Helping traumatised children with concentration and memory

November 9, 2015

By Psychologist Alison Soutter, Psych4Schools Guest Blogger

Children who worry about what might happen when they get home or who are having flashbacks to terrible events from the past can understandably find it difficult to learn. The effects of trauma (which can include frightening thoughts or flashbacks) can undermine children’s concentration, memory, organisation, language development, ability to form relationships and get along with others.

Some children of these children experience chaotic home lives. Predictable routines and consistent adult role models at school will generally help most children to feel safe. Many will respond well to classrooms in which there are orderly transitions, clear rules, and where teachers sensitively and patiently help them organise their tasks. However some children may find school routines, which impose order more difficult than other children.

Being successful at school depends partially on the child’s ability to bring order to their work and daily experience. Traumatic experiences can inhibit the ability to organise material sequentially, leading to difficulty with reading, writing, and answering questions.

Sequential memory is essential in developing the ability to organise yourself and your materials. Traditionally, parents help children to develop sequential memory through reminiscing and teaching them songs and nursery rhymes. Children who are coping with trauma have often missed this learning experience.

Teachers can help students to experience success in their learning by helping them to improve sequential memory.  Strategies include:Help with memory

  • Teaching the class how to remember a times table ‘anchor’ like knowing 6X6 = 36, so you can quickly work out 6X5=30, or 6X7=42.
  • Reciting poetry (which can give some students a sense of achievement because they often learn poems more quickly than the teacher), and then learning to read and write the poem.
  • Asking students what they learned yesterday about a particular topic and building the narrative through accepting every contribution.
  • Asking or reminding students for one or two things they learned that day before leaving the classroom as a memory prompt for the next day.

If the child seems distracted…

Some children who have experienced traumatic events will have flashbacks   (vivid, intrusive memories which they may experience as reliving the traumatic event) while others may be distracted because of fears for their own and others’ safety that may dominate their thoughts.  As a result, they can miss what is going on in the classroom and appear to be daydreaming, but targeted distractions can bring them back on task.

  • If a young child is distracted it may be helpful to begin a quick clapping game or other physical movement or rhythmic activity to bring their attention back to the class.
  • For older students, permission for a short time out with the opportunity to listen to a song via headphone or drawing or doodling on a special notebook, may be enough to help them to refocus and then return to the task.

It can be difficult to teach children who have experienced trauma, and this does appear to be a concern for some children in most classrooms these days. Providing respectful and responsive teaching focusing on strengths, encouraging effort, and the setting of achievable and meaningful challenges are worthy goals for all children but in particular for those coping with trauma.

When children are succeeding, teachers raise their expectations. Having high expectations is especially important in achieving better outcomes for the most vulnerable children. High teacher expectations in the early years of primary school and beyond can have a lasting effect throughout schooling because of the effects on children’sself-efficacy and the way others view them.

To effectively and sensitively teach traumatised children it is important to work together as a staff recognising the difficulties and supporting each other in the belief that all children can learn.

Alison Soutter is an experienced Educational Psychologist and a member of the Psychology Board of Australia Examination Committee. She can be contacted at