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Understanding Complex Trauma: A Guide for Supporting Student Wellbeing and Learning


“You can take the child out of the trauma,
but it is much more difficult to take the trauma out of the child”
Dave Ziegler
 
“When our stress response systems are constantly turned on with little or no time for repair and recovery, our brains and bodies are hijacked by a brain state that produces chronic amounts of cortisol and adrenaline which can shut off areas of the brain responsible for learning, emotional regulation, attention, and working memory.”
Lori Desautels & Michael McKnight

“The resilience research is very clear.  We have the power and opportunity to change the direction of the lives of the children and youth we serve.”
Lori Desautels & Michael McKnight

 

Teaching in today’s world is complex and complicated with educators needing to balance the curriculum and the emotional needs of their students, especially students impacted by adversity and complex trauma. What’s complex trauma? This term refers to repeated, prolonged, or cumulative traumatic experiences, often occurring within the child's caregiving system and involving interpersonal relationships. These experiences can have far reaching impacts, including in school.  For teachers and school staff, understanding the impact of complex trauma is essential in creating a safe and nurturing learning environment in which children can have healing experiences, engage in learning, and experience success.


In this blog, written for teachers, early childhood educators, and other school staff, I will explore what complex trauma is and how it can affect students, providing practical strategies to effectively support student wellbeing and learning. 


Before we start though it’s important to note that children are not defined by their experiences of trauma.  They are more than what has happened to them.  And not all children who have experienced complex trauma will show all of the difficulties I will outline. 


This blog isn’t a checklist, it’s a broad understanding of a range of difficulties children can experience and the purpose of the blog is to support education staff to understand their students and the best way to respond to them.  It’s not a checklist because of the individual nature of each person’s experience and context, including protective factors such as other positive relationships in their lives.  Also, know that young people will have held on to things they hold dear and developed a deeper knowledge of what and who matters to them and what they hope for their life despite what they have been through and despite what they might let you see. 


I have met many incredible young people with experiences of trauma who continue to show up in their lives against the odds, and who show strength, resilience and competency.  Life at school can take a huge positive turn when people shift perspective from seeing them as kids with bad behaviour to acknowledging the impact of stress and adversity on behaviour and learning.  This shift in perspective helps develop relationships that are healing and facilitate the essential sense of felt safety.  Relationships are key and knowledge helps relationships.


“Trauma aware education is grounded on the premise that – whilst the very plastic or malleable nature of the child or adolescent brain leave young people quite vulnerable to the neural, health, and mental health impacts of trauma – there is also great hope, as neural repair can be achieved through informed and consistent practice to address harm.”
Judith Howard


Before you read any further know this, there is always hope and possibility of change and positive development.  This is because of “plasticy” of the brain; the remarkable ability of the brain to reorganize and adapt by forming new neural connections and modifying existing ones in response to learning, experience, and changes in the environment.  Just as traumatic events can forge neural pathways, so can positive and constructive experiences that are repeated over time, and this means that you can make a difference by the way you interact with your student, giving them experiences that help forge new pathways.


“The more healthy relationships a child has, the more likely he will be to recover
from trauma and thrive. Relationships are the agent of change and
the most powerful therapy is human love.”
Bruce Perry
 
“It is also important not to underestimate the value of students being exposed to adults – their teachers and other staff members – who model appropriate  relationships and who treat them with respect and kindness."
Tom Brunzell & Jacolyn Norrish

 


The purpose of understanding the impact of complex trauma is to help you support your students with compassion and connection, and the very act of relating to them this way is just one of the things that will be helping to positively “rewire the brain”.  And then there’s the flow on effect for engagement in the classroom, learning, and a positively altered future trajectory.

 

“As educators, the more we know about who we teach, the more effective we will be with what we teach.  Taking time to get to know our students isn’t fluff time, it’s academic time.”
Dr Justin Tarte

 

What is Complex Trauma? Complex trauma refers to prolonged and repeated exposure to traumatic events, often occurring within relationships where the person has little to no control. These events can range from neglect, abuse, and loss of caregivers, to witnessing violence. Such experiences can significantly impact a child's psychological, emotional, and social development.


How Complex Trauma Impacts Children:

Complex trauma can manifest in various ways, affecting different aspects of a child's life within the classroom and playground setting. It's important for educators to recognize these signs and respond with sensitivity and appropriate support. While school staff are not therapists, everyday interactions have the potential to be healing.



 Brain Development: Complex trauma can interfere with healthy brain development, particularly the areas responsible for emotional regulation, memory, and learning, because the brain develops to suit its conditions and if those conditions required a focus on survival the brain will prioritize safety and survival.  This might manifest in the classroom as difficulties in focusing, impulsivity, emotional dysregulation and not learning from cause-effect reasoning because the brain is focused on staying safe rather than learning, and the central nervous system is at a higher resting state ready to spring into action for survival.  This might be hard to understand because you know you are a safe person and your classroom is safe, but brains that grow up in survival mode can take longer than you expect to develop relationships and “felt safety”.


Children who have experienced complex trauma might struggle with memory and information retention. For instance, a student might have difficulty remembering instructions or details from previous lessons, making it challenging to keep up with classwork and requiring more scaffolding.  Children who have experienced trauma can also seem to be quite disorganised: forgetting things, leaving belongings lying around, not paying attention to things others tell them, and difficulty structuring their work to complete tasks, and they will need respectful reminders. 


It’s also important to note that a child’s chronological age may not be a true indicator of their development in certain areas, and it can be helpful to make decisions and responses based on emotional age – especially when young people are heightened emotionally and when responding to challenging behaviours and relationship seeking.  The reason for this is that when experiencing trauma, the brain is more focused toward threat and survival than the type of development you’d see in kids who have not experienced trauma.


Keep in mind though that due to plasticity, which continues through the teen years and beyond, you can support your student’s learning and development, literally rewiring brains.  Remember as Dave Zeigler says “There is always hope for change!”    



Emotional Responses: Children who have experienced complex trauma may have difficultly recognising and expressing emotions, exhibit heightened emotional responses, swinging between anger, fear, people pleasing and withdrawal. Triggers from the past can lead to emotional outbursts that may seem disproportionate to the situation.  Imagine a child who witnessed domestic violence in their home. In the classroom, they might become extremely anxious or frightened when raised voices or arguments occur, even if they're not directly involved. Their heightened emotional response might cause them to withdraw from the situation or become visibly distressed or agitated.


“The regulation of behaviour and emotions do not come naturally after trauma
and must be taught”
Dave Zeigler

This means that emotion coaching to help with learning to identify and manage emotions, together with co-regulation will be helpful.



Trust, Attachment & Relationships: Trust and relationship issues are common among people who have experienced complex trauma because past relationships have taught them that others aren’t trustworthy and may abandon or hurt them. Children who have experienced complex trauma often have not learnt how to safely or appropriate engage in relationships and others may seem threatening or potentially harmful to them. They may never have been taught by their primary caregiver how to trust others, have a reciprocal relationship, or have had relationships that model and teach empathy.  They may struggle to form secure relationships with adults or peers, often because they may consciously or unconsciously anticipate betrayal or abandonment.  This could lead to limited friendships, disconnection, social isolation, indiscriminate relationships, problems with boundaries, distrust, fluid friendships, or difficulty collaborating effectively on group projects.


It’s also important to know that children who have experienced abuse and/or neglect can have difficulties with interpersonal situations. E.g., they may mis-interpret non-verbals such as facial expression & tone of voice, be hyper vigilant to anger directed to them, and have a different experience to other children of exactly the same scenario.


Children who have mostly experienced abuse (rather than neglect) can interpret neutral expression as anger.  Children who have predominantly experienced neglect (rather than abuse) can generally not know what facial expressions mean but make a negative interpretation because their brain has been primed to look for risk in order to survive.  This means it is really important for adults to consider non-verbals in connection and discipline, being careful with facial expression, body posture and voice to show signs of safety.  Research has shown that children who have experienced abuse have a heightened physiological response to an angry face, and that once this response is triggered, they do not easily dampen it down; instead, they take this affective response into their next learning task or class.


Learning and Academic Performance: Trauma can affect a child's ability to concentrate and retain information, potentially leading to learning difficulties or a decline in academic performance.  This makes sense when you think about a brain that’s wired for survival – that child may be preoccupied with what is happening in the classroom around them, who walks past the door and how they might appear to others.  We call this hypervigilance, and it can really get in the way of engaging in learning because the split attention will create struggles with focus and task completion. 


Issues related to intrusive thoughts and memories can also impact learning because of the distress associated with the thoughts and the shift in focus to safety rather than concentrating and engaging in learning activities. Additionally, if nightmares are causing sleep problems, the student will be tired in class which will impact learning.  The student might have difficulty concentrating in class or completing assignments due to their tendency to get easily distracted. 


In terms of learning it can also be confusing for adults when kids have “patchy development”.  Some kids will seem to have advanced development in “street smarts” while they have delayed development in other areas e.g., academic, problem solving, self regulation, memory.  This can make it confusing as to what you can expect from the child, but again it makes sense if we remember that brains wire for survival.  The young person may not have well developed academic skills as their brain has prioritized survival skills, and they will need support to develop. 

 

Language: Children who have experienced complex trauma have a greater risk of delayed language abilities, especially receptive and expressive language.  This has significant impacts for children for both learning and relationships.


“Symptoms may be related to producing and understanding language but appear to adults as non-compliance, inattentiveness or social withdrawal.” 
Howlin & Rutter, 1987

Here’s how trauma impacts receptive Language:

  1. Children exposed to complex trauma might struggle with processing and understanding language due to the constant state of hyperarousal or hypervigilance.

  2. Complex trauma can interfere with the development of the brain areas responsible for processing auditory information and language comprehension, leading to challenges in understanding instructions, conversations, and academic content.

  3. They may be great at light chit chat but find it difficult to focus on and get the gist of what is said in conversations and in class and require more scaffolding, repetition, and visual cues (delivered with kindness and compassion).

 

Here’s how trauma impacts expressive Language:

  1. Children with complex trauma might have difficulties expressing themselves verbally. They might still be developing the vocabulary and language skills necessary to effectively communicate their thoughts, emotions, and needs.

  2. The trauma might lead to self-regulation difficulties. Having words for emotions is critical in managing emotions and a lack of emotional language and understanding can sometimes show up as children communicating with “their hands and feet” or "spicy words".

  3. They may find it difficult to express emotions and get their meaning across in logical order, and even be misunderstood as lying, and require more scaffolding, repetition, and visual cues (delivered with kindness and compassion).

 

 

These language difficulties can show up in the classroom in different ways, including:

Academic Performance:

  • Language difficulties stemming from complex trauma can hinder a child's ability to engage with academic content. This can affect their reading comprehension, ability to follow instructions, and participation in classroom discussions.

  • Poor receptive language skills might make it challenging for the child to understand lessons, leading to academic struggles. Social Interaction:

  • Language plays a crucial role in social interactions. Children with language deficits due to complex trauma might find it hard to initiate conversations, make friends, or interpret social cues accurately.  They may find it easier to hang out with younger peers.

  • These difficulties can lead to feelings of isolation and lower self-esteem, impacting their overall social development and school experience.


Behavioural Challenges:

  • Children who can't effectively communicate their feelings or needs may have behavioural outbursts as a way of expressing their frustration or distress.

  • Teachers might misinterpret these behaviours as intentional defiance rather than recognizing them as a response to the child's stress and current communication limitations.


Learning Gaps:

  • Over time, language deficits can contribute to learning gaps, making it increasingly challenging for the child to keep up with their peers in terms of academic and cognitive development.

 


Behavioural Challenges: Children with complex trauma may display challenging behaviours because often they live in a state of fight/flight/freeze and seek control in their environment in order to feel at ease and safe.  Behavioural challenges can include aggression, defiance, or withdrawal, which can be because their life was so fearful that they only had themself to rely on to feel safe or they are so used to chaotic world. These behaviours can be a way to cope with overwhelming emotions. 


Consider a student who has experienced multiple caregivers due to foster care placement changes. This child might exhibit disruptive behaviours in the classroom as a way of testing the teacher's willingness to stick around or as a reflection of their struggle with trusting authority figures.  They may also have a high need for control as so many aspects of their life have been taken away and are out of their control e.g., being removed from parent’s, not having regular contact with family, not having a say in changing schools etc.  This means they may unconsciously try to find other avenues of control such as whether or not to follow their teacher’s directions.


They may also engage in defensive behaviours such as lying or stealing as they are unconsciously driven to meet their own needs and protect themselves because in the past adults haven’t met their needs or kept them safe.


Self-Image, Self-Esteem & Self Efficacy: Trauma can erode a child's sense of self, causing them to doubt their abilities and worthiness and leading to poor self-image and low self-esteem and self efficacy. They might believe they're not smart enough or deserving of success, leading them to avoid participating in class discussions or feeling reluctant to take on academic challenges.


They may have developed a negative “internal working model” that they are unlovable, unworthy and bad because developmentally children can’t perspective take that bad things happen in the world and they so they attribute the bad things to themself.   They may develop a poor knowledge of self and their abilities and difficulty acknowledging their strengths. It can feel like they are “Teflon” when you offer a compliment because it “slides right off” rather than sinking in.  That’s because the compliment might not fit with their internal view of themself and you will need to find ways to help the student compliment themselves instead e.g., asking “how do you do that?” when they’ve achieved something.  In answering the question, the student will overt their own competency and this is a great way to help with developing a preferred identity.

 


Practical Tips for Supporting Children with Complex Trauma:

Create a Safe Environment: Establish a classroom atmosphere that promotes emotional safety and respect. Consistent routines, clear boundaries, and a non-judgmental approach can help students feel secure.  Children who have experienced complex trauma can take longer than you think to feel safe, even when they are “physically safe” with you in your classroom. 


Emotional safety involves things like having a sense of belonging, being cared about and providing a relationship that is predictable, reliable, and stable, and that sees and values the student as a person. 

Separating the behaviour from the student helps with safety, e.g., Instead of saying “You’re being silly” or “You are so disorganized” say something like “In this class we do ____” or “I see you need help with ___” and make sure to deliver this with warmth and care avoiding non-verbals and voice tone that trigger a sense of danger.  Unfortunately abuse/neglect impacts the way children see themselves and others and so developing a feeling of emotional safety can be harder than it seems. 


Practice Sensitivity: Be attuned to emotional cues and changes in behaviour. Approach students with empathy and understanding, without pushing them to share their traumatic experiences.  Remember the way you interact with students in your day to day role is healing in itself.


Emotional Regulation Techniques: Practice co-regulation and when you can and engage in and teach self-regulation strategies such as deep breathing, mindfulness exercises, rhythmic breaks, movement breaks, visualization, or "calm corners"/"Zen zones" to help students manage their emotions. Doing this as a whole class is great for everyone and reduces a sense of stigma for a particular student.  As a whole class activity, it is “normalized” which is great because we do all have sensory needs.


Strengthening Relationships: Foster positive connections with students through mentalizing their experience, having one-on-one interactions, showing genuine interest, being patient as they learn to trust, and not taking trauma driven behaviours and words personally.


Flexible Learning: Recognize that traditional classroom approaches might not work for all children who have experienced trauma. Offer flexibility in assignments, assessment methods, and provide alternatives for participation.


Explicit Instruction: Provide additional scaffolding with the use of explicit instruction techniques, visual aids, and hands-on activities to support children's comprehension of academic material. 


Provide Choice:  Where possible provide appropriate structured choices to meet the young person’s need for control, and offer choices with warmth, creativity, and humour to avoid power battles. 


Collaboration: Work closely with School Counsellors, Guidance Officers, School Health Nurses, and Mental Health professionals to create personalized support plans for students impacted by trauma.


Respect: It is important to challenge the child’s negative perception of others by both gaining and giving respect.  Respect is gained by being safe, consistent, clear, unruffled, firm, smart & sure of yourself.  The child needs to feel your confidence in yourself.  Show respect by modelling how you would like the child to act with respect, compassion and kindness and don’t allow the child to draw you into their negative world or become reactive to them.  Always look after yourself so that you have the energy to be the bigger person.


Manage Your Own Emotions:  Emotions are contagious especially in situations of stress and pressure, and when young people have a heightened nervous system from experiences of trauma.  A focus on looking after yourself and managing your feelings and reactions to situations in the school will really help because calm is also contagious and staying calm will help the young person calm themself. 


Trauma-Informed Training: Advocate for trauma-informed training for all school staff to create a cohesive approach in supporting students with complex trauma.


Understanding complex trauma is crucial for educators and school staff to effectively support children who have experienced such challenges. By creating a safe and empathetic learning environment and employing strategies that address the specific needs of students, educators can play a significant role in helping these young people heal, learn, and thrive academically, emotionally, and relationally. Your dedication to understanding and supporting these students can make a lasting positive impact on their lives.


It's also important to hold in mind that each student is a unique, amazing individual who is not defined by their past experiences of trauma and who will benefit from you getting to know their uniqueness and helping them grow into the best version of themselves. 


It’s a lot to juggle but it matters. 


Thank you for the amazing work that you do.

 

Leonie :)

Dr Leonie White - Clinical Family Therapist and Psychologist

Helping people grow, connect and thrive in life’s unique journey.

 

For more in depth information with an education focus I recommend these resources/references:

 

Brunzell, T. & Norrish, J. (2021).  Creating Trauma-Informed, Strengths-Based Classrooms.  Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

 

 Desautels, L. & McKnight, M. (2019).  Eyes are Never Quite: Listening Beneath the Behaviours of our Most Troubled Students.  Wyatt-Mackenzie Publishing.

 

Howard, J. (2022).  Trauma-Aware Education: Essential Information and Guidance for Educators, Education Sites and Education Systems.  Australian Academic Press Group Pty Ltd.

 

Wilson, D. E. (2023).  The Polyvagal Path to Joyful Learning: Transforming Classrooms one Nervous System at a Time.  Norton Professional Books.


For more information on the impacts of trauma I recommend this reference/resource:

Perry, B. & Winfrey, O. (2022). What Happened to You? Conversations on Trauma, Resilience and Healing. Pan Macmillan: UK.

 

And there are great resources available from the Australian Childhood Foundation

Beacon House

And Dave Zeigler

 


Please note - this article is educational in nature and does not constitute therapy advice. 

Please seek help from a professional if you require support. 


 Photo Attributions:

Photos from Vecteezy Pro & Canva Pro

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