Trauma and adverse childhood experiences

Written by: Darren Martindale | Published:
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Trauma and adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) can have a huge impact on behaviour and learning. Darren Martindale advises how we can identify these problems and offer support

Trauma is derived from the Greek, meaning wound. But of course, not all wounds are physical. Psychological trauma (as distinct from physical trauma) can be defined as a type of damage to the mind that occurs as a result of a severely distressing event.

Not all stress is bad and we have built-in mechanisms to help us cope. Also, the experience of traumatic events, and reactions to them, can vary greatly from person to person – not all who have experienced a traumatic event will be traumatised.

Sometimes, however, negative experiences can fundamentally affect the functioning of the brain. These experiences can “live on” within the individual in a very powerful, embodied way and may be experienced as flashbacks, nightmares or repetitive, negative thoughts or feelings.

When past stresses have been too great for a person to cope with positively, their coping mechanisms can also become compromised due to neurobiological changes caused by that stress: “When we feel distress, our brains and bodies are flooded with emotional messages that trigger the question, ‘am I safe?’. We react physiologically with an agitated limbic system (the ‘emotional’ part of the brain which deals primarily with fear, rage, social bonding, playfulness) that increases blood pressure, heart rate, and respiration as the levels of the hormones cortisol and adrenaline increase in our bodies.” (Desautels, 2016)

A common term is toxic stress. This is where the constant activation of the body’s stress response systems, due to chronic or traumatic experiences and/or the absence of stable, caring relationships with adults, becomes toxic to brain architecture.

A critical point for teachers is that “chronic activation of the fear response can damage those parts of the brain responsible for cognition and learning” (Desautels, 2016). Connections in the brain are reduced and lost through toxic stress.

Research has shown that trauma and “adverse childhood experiences” (ACEs) can be particularly impactful when they occur in the very early stages of a child’s development – namely the first three years when the brain is making those critical connections at a frenetic rate (Bush, 2017; NSPCC, 2017).

There are a variety of experiences that can have such an effect on a child, such as abuse, loss and bereavement, parental drug or alcohol misuse, and domestic violence (to name just a few).

In affecting the brain’s cognitive processes, trauma can make critical thinking and problem-solving more difficult and emotional outbursts more likely. This can leave someone overwhelmed by feelings such as anxiety, isolation, rejection, anger or fear.

So trauma, understandably, can undermine a person’s ability to cope with a range of challenges – emotionally, cognitively and physically. Needless, to say, when a child has experienced trauma in such a way, it can have a profound impact on their ability to cope, engage and learn in the classroom.

A key point here is the importance of connections between emotion, social functioning and decision-making.

Researchers have suggested that “the aspects of cognition that we recruit most heavily in schools, namely learning, attention, memory, decision-making and social functioning, are both profoundly affected by and subsumed within the processes of emotion” (Immordino-Yang & Damasio, 2007).

Understanding attachment theory

Early childhood trauma is often considered in close connection with attachment theory. In 1969, the psychologist John Bowlby defined attachment as: “The deep and enduring emotional bond that connects one person to another across time and space.”

Attachment theory emphasises the importance of the earliest and most fundamental relationship between a baby and its primary care-giver (most often the mother) as setting a critical model for that emotional bond. When a baby has had its needs properly met, it helps to set a positive blueprint (or “internal working model”) which the child will take forward into future relationships and life generally.

When typical parents are observed with their babies, there is a kind of dance that is often seen – the concept of “serve and return”. For example, the baby sends out a signal such as a sound or movement (the serve) and the care-giver responds (the return). Each of these patterns of behaviour strengthens their bond and the positive circuitry in the infant’s brain. As the care-giver responds sensitively to the needs of the child (bringing relief when they are distressed, for example), a reciprocal process is established and a secure attachment is made.

Unfortunately, the reverse can also occur. When children do not receive healthy connections in early development, the brain rewires and adapts just as readily to unhealthy environments. So, if brain development is disrupted by adversity at any age (but especially in the very early stages), or if a child did not receive the stimulation and nurture that they needed for healthy development and attachment, they may walk into school with a deep mistrust of adults. Lacking resilience and self-esteem, they may then respond negatively to any form of challenge.

Attachment patterns are helpful structures to interpret why a child might be doing what he/she is doing now. The model is not intended as a “diagnosis”, but as a tool to provide a framework for thinking about the best way to support children.

Luckily for educators, brains are very plastic – children can relearn. Also, young people are at a developing stage until age 18 to 20, which presents schools with good opportunities to help to rerun and repair that attachment cycle.

These pupils have a right to a quality education as much as every other child, but they clearly require a different approach than many of their class mates. So, which strategies should help to build their resilience so they can manage, learn and thrive?

Strategies in school

I came across a fascinating article about schools in New Orleans recently. Children in this state screen positive for post-traumatic stress disorder at more than three times the national rate. Up to half of all young people have dealt with homicide in some way, with 20 per cent actually witnessing murder; 40 per cent of children are living below the poverty line.

The strict, assertive discipline model that most New Orleans schools had been practising for some time was not working. So, five schools formed a collective to develop more trauma-informed practice, investing heavily in support for the social and emotional wellbeing of their students.

Teachers were trained to recognise the signs and symptoms of trauma, and they start most days with a social and emotional learning curriculum for their classes. Social workers and counsellors hold one-on-one sessions with students who need someone to talk to. Teachers can send disruptive students to a room called the “wellness centre” for a meditative time-out that is not supposed to be punishment.

Crucially, these schools avoid exclusion as a sanction for disruptive behaviour. As a National Public Radio broadcast reported in May 2017: “If students fight, they first work it out through group discussion. Kids who act up or shut down get extra support, not detention or suspension like they used to. The idea is to tend to life troubles at school, instead of sending kids home.” (Falk & Troeh, 2017)

These schools provided curricular opportunities to develop the changes they wanted to see in their pupils, and it can be useful to identify exactly what those changes are. In children with complex needs, they are often to:

  • Respond positively to adults and peers.
  • Comply to reasonable requests.
  • Hold a positive (though realistic) view of themselves.
  • Develop a sense of their own identity.
  • Understand their own wants, actions, feelings.
  • Accept responsibility for their actions.
  • Negotiate with others and solve issues without confrontation.
  • Manage their anger appropriately.
  • Comply to social (and school) norms and understand the world around them.

But how do we get there? Going back to fundamentals, many of the approaches that can be helpful are about helping children to feel safe and secure. When a traumatised or attachment-disordered child becomes overwhelmed they will often “dysregulate”. This means that they lose the ability to regulate their emotions, often meaning that they “kick off” in some alarming way. The range of responses is often described as “flight-flight-freeze”.

However, there are various other possible responses. “Attachment behaviour” can result in avoidance or resistance to a task, for example, or they may become overly familiar, exhibiting very “clingy” or dependant behaviour toward their teacher or other “attachment figure”. Broadly speaking, this is because, with a working model of the world as a dangerous and untrustworthy place, they feel threatened. Essentially, they are trying to survive.

So, we must prime these children for learning by helping them to feel secure. This requires a whole school response, with many factors coming into play: school ethos and behaviour policies, staff skills and knowledge, how staff-pupil relationships are managed, how the physical space of the school is used. A school which is attachment-aware and trauma-informed is likely to have:

  • Respect for all pupils regardless of skill or ability.
  • A building which is safe and adequately supervised at all times, with identified spaces that pupils can go to for “time-out” or for reassurance when they are struggling.
  • Sensitivity to the messages conveyed by disruptive behaviour, which means staff who are trained to spot and appropriately respond to those messages. “Emotion coaching” is a good example of an emotionally intelligent behaviour management strategy rooted in this kind of awareness. Restorative practice is another approach that can help to embed the right kind of ethos and practice throughout the school.
  • Predictable, reliable routines. Pupils with these kinds of difficulties can struggle with change and transition. Any significant changes (a change in teacher, class, curriculum or school) should be prepared for well in advance.
  • A quick response to absence.
  • Consistent rules and expectations – clearly communicated – framed around keeping pupils, staff and the building safe.
  • Familiar long-term relationships – the child feels “known”. The availability of one trusted, consistent adult is a well-known cornerstone of attachment-aware schools.
  • Informed reflection about incidents rather than reactivity. ABC charts (antecedents, behaviour, consequences) can be a useful tool for breaking incidents down analytically, diffusing the emotion that can cloud judgement, and reflecting on patterns or trends in behaviour.
  • So, school leaders, what does this mean for your school and staff? It is likely to mean:
  • Strong leaders who listen to all staff and who can be relied upon for consistent, available support.
  • Respect for the physical comfort of staff – a well-kept staffroom as a symbolic secure base!
  • A space and time to reflect on difficulties when they arise, rather than just react.
  • Mutual support across the whole staff group.
  • A common language and skill-set for understanding and managing pupils’ behaviour.
  • Peer-to-peer support – a regular forum to enable staff to review their learning and on-going challenges in a reliable and supportive group.
  • Evidence-based approaches, and continual monitoring and evaluation of their effectiveness.

On a more direct level, there are various other tools which schools have found to be useful in supporting individual pupils, such as visual reminders of the day ahead or sensory input resources like “therabands”, sand, putty/tack or other fiddle toys, all creating opportunities for pupils to make choices and experience responsibility (even in small ways) and positive reinforcement (but do not overdo it too soon – they may find praise very difficult to take). Calming activities such as yoga or mindfulness and physical movement programmes which focus on gross motor skills and spatial and body awareness can also be effective.

Positive learning relationships

Within a model of inclusive, attachment-aware practice, we soon recognise the critical importance of a positive, teacher-pupil relationship. Relationships build brains, and are particularly vital when supporting pupils with attachment or trauma-related difficulties, which is why various relational approaches are highlighted above.

A case in point: to be able to engage in learning, a pupil needs to be able to take risks, try new things and face new challenges. A good learner needs to be able to manage their frustration and anxiety, ask for help when needed, and not be paralysed by fear of failure. A good teacher-pupil relationship can be fundamental to the development of that resilience.

Geddes (2006) points out how epistemic trust can be fostered through the “fluid dynamic” of the teacher-pupil relationship: “Each relates to the other in a way that fosters curiosity and supports the uncertainty that can be created by the challenges of ‘not knowing’ which is at the heart of all learning.”
Positive attachment relationships, therefore, have a direct bearing on children’s capacity to succeed.

Of course, it would be a mistake to assume that “difficult” behaviour is always related to trauma or attachment. There are plenty of other factors which attachment theory does not account for. It is also possible to mistake behaviours as being attachment-related when they are rooted in other conditions, such as autistic spectrum disorder (ASD).

Reactive attachment behaviour and ASD can look very similar, but they come from different places (trauma does not cause autism) and so effective responses can be different. Both may have difficulty in distinguishing between fiction and reality, for example, but in different ways and for different reasons. Both can experience difficulties in making and maintaining relationships, but again for different reasons and so would need different support.

If a school is uncertain about the causes of such behaviours, they should engage their educational psychologist for further support and advice.
Clearly, a diversity of approaches are required, when supporting pupils who really struggle with behaviour and social or emotional wellbeing.

However, attachment and trauma awareness should be a necessity for all schools. By approaching a traumatised child with empathy, seeking to understand the causes of behaviour and putting pupil wellbeing at the heart of what they do, schools can be reassured that they are on the right path.SecEd

  • Darren Martindale is service manager: vulnerable learners – encompassing the role of the virtual school head – at City of Wolverhampton Council. Read his previous articles at http://bit.ly/2p0yq8X

Further information & resources

  • Seven ways to calm a young brain in trauma, Lori Desautels, Edutopia, October 2016: https://edut.to/2xDbNw0
  • Addressing Adversity, Bush (ed), YoungMinds & NHS, 2017: http://bit.ly/33mL7O9
  • How a child’s brain develops through early experiences, NSPCC YouTube video, March 2017: http://bit.ly/2YUcUWK
  • Aces too High is an American website hosting research about ACEs: https://acestoohigh.com/
  • Attachment in the Classroom, Geddes, Worth Publishing, 2006.
  • When schools meet trauma with understanding, not discipline, Falk & Troeh, nprEd, May 2017: https://n.pr/2yWe0CW


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