauma in your classroom.

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Show notes / transcription

Emma Shackleton  0:00  

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.

Simon Currigan  0:15  

Hi there. My name is Simon Currigan and welcome to Episode 35 of school behaviour secrets. This is the episode where we take our core value of lowbrow and really start to run with it. And if it makes you feel better, we feel just as conflicted making it as you do listening to it. As ever. I'm joined by my co host, Emma Shackleton. Hi, Emma.

Emma Shackleton  1:15  

Hi there, Simon.

Simon Currigan  1:16  

And this week, I thought I'd mix things up a bit and start with a question, Emma, have you ever had an accident that's put you off engaging in an activity you enjoy?

Emma Shackleton  1:26  

Actually I have Simon when I was about 12 or 13 years old, I was having a snowball fight with my friends. And as I bent down to scoop up some fresh snow to ball up there was glass on the ground. So I cut my finger. It wasn't a really bad cut. But it did bleed for a couple of minutes. And understandably that's made me really wary of picking up snow now. What about you, Simon has anything like that ever happened to you? 

Simon Currigan  1:52  

Well, I was around your house and you offered me a homemade lemon, Lucky pop. And I had stomach aches for a week. But now that's all starting to come together and make sense.

Emma Shackleton  2:01  

All right, enough of this. What's the link this week?

Simon Currigan  2:04  

Well, we're gonna look at the impact of trauma or adverse childhood experiences on children's ability to regulate their emotions. And that usually starts with a scary experience or experiences that changes the way the child perceives the world and can actually change the way their brain is wired. So if you're teaching kids who are hyper vigilant, can't focus, suddenly become aggressive for no apparent reason, then this episode could well be relevant to you. 

Emma Shackleton  2:30  

But before we get to that, I've got a quick request to make please, if you're listening to this right now, could you open your podcast app and use the share button to share this episode with three friends or colleagues who you think might find this information useful. That means they and the children in their care can get the help and support they need to make progress in their classrooms.

Simon Currigan  2:53  

So let's climb gingerly into the cold water of the swimming pool and renounce the elegant front crawl breaststroke, and butterflies of the other swimmers and flail enthusiastically instead, in the madness of this energy inefficient doggy paddle we call behaviour.

Emma Shackleton  3:09  

Okay, then let's start by taking a look at trauma so that we can begin to consider the impact on children's emotions and behaviour. So Simon, what is a trauma?

Simon Currigan  3:21  

Well, a trauma is an event or a situation that exceeds your ability to cope with it. That usually has a long term emotional impact, that the coping part of that equation is important. There's two parts to a traumatic event, there's the external thing that happened to us. And then there's the internal response to it. So two people can experience the same event and come out very, very differently. One person might walk down a dark alleyway and get mugged by a gang in the alleyway. And that event might affect them for a very long time, they might be very wary of leaving the house, they might feel threatened and targeted. Another person can walk down the same alleyway get mugged and attacked by the same gang. But they have a different set of coping skills just because of the way genetics works. And they didn't take that attack personally, and the effect on them isn't so long lasting. Our ability to cope. And the event that happened you put those two together, and that affects the kind of trauma we experience. Interestingly, you might have heard of PTSD, which is post traumatic stress disorder. That's where you might hear about veterans coming back from wars abroad, having seen terrible things and having long term psychological difficulty with it. The flip side of that is post traumatic growth, which is where something bad happens to us, but actually we grow and develop from it and the people who experienced that describe that as a positive experience. So a trauma is an event or a situation that exceeds your ability to cope and that coping is an important part of that equation.

Emma Shackleton  4:47  

And you might sometimes hear childhood traumas referred to as aces and aces stands for Adverse Childhood Experiences catalogued examples of aces. Things like physical or sexual abuse, neglect, children who witnessed domestic violence, or who are living in a household with substance abuse, for example, but also the effects of poverty, parental separation or bereavement. And having a parent in prison, these are all known childhood ACE's.

Simon Currigan  5:21  

And those ACE's in the long term are likely to turn on the child stress response. So when we're talking about stress, here, we're thinking about anything that happens to the child that's likely to move them from a low energy to a high energy state, and we're thinking about them becoming more stressed and moving towards the fight flight or freeze mechanism. There are basically three types of stress we can experience there's EUstress spelt E-U-S-T-R-E-S-S, not as in 'You stress' the word, and that's positive stress that brings out the best in us, we will experience you stress whether you've been working on a project for a week or two. And that short term stress really focuses the mind and helps you achieve great things. Then there's short term stress, which helps us deal with an immediate threat that might only run for 10 or 20 minutes, you know, escaping from a Sabre toothed tiger, that sort of thing if we were cavemen and then we've got toxic stress, which is long term stress, which has an entirely different impact on us.

Emma Shackleton  6:17  

Okay, so the stress response is typically categorised by three main responses, we've got fight, we've got flight, and we've got freeze. In the fight response, we are triggered by the stressful event. And our body is flooded with adrenaline and noradrenaline, which prepares us to fight that threat, we are ready in our body and minds to focus on the threat and fight it off for our survival. That's typically referred to as the anger response. That's the fight response. a different response that's triggered in the same way is the flight response where our instinct here instead of staying and fighting, the threat is to get away. So we will run away as fast as we can, we will hide we will flee the situation in order to save our lives. And then finally, we've also got the freeze response. And this is a bit like when you see a rabbit caught in the headlights. In children in school, you'll see a freeze response sometimes where a child maybe has been asked a question and they don't know the answer, and they feel under pressure, and they will literally freeze. So they'll stay very still, they might be quite wide eyed. They might avoid eye contact, they might look away, they just shut down, they don't engage with the stressor. So that's the fight flight or freeze response. And don't forget, this response is entirely instinctive and can't be turned off. This is how humans have survived. It's an automatic response, you can't switch it off. And actually in the short term, it's good for us, because it keeps us alive. The problems come when the stress response stays switched on. So we stay on alert over a long period of time.

Simon Currigan  8:03  

So a simple explanation of the two states might be we've got a caveman meets a Sabre toothed tiger, he's got a short term situation he has to deal with, it's gonna last about 20 minutes he's going to fight that Tiger or he's going to run away. And then after that event finishes, the high stress state is going to subside is going to return to sort of normal running in terms of his body chemistry. Toxic stress is when as Emma said that's left on for a long time that stress response that will be the equivalent of living with the Sabre toothed Tiger day after day after day. So some children might experience a traumatic event, maybe a dog chases them, and they have that experience of stress. But then the dog moves on or the you know, they managed to get away from it and then they managed to calm down. And that's a one off event that was in the short term. If you're living with domestic violence, if you're living with physical or sexual abuse that goes on day after day after day, what happens is you're going to be stuck in that long term stressful state and experienced toxic stress and this is not good. That response in the long term needs your body producing loads of stress chemicals like cortisol, which have been shown to lead to poor health outcomes, it damages your body's immune system, it leads to poor emotional outcomes. So this is not a good place to be because it damages your development and damages your ability to cope in the long term. 

Emma Shackleton  9:24  

And actually there are many studies that show that children who experienced childhood ACE's have really detrimental long term physical and mental effects. For example, children with aces are more likely to engage in drug or alcohol abuse, they're more likely to take up smoking they are more likely to become obese, become depressed or even attempt suicide and they're also more likely to contract diabetes or heart disease. This can start before birth. So multiple studies have linked high levels of maternal cortisol  to lower verbal IQ scores in children, meaning that some children are affected by trauma even before they are born.

Simon Currigan  10:08  

I'd just like to take a pause for a moment and say that if you're finding this podcast useful, then you're going to love what we've got waiting for you in our inner circle programme. The inner circle is your one stop shop for all things behaviour. It's a comprehensive platform filled with videos resources on behaviour inspiration to get you unstuck with classroom behaviour. We've got training resources on de escalation, supporting kids with anxiety support strategies for conditions like autism, ADHD, and PDA. practical ways of helping pupils deal with strong emotions, assertive behaviour management techniques for managing the whole classroom, setting out your classroom environment for success, resetting behaviour with tricky classes, and more. Our online videos walk you through practical solutions step by step, just like Netflix, you can turn an inner circle subscription on or off whenever you need to, with no minimum contract Plus, you can now get your first seven days of inner circle for just one pound. Get the behaviour answers and you've been looking for today with inner circle, visit And click on the inner circle picture near the top of the homepage for more information. 

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 its like your regulation system gets stuck. So your body moves to the 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 come 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 that 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  12:27  

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 meerkats, 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 possible threats 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  13:33  

But 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 consequences. That's because your brain stops producing so much dopamine when 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  14:13  

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 cloakroom. In the hustle and bustle of the cloakroom, 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 runaway dysregulation and anxiety problem really.

Simon Currigan  15:37  

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 realise 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 ACE's 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 modelling 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  17:08  

So you might be thinking, What if the parents in that child's life are unable or unavailable to develop those skills with them? Well, 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 recognise 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 counsellor, you don't have to be a mental health professional to support children's mental health.

Simon Currigan  18:00  

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 modelling 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, will say stop it, 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

Emma Shackleton  19:15  

And teaching mindfulness has also been shown to be effective for many sufferers of trauma. Mindfulness concentrates on focusing on the experiences of this moment. And this actually fits in really well with the way that many trauma survivors operate. So it might serve them well as a strategy. Mindfulness fosters an awareness of sensations in the present moment where they are safe. So things like simple grounding techniques can be really helpful. And so can connecting the breath and the awareness of the sensors because this actively calmed the body's stress response.

Simon Currigan  19:53  

So that's a quick guide on how trauma can impact on students emotions and behaviour and useful strategies for supporting them in The future

Emma Shackleton  20:00  

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.

Simon Currigan  20:11  

It's called the SEN handbook and it will help you link behaviours you've seen in the classroom with possible causes like autism, ADHD, or attachment. The idea here isn't for teachers to make a diagnosis, 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. It's a free download, go to, click on the free resources tab near the top and you will find a link near the top of the page. I'll also put a link in the episode description

Emma Shackleton  20:43  

Next week we've got an interview with Leah Kuypers, author of the Zones of Regulation books and resources that have sold over 100,000 copies worldwide. So if you're interested in the topic of helping children understand and regulate their emotions, which links really well with today's episode, this is an episode that you won't want to miss.

Simon Currigan  21:05  

There are two ways of making sure you don't miss that interview. The first is to create an invisibility potion made from, you know, forest ingredients, drink it deep, and then creep into behaviour towers after dark where you sneak the audio file off my laptop before making good your escape. And to be honest in that scenario, if it's just the audio file of next week's podcast you take from my laptop, and other more niche media I've collected. I probably dodged a bullet there. Or you could open your podcast app right now hit the subscribe button or the Follow button as it's called in Apple podcasts and your app will automatically download it for you so you don't miss a thing. 

Emma Shackleton  21:39  

That's all we've got time for today. Remember, share this episode with three friends or colleagues who would benefit from the information we've covered and help improve the lives of other teachers and children in their classrooms. Thank you. Until next time, I hope you have a brilliant week. Bye for now.

Simon Currigan  21:56  


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