Trauma informed approach in schools

What is trauma?

According to Wilson & Sigman, Preventing PTSD in trauma survivors, 2000, trauma can be broken down into seven categories:

  1. Threat to life

  2. Severe physical harm or injury

  3. Receipt of intentional injury or harm

  4. Exposure to violence or the loss of a loved one

  5. Learning of violence to a loved one

  6. Exposure to a noxious agent

  7. Causing death or severe harm to another

Although all of these trauma events happen externally to us, they are quickly absorbed by our mind and body and can have significant mental and physical effects. In particular, psychological trauma can be described as an intense feeling of fear, helplessness and loss of control.

Children can respond quite differently to a traumatic event compared to an adult, and will often develop ‘survivor behaviours’ to help them survive this extreme stress. This often includes fighting, running away, substance abuse, shutting down, self-harm, eating disorders etc.

What is a trauma-informed approach?

Recent major public health studies have highlighted the impact that childhood adversity can have on long-term mental and physical health.

A trauma informed school is one that supports children and young people who have suffered trauma or mental health issues (in particular trauma, abuse, neglect and mental health or attachment issues), whose resulting behaviour acts as a barrier to learning. A trauma informed approach seeks to protect pupils, parents and staff alike, and the wellbeing of all is the highest priority.

What does a trauma informed approach look like?

There will typically be a focus on clearly defining staff and pupil roles, staff establishing themselves as safe individuals amongst pupils, creating an environment of respect, enabling pupils to make informed choices about their education, connecting pupils with appropriate internal and external resources and people, talking slowly and calmly whilst minimising body movements and using music, movement and exercise to reduces traumatic responses in the brain.

It is important to note at this stage of the article that working with traumatised pupils can be overwhelming for staff too, and so learning to manage personal and professional stress is vital to the success of the trauma informed approach. Staff are actively encouraged to recognise their limits, take time out or seek professional help when needed, plus seek support from co-workers, family and friends.

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