Traumatised children can undergo a variety of behavioural changes that can be challenging to manage in a school setting. Amanda Harris, Psychologist and Director of the Australian Child & Adolescent Trauma, Loss & Grief Network, discusses ways health professionals can work together with school staff to support trauma-affected children and their families. 

What events might lead to trauma in primary-age children?

When thinking about events that may have a traumatic impact on children, it is really important to consider the types of experiences that overwhelm an individual child’s ability to cope and what they perceive as traumatic. This can include a range of different events. Some of these events may be a single incident, like a car accident, the death of a parent or loved one, a traumatic medical procedure, or a natural disaster, such as a bushfire, flood or cyclone. Children may also experience complex traumas, which are usually repeated or multiple events that are severe and interpersonal, and can include abuse, neglect and being exposed to domestic violence.

What behaviours in school-age children might indicate they have experienced trauma?

There are a range of behaviours that we may see in school-age children who have experienced a traumatic event. And many of these behaviours may have kept a child safe in difficult times, especially where they have undergone complex trauma.

Children may:

  • have difficulties concentrating in class

  • have difficulties with memory

  • have difficulties with organisation

  • be more disruptive and less able to follow instructions (especially when multiple tasks are given)

  • seem hypervigilant or always very alert and easily stimulated

  • be more withdrawn and quiet (which can sometimes mean that they are overlooked)

  • have emotional outbursts, going from calm to very emotional in a short space of time

  • have difficulties in their relationships with others (having conflict with or finding it difficult to trust school staff and other children).

Children who have experienced trauma do not deliberately set out to be disruptive or ‘difficult’ in classrooms. It is the impact of the trauma on the child, emotionally and developmentally, which leads to a wide range of behaviours.

How can health professionals best support school staff working with a traumatised child? 

It is really important for all school staff to know about the impact that trauma has on children, but this doesn’t mean that they need to become therapists for kids. Health professionals can be really effective in helping school staff learn about the effects of trauma and how they can come across in the school environment.

Professionals can also promote safe and caring relationships within schools as being supportive for all children’s mental health, but especially beneficial to kids who have experienced trauma. Ultimately, health professionals can assist school staff to:

  • be aware of the potential impact on learning and put supports in place to enhance learning

  • develop positive ways to respond to difficult behaviours in the classroom

  • provide support through social and emotional wellbeing programs

  • be aware that the child could develop a mental health difficulty (such as anxiety or depression) and ensure appropriate referrals are made to clinicians

  • above all, work with a child to recognise and encourage their strengths.

What can professionals do to support schools that have experienced a traumatic local event?

We know that helping children to return to the normal rhythms of life after a traumatic event in the community can be a key way to help restore their sense of safety, so children should be encouraged to return to school as soon as possible. Health professionals can support schools to be sensitive and mindful of the impact that the event has had on children, and help them adopt strategies within classrooms that re-engage children in learning.

Children may want to spend some time talking about the traumatic event, and this is okay as long as there are some boundaries, such as limiting the time that it can be spoken about and being aware of details that may be distressing for other children. A professional can be a very important advisor in this area, and can even be involved in classroom discussions, if appropriate. They can also help incorporate mindfulness activities and ‘brain breaks’ into the classroom that can help children to settle down to learn, become more energised, and better able to engage with schoolwork.

How can health professionals help schools support families dealing with trauma?

Schools can best support families by helping them to become trauma-informed. Health professionals can be an effective source of support in working with staff to develop awareness strategies and even materials to send home to families. Sometimes, families are not aware of the impact that trauma can have on children, and may have difficulties in understanding their child’s behaviour after an event. Having go-to clinical support within the school is invaluable in these circumstances, especially if the child and family require further care.

Schools are inclined to build relationships with families after a trauma, as we know that keeping families engaged with schools has so many positive benefits for children educationally, emotionally and socially. Involving a health professional in the dynamic can help boost the quality of these developing relationships. I was lucky enough to visit a school, recently, where teachers made a phone call once a term to the parents of each child in their class to tell them something positive that their child had done. This small act enabled teachers to reach out to engage parents in the school community, celebrate the strengths of the child, and enhance relationships between children and their families.

See our KidsMatter video resource for schools on understanding trauma.