Mental health and trauma

Mental Health, Trauma and Toxic Stress – How Can We Support Our Children?

Education Adviser, Lucie Welch, shares the significant impact of trauma on children’s development and mental health and some practical ways for schools to offer better support in this area.

Over the past 10 years, emotional health in schools has risen to the forefront of all we do. Before, it may have been a focus for specific children with specific needs, whereas now we know the true prevalence of mental health issues within our schools and children as a whole.

Trauma is something talked about in school, but what does this really mean for our children, and what can we do to support them?

Understanding Brain Development and Exposure to Toxic Stress in Children

To understand trauma and mental health, we must first understand the brain and how it works. From the moment a child is born, their brain is ready to collect learning from their surroundings and the people they encounter in their lives.

The experiences they face and the attachments they form in our early years affect the physical architecture of a child’s developing brain.

Positive interactions and life experiences allow the brain to build a secure foundation which in turn provides a future of more secure mental health and cognitive function.

As children grow, they will experience stressful times in their lives. Stresses such as starting school or undertaking exams are ‘healthy’ stresses, which help children develop resilience and create their own coping strategies for when things are tricky.

Exposure to these ‘healthy’ stresses is part of life and helps children’s brains to develop links they will use for the rest of their lives.

Toxic stress is the opposite of life’s healthy stresses and includes experiences such as abuse and neglect.

These experiences have a detrimental impact on brain development. They stop children from building this secure foundation, which in turn, encourages maladapted or dangerous coping strategies for when life gets tough.

What is Trauma?

Trauma is a term used to describe the impact of early repeated abuse, neglect, separation and adverse experiences that happens within a children’s earlier years and important relationships.

Many people are familiar with the term ‘Adverse Childhood Experiences’ (ACEs) but don’t understand that trauma is the long-term effect impact of exposure to these harmful and ‘adverse’ life experiences.

Dr Bessel Van der Kolk states in his book, The Body Keeps the Score, that Trauma is not just an event that took place sometime in the past; it is also the imprint left by that experience on mind, brain, and body.’

The Impact of Trauma on Children’s Development

When children are born, they are in a survival state – “I’m hungry, I’m cold, I’m upset”. Within healthy childhood development, those needs are met through our main caregivers, so our survival part of the brain knows that these needs will be met. This builds and becomes predictable over the first few years of a child’s life, meaning the child can then begin to ask for things they need and understands that their needs are going to be met.

Traumatised children will feel all the same things, but their needs will not be met by their caregivers or the people around them. So instead, they will ‘sit’ in that emotional state and the need remains unmet.

Due to this, they will create their own maladapted coping strategies, and over time these strategies become fixed because they work for them. For example, a child may become quiet and no longer cry because they know that no one will come to them when they do.

Over time as a child grows, the untraumatised child will begin to understand their emotions and how to best manage them themselves or through other people. In normative development, these children make use of their prefrontal cortex (the thinking part of the brain) to decide on how to best overcome a situation rather than returning to a survival state.

But the traumatised child is constantly ‘in’ those feelings and will continue to adapt their own coping strategies as this works for them.

As these children get older, they remain stuck in the emotional part of the brain and will not be able to access their prefrontal cortex, as they have not developed at the same rate and will not be in a position to make safe, rational or moral decisions. In some cases, their coping strategies may become more dangerous. For instance, the use of drugs or alcohol, violent responses or self-harm.

Supporting Children Who Have Experienced Trauma

We must understand that children can recover from trauma, and although this may be a long and difficult process, trauma can be healed. The way to do this is to provide a range of protective factors and to teach the children some safe and manageable coping strategies for when things get tough.

Having an adult to turn to can make a significant difference in the mental health outcomes of young people if they have experienced trauma.

The more adults a young person has in their life that they trust and feel safe talking to, the greater the reduction in their likelihood of developing a mental health condition. These key attachments in your settings may be the only secure attachments a child has, and therefore, they need to be effective in helping a child become more resilient and cope with their situation.

How to Talk About Childhood Trauma:

  • Take the young person’s lead.
  • Be prepared just to listen.
  • Validate their emotions.
  • Reassure that you will try to keep them safe.
  • Provide routine and stability where possible.
  • Signpost to external organisations.
  • Be patient – recovery takes time.

A trauma-informed approach understands and considers the extensive nature of trauma and promotes an environment of healing and recovery rather than practices that may inadvertently be traumatic in themselves, for example, punishment or isolation for behaviour issues.

This approach assumes that children are more likely to have experienced trauma than not, and at an organisational level, works to support children with this.

In schools and education settings, staff need to stop asking… 

What is wrong with this child?

And start asking…. 

What has happened to them?

We need to understand the lived experience of the children in our care and the impact that this has had on their lives to know how to approach teaching and learning, building confidence and working with the family.

Having this picture of what it is like in the shoes of that child, allows us to adapt our practices so that they can achieve their full potential. And this is not just about learning – but behaviour policies, supporting friendships and providing stability and routine.

Some ways in which we can support children with trauma are:

In the classroom: Around the school:
Routines and predictability – visual timetables, now and next, explained changes.

Self-regulation resources –  fidget items, breathing techniques etc.

Exit strategies in place –  allowing for removal from overwhelming or overstimulating circumstances.

Signs and signals – a way for a child to communicate their feelings without verbalising.

Focus on the positives – lots of praise for doing the right thing, encouragement and reassurance.

Alternative discipline – not a one size fits all policy which can re-traumatise.

Remain non-judgemental – remain neutral and calm. Don’t take their behaviour personally.

Provide a safe space –  somewhere to talk, self-regulate and avoid becoming overwhelmed.

Adapt transitions –  allow students to move around before/after their peers, avoid triggers.

Buddies or supporting adults – pair students up, support for triggering times.

A whole-school approach to resilience –  focus on all staff, teaching children strategies.

Team up with parents –  share approaches and messages, get parents on your side on a united front for all children.

Avoid sensory overload – neutral calm classrooms and corridors, clear rules for transitions.

Teach children about PTSD –  talk about trauma, and help children to understand what is happening.

All school staff need to understand a child’s background, and it is vital information is shared where appropriate. Many behaviours related to trauma, can mimic those of neurodiverse conditions such as ADHD or ASD and staff should be looking at the lived experience of the child to ensure that the correct adaptations can be made to allow that child to thrive.

Further Support to Address Trauma and Mental Health in Your School

Childhood trauma is not ever an excuse to ‘write off’ a child. Although it may make them more vulnerable to negative experiences in adulthood, this is not a certainty, and we should be doing all we can to help the children to overcome their trauma, so they can go on to live long, happy and safe lives.

If you need a hand creating an environment where the mental health of pupils and staff is supported effectively, take a look at our digital resources or get in touch to learn more about our consultancy services.

About the Author

Lucie WelchLucie Welch – Adviser, Services For Education

Lucie Welch has worked in the field of Primary Education for the last 15 years, holding the positions of Assistant Head of School, Designated Safeguarding Lead, Attendance Lead and Designated Teacher for Looked After Children. Through working across several local authorities and within multi-academy trusts, Lucie has garnered a passion for safeguarding and supporting children and young people to enable them to thrive.

At Services For Education, Lucie is an integral part of the Safeguarding team, sharing her expertise with schools, colleges, trusts, and other educational settings across the city of Birmingham and beyond. Dedicated to improving safeguarding practices in an actionable and impactful way, Lucie works closely with settings to provide bespoke training, supports with reflection on their own practices during Safeguarding audits and always strives to contribute to a better learning environment for all children. Through delivery of statutory training for DSLs and Safer Recruitment, Lucie works with colleagues in all age ranges and is a source of expertise within these areas.

Lucie also wears other important hats within the School Support Team. Not only is she dedicated to ensuring the safety and well-being of students through her role in safeguarding, but she also plays a key part in the PSHE/RSE and Health for Life teams. Additionally, Lucie partners with the Best Practice Network to deliver the Early Career Framework, supporting new teachers in their professional development.

Mental Health Support For Schools

Our expert advisers can provide in-school visits to deliver sessions on both staff and pupil mental health and wellbeing. We can provide bespoke training and consultancy and will work with you to understand your exact requirements.

Get in touch with us today if you’d like to discuss bespoke training for your school.

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