Childhood Trauma and Its Negative Effects on the Child's Development

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Complex childhood trauma is currently suffered by numerous students in Primary schools around the world. It usually commences in the early years of a child’s life, when they are exposed to pervasive and traumatic events causing severe impacts that will continue to disrupt a number of aspects of the child’s future development. This will likely cause negative effects on their intellectual and social development, drastically affecting their behaviour and learning. School systems and educators must understand the negative impact that complex childhood trauma has on a student’s school attendance, behavior and learning. It is imperative for educators to adopt trauma-aware practices into their classrooms in order to create an inclusive and positive learning environment to assist the intellectual and social development of students who are suffering.

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Early life experiences, negative or positive, have different impacts on the developing brain of a child (Hardcastle et al., 2018). Recent neuroscience research has provided a framework to understand the relational and behavioural difficulties that these students face, and why common methods of behavioural management are ineffective. It proves that creating a caring and supportive educator-student bond has the ability to enhance the neurological function and behavioral outcomes of complex trauma victims (Masten, 2016). Forming this type of relationship gives the student a sense of emotional security and safety. Furthermore, promoting the development and reinforcement of neural pathways, enhancing the student’s connection with empathy for others (Howard, 2018). Recent neurological studies have found that children who have been a victim of complex childhood trauma, can miss out on the important environmental and social activity that is vital in stimulating healthy and adaptive neurological development (Masten, 2016). As this rapid stage of development is vital, if neural growth of the child suffers during this time, it will likely have a negative effect on their emotional, social, and behavioural outcomes going into adolescence and possibly adulthood (Howard, 2018). Childhood trauma has the largest impact on the brainstem which optimizes human survival through the peripheral nervous system and the sympathetic nervous system. One of its main functions is the protective mechanism that it produces, commonly known as fight, flight, or freeze (Howard, 18). When the body perceives a threat, the sympathetic nervous system initiates the fight, flight or freeze response. Everyone has a window of tolerance for their fight or flight response, and for students who have suffered from trauma have a narrow window, therefore, less tolerant of threats before they respond. For students who have previously been a victim of trauma, the body will respond to perceived threats at school, even if the threat doesn’t exist. This is because their sympathetic nervous system has adapted to the feelings of being unsafe, inflicting anxiety and stress. If school systems and educators are aware of the effect of trauma on the brain, a whole school approach, using trauma-aware practices like mindfulness, can be utilized in the classroom to ensure the recovery, nurturing and promoting of neural development for students suffering.

Complex trauma has a large effect on the limbic system that contains the amygdala, responsible human emotion, attachment and relating. During the early years of childhood, parents and caregivers are a child’s main source of safety and security (Perry, Pollard, Blakely, Baker & Vigilante, 1995). Unfortunately, parents or caregivers are generally the ones to inflict neglect, violence or sexual abuse, causing the child to suffer from such insecure attachment (Andersen et al., 2008; Dannlowski et al., 2012; McCrory, De Brito, & Viding, 2011; Riem, Alink, Out, Van Ijzendoorn, & Bakermans-Kranenburg, 2015). When such trauma is inflicted on the child, the attachment between child and caregiver is broken, it causes fear and confusion. When students are robbed of the ‘secure base’ from their caregiver, they develop issues concerning a lack of confidence to explore new relationships. When these students attend school, a place that is meant to be safe, they do not. This negatively effects their ability to engage in learning processes, leaving them cognitively underdeveloped, and often need a ‘safe haven’. When students are young, they long for protection and safety from someone that they can trust, or someone to co-regulate their emotions when they become stressed or anxious, When students do not have a ‘secure base’ and cannot control a situation on their own, they will often respond with the fight, flight or freeze response. Students with such a narrow window of tolerance, do not have the engaging mindset to learn, becoming easily distracted. A study showed that children who have suffered from trauma, are likely to develop mental illnesses in adolescence such as depression, anxiety, and struggle in social environments due to the poor development of their limbic system as a child (Romano, Babchishin, Marquis 7 Frèchette, 2014). Such social skills like empathy and loyalty are often delayed, resulting in isolation and the inability to form friendships at school. These students will often disassociate from peers, and resisting closeness, which can have a detrimental effect on their engagement in learning and further social development if not nurtured and assisted by educators (Andersen et al., 2008; Dannlowski et al., 2012; McCrory, De Brito, & Viding, 2011; Riem, Alink, Out, Van Ijzendoorn, & Bakermans-Kranenburg, 2015)

Recently within the education system, schools have focused the support and education of social, emotional and mental health only with troublesome students or those with lower abilities. Creating a whole school approach will ensure that mental health and well-being will be of relevance to all students and teachers. A whole school approach to trauma aware practices would provide a clear and practical way for schools to promote social and emotional education to ensure the health and wellbeing of the students who attend. Educators must understand that promoting and educating mental, emotional and social health will not take away from academic learning, but support it (Weare, 2000). A whole school trauma-aware approach is similar to a multi-tiered framework, focusing on incorporating key assumptions and principles. The approach should realise the impact of trauma and the ways to recover, recognise and assess symptoms of students and others involved, responds by integrating knowledge of trauma into strategies and practices, seeks to actively resist re-traumatization of the student (SAMHSA, 2014). An example of a successful whole- school trauma-aware approach is the Healthy Environments and Response to Trauma in Schools (HEARTS) program that has been implemented in several elementary schools in San Francisco. It is a whole-school program that promotes school success for student who have been impacted by trauma and those who haven’t. It involves a response to intervention three tier framework providing supports system, adult and student levels on each tier (Maynard, Farina & Dell, 2017). The first tier is universal consultation, providing teachers with professional development of trauma awareness, second tier involves targeted consultations of teachers to develop behaviour plans and strategies to address complex trauma. The third tier includes on site mental health assessment and treatments to students and families that are suffering (Maynard, Farina & Dell, 2017). Whole school approaches can be adjusted and implemented differently based on the characteristics of the students.

For teachers, following a trauma-aware practice means putting student’s wellbeing at the core of everything they do. To create a trauma-aware environment, they must have the ability to assess and recognise students that are suffering and implement strategies to create a positive space for students, whilst encouraging appropriate behavior, regular school attendance, and engagement during learning processes. Trauma-aware practices in schooling, has the potential to address a number of the long-term, negative impacts of complex trauma, assisting the recovery of many victims.    

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