Supporting students with experiences of trauma

Author: Tracy Godfroy
Published: 18/08/2020

It is likely that the population of any class will have a multitude of individual learning needs, cultural differences, varied emotional landscapes and levels of psychological resilience – all of which you need to consider, while also teaching a lesson.

However, we also know that 10% of all children have a mental health problem, based on data from the Mental Health Foundation. Some of these students will be able to access mainstream education with good attendance throughout their most difficult times while others may have very sporadic attendance due to complex and dynamic issues in their home lives.

At the most extreme end of the continuum, you may be expected to teach young people who either have or are currently experiencing a great deal of chaos in their home lives. They may be experiencing symptoms of complex trauma that have arisen from abuse, neglect and traumatic historical experiences. Some students will currently be in a state of turmoil or chaos as they experience changes in caregiver or multiple placement moves. Some students may be well cared for in their home lives and may currently have a sense of stability or permanence but the legacy of earlier traumatic experiences may be overwhelming and ever present in daily interactions.

It is important for us to learn from the field of neuroscience that students cannot easily retain knowledge or access their creativity if they are in a state of emotional dysregulation. Students who have experienced complex trauma or are currently experiencing difficulties in their home setting may well be in a heightened state of emotional arousal, tense, under stress, anxious, irritable, fearful, etc. It may be difficult for them to calm and soothe themselves enough to be able to concentrate on their learning.

At such times, a variety of acting out behaviours may emerge, depending on how they typically cope under pressure. In the classroom you may see tricky to manage behaviours such as poor concentration or listening skills, distracted or distracting behaviours, irritability, low self-esteem, interrupting, fidgeting, quiet or withdrawn presentation. The primary task for teaching staff then becomes about helping the student to manage their feelings (and associated behaviours) of emotional dysregulation, in order that they may then be able to focus on their learning. 

It is also paramount that teaching staff report, with clarity and strength, any observed concerns to the appropriate designated colleague in the school (line manager or designated safeguarding lead) in order that specialist intervention can be sourced or recommended.   

As young people are facing unprecedented pressures in their lives, it is vital that teachers have an awareness of mental health issues and tools for developing and aiding emotional resilience in students. You can find further information here:

My resource Handling complex trauma in the classroom includes suggestions for how to communicate with affected students and manage lesson openings and endings sensitively. 

Tracy Godfroy

Tracy Godfroy is a child psychotherapist and clinical supervisor who has 20 years’ experience of working with children and adolescents who have experienced complex trauma, abuse and neglect.