This might seem like the start of an odd opinion from someone who is currently trialling a more trauma-informed model of education in a prison, recently spoke on a podcast called the "Trauma-informed Educators Network" and spends her spare time reading research on the effects of trauma on the brain and trying to apply this to educational settings. But hear me out...
Firstly, the word "trauma" has some pretty negative connotations. It's certainly not something educators should be discussing with young people, using to label young people or trying to diagnose young people with (particularly as it isn't a diagnosis!) Many of us may recognise it in our pasts; it may have been an important part of understanding things that have happened to us, but that is part of an individual journey of integrating narrative and maybe not something that should be forced onto anyone.
Secondly, it isn't a word that many educators associate with their students. Senior leaders may be loathe to invest in training for something that may be judged to affect only a tiny minority of students (although there is no objective way of knowing if that is true). It can be hard enough to convince some that their most disaffected, disengaged students are worth the investment, when exclusion, off-rolling or moves to other provisions can feel like quicker, "cleaner", more immediate wins for staff and students. The use of the word "trauma" could be a barrier to convincing a school's leadership that certain strategies are useful for many.
Trauma, particularly during the years when the brain is developing, does affect our neurobiology and consequently our behaviour; whether that is through externalising behaviours such as defiance and aggression or internalising, such as avoidance and numbing. Most trauma-informed educational initiatives encourage staff to start to understand these changes and consider their responses through a different lens. So why would we start that learning process with a language that we cannot universalise and share with the young people we work with?
One of the "hallmarks" of complex trauma (also sometimes described as developmental trauma) is a state of dysregulation. Physical dysregulation and psychological (including emotional) dysregulation. And we all experience this... it's what we describe as being STRESSED OUT! Think about the physical and psychological symptoms you experience when you are tired, hungry, ill or worried that you cannot cope with the demands of your environment. We become less logical and rational at these times because the deeper, more primitive, systems of the brain are taking over, reducing the use of our incredibly skilled cortex, which does all our executive functioning such as planning, problem solving, analysing... sounds like some stuff we would need to access new information in any educational setting. Luckily for most of us, we shift back to our cortex, sometimes using specific strategies, and recover from our stressed state.
My point is that whether a young person is in an acutely stressed state because of developmental trauma, or because their dog is terminally ill, really doesn't matter when it comes to an appropriate immediate response. A child doesn't need to be traumatised to be extremely dysregulated. And neither do we. If we all stayed in our logical, thoughtful cortices, road rage wouldn't exist and we wouldn't shout hurtful things at people who care about us. Time, help with regulation and supportive relationships will help anyone through their stress, whether adult or child. This process is frequently known as Regulate, Relate, Reason and is a sensible approach for any trauma-informed or "stress-informed" educational provision. The only difference in being aware of the effects of developmental trauma is the knowledge of how the chronic stress that they can be under can matter in ways that have a huge impact on their ability to access learning in a school environment. The state of stress for them has effectively become a trait.
We know that young people who have experienced high levels of adversity will often experience changes in their stress-response system and this is so important to understand as educators because of the hyper-vigilant state that some of our students exist in. "A person with an overactive stress-response system would pay close attention to the faces of people like teachers and classmates, where threat might lurk, but not to benign things like classroom lessons" (Perry & Szalavitz, 2008). Research has indicated changes in cortisol levels, heart rate, brain volume, and a whole other range of differences in brain structure and function. Cook (2005) did an incredible summary of the impairments caused by complex trauma and most teachers will recognise a student they have taught who has come from a disrupted or potentially unsafe background: difficulties in focusing attention, problems with boundaries, difficulties with perspective-taking, difficulty complying with rules, aggression towards others, impulsiveness... the list goes on and on (and I highly recommend looking up the seven domains of impairment that Cook published).
These are typically the young people who struggle in school, sometimes from a very young age, and statistically are more likely to get permanently excluded; they are also more likely to be in the secure estate (see the large Welsh ACEs study that showed those with 4 or more adverse childhood experiences were 20 times more likely to have been incarcerated). And we NEED trauma-informed education strategies for them but some of these are exactly the same as "stress-informed" strategies, and STRESS is a concept that young people will find far easier to grasp, talk about and most importantly it is an equaliser, which normalises those reactions for us all. It allows a more human connection and therefore enhances relationships, which are a HUGE, FUNDAMENTAL, INTEGRAL (I don't have a thesaurus, but I am trying to emphasise the point!) part of both helping someone recover from a stressed state and helping someone heal from trauma.
So I will be trialling the term "Stress-informed Education" (TM)… and am interested to see the response.
Thoughts, as always, are welcome - please send them the way of @KatStern4!
Perry, B.D. & Szalavitz, M., (2008), “The Boy Who Was Raised As A Dog: and other stories from a child psychiatrist’s notebook: what traumatized children can teach us about loss, love and healing”, New York: Basic Books
Cook, A., Spinazzola, J., Ford, J., Lanktree, C., Blaustein, M., Cloitre, M., DeRosa, R., Hubbard, R., Kagan, R., Liautaud, J., Mallah, K., Olafson, E., & van der Kolk, B. (2005). Complex Trauma in Children and Adolescents. Psychiatric Annals, 35(5), 390–398