What Happened to You? Trauma-informed Behaviour Support in Schools

Prevent instead of punish.
A very high number of students will have experienced some kind of trauma.

Schools today are grappling with many complex social issues which can impact negatively on student wellbeing and achievement. Parents and the wider community are rightly concerned about bullying, perceptions of pervasive disrespect and aggression, and other anti-social behaviours. Meanwhile, teachers worry about student welfare and the effects of mental health conditions and exposure to trauma on learning and achievement.  

What is trauma?
Simple trauma refers to the impact of a single traumatic event that lasts a short time and involves a one-off crisis, such as witnessing an accident or experiencing the death of a loved one. Complex trauma refers to the impact from experiencing multiple or ongoing adverse events, such as neglect, bullying, or physical and emotional abuse. When complex trauma affects young children, it is sometimes referred to as developmental trauma because of its negative impact on brain development. The extreme stress caused by exposure to traumatic events or experiences overwhelms a person’s ability to cope with everyday situations.  

Trauma and behaviour in schools
Research shows that many students have experienced trauma, and our schools are becoming increasingly aware of the harmful effects of trauma on students’ ability to engage positively at school. It has been suggested that childhood trauma affects around five million Australian adults. It is therefore reasonable to assume that most classrooms will contain one or more students who are impacted by complex trauma. Students who have experienced developmental trauma are more likely to present with challenging behaviours, which may be externalising (acting out) or internalising (withdrawing or experiencing negative feelings). These behaviours are often adaptive, and perform a needed function for students.  

There are some behavioural signs which may indicate that a student has been affected by complex trauma, such as:

  • Excessive arguing
  • Tiredness
  • Becoming angry over apparently small things
  • Lashing out at others
  • Complaints about aches or feeling unwell
  • Hiding or running away
  • Daydreaming
  • Task avoidance
  • Disengagement
  • Difficulty getting on with peers.

However, it is important to note that not all behavioural issues are a result of trauma. Likewise, many students exposed to adversity show great resilience and will have developed many coping strategies. Adults, including teachers, therefore have a responsibility to respond to behaviours of concern predictably and respectfully. We need to consider that there may be hidden reasons for the behaviour and avoid reacting emotionally or taking the behaviour personally.  

What works
The high prevalence of trauma among school-aged children underlines the importance of taking a whole-school approach, which recognises that all students will benefit from a positive and supportive school environment. Students who have experienced trauma need to feel safe and secure. Schools therefore need to develop a safe and predictable school environment, with consistent and positive behavioural supports in place. Building positive relationships, taking a strengths-based approach, teaching social-emotional skills, using proactive classroom management practices, being culturally responsive and responding to behaviours respectfully and consistently are all important school-wide strategies. 

Many schools are looking for programs and resources to address behavioural concerns, while politicians and other commentators often call for zero tolerance approaches to challenging behaviours in an attempt to make schools safer and calmer. However, building positive learning environments is a long haul, not a quick fix. Schools need to proactively support student behaviour, just as the public health approach to COVID-19 means going into the community with vaccinations, hygiene recommendations and public health announcements, instead of waiting for people to be rushed to emergency rooms with respiratory failure. Getting tougher on anti-social behaviour or suspending students from school may make schools feel like they are doing something, but such approaches have been shown to be ineffective, with long term negative impacts. The hard work of prevention is an ongoing effort. It’s time to start acting in a more comprehensive and compassionate manner to prevent instead of punish.

Lorna Hepburn will be presenting at the Diverse Learners Symposium, 5 & 6 August 2022 at the Brisbane Convention & Exhibition Centre