Teaching traumatised children

January 31, 2015

By Psychologist Alison Soutter, Psych4Schools Guest Blogger

A trauma is a psychologically distressing event that overwhelms a person’s coping ability and convinces them they are about to experience serious injury or death. It can undermine a person’s trust in the world and have ongoing effects. In most classrooms there are children who are suffering from the effects of trauma. These traumas may be from single events such as motor vehicle accidents or they may be the result of complex repeated traumatic events associated with growing up in a household with domestic violence or abuse.

The effects of trauma vary according to the context. Children who experience a traumatic event and are supported by caring family members are more likely to recover than those who experience ongoing trauma perpetrated by a caregiver.  

Ongoing trauma has a profound effect on behaviour and learning. The areas of functioning that are most affected are:

  • Language – receptive language is often poor, so teachers should use simple sentences, and one-step instructions. Traumatised children are often unable to respond to a complex request such as ‘Open your book at page 27 and do exercises 1-5.’ They can open their books to the required page but then need further instruction. They also usually have poor pragmatic language skills so they do not know how to ask for what they need, and will need to be taught and encouraged to ask specific help seeking-questions.
  • Concentration – flashbacks may often interrupt the child’s concentration. This is beyond their control. It is not day dreaming. Being patient and using a gentle prompt may assist re-engagement.
  • Memory – most children are taught how to remember facts by their parents and caregivers. Memory is a cultural tool of thought. Traumatised children have not had a chance to learn the skill but teaching them to use mnemonics and rehearsal can be effective. Ongoing traumatic events can also impact on their ability to retain information learnt during the school day.
  • Social skills – traumatised children find it difficult to trust so they do not know how to make friends. They can have difficulties playing with others because they are too tense. Specifically teaching play skills in the playground has a positive effect on classroom learning because play makes school more enjoyable.
  • Emotional regulation – trauma can change the brain so that it is constantly alert to possible threats. Children who have never been soothed by their parents do not learn how to self-soothe. They may misinterpret ordinary situations as threatening and erupt. Their ‘explosions’ might appear to have no trigger. The more the school supports the safety of children and prevents bullying and harassment the calmer traumatised children are likely to be.

School can be a safe and predictable place for children coming from a violent or chaotic home. Teachers may be the only functioning adults in a traumatised child’s world. A teacher should never underestimate the value of the positive relationships they have with students.

When a teacher gives a traumatised child a quiet smile or a high five they might as well be sprinkling them with gold dust.  For traumatised children who believe they are worthless, a teacher’s kindness can challenge their worldview and put them on the path to achievement.

Trauma-sensitive school environments benefit all children—those whose trauma history is known, those whose trauma will never be clearly identified, and those who may be impacted by their traumatised classmates.

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

Note from Psych4Schools 

For teachers who teach students who have or may have experienced a trauma or traumatic events in their lives can seek further Psych4Schools advice and practical strategies by Strengthening relationships with emotionally ‘needy’ students.  To help make your school more trauma-sensitive see Psych4Schools Strengthen the classroom and the wider school environment for further ideas and strategies.

If a child informs you of violence or abuse or you form a belief that violence or abuse is occurring at home, ensure you follow the mandated legal obligations to report it to relevant authorities. Some schools may have policies and procedures to assist you with reporting the abuse. If a child has informed you of any abuse, it is your duty to make a formal notification as required by law. For further assistance see Psych4Schools Reporting child abuse for teachers.

Children are more at risk of developing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) if they have been exposed to more than one trauma, if the trauma was life-threatening, if they were physically close to the trauma, if they have a close relationship with trauma victims or perpetrators (such as a parent or sibling), or if they have limited social support following the trauma.

See further advice and strategies to support the child suffering from PTSD see Psych4Schools Working with children diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).