Working with Children and Young People in School

Introduction

Early experiences of trauma, loss, and adversity can have direct impacts on children’s brain development, behaviour, coping skills, and learning. Understanding the sequence of brain development is crucial for addressing how these factors manifest in the classroom.

Brain Development and School

Our brains develop sequentially, from the bottom to the top:

  1. The Brain Stem:
    • Develops first and is responsible for essential survival functions like heart rate and body temperature. Known as the ‘survival brain,’ it constantly looks for danger cues to ensure safety.
  2. The Limbic Brain:
    • Develops subsequent, including the hippocampus and amygdala, and is vital for attachment and emotional regulation.
  3. The Cortical Brain:
    • The last to develop involves higher-order thinking skills such as learning, language, rational thought, problem-solving, and cognitive memory.

What This Can Look Like in the Classroom

Children who have experienced early childhood trauma may exhibit various behaviours and challenges:

  • Difficulties processing new information, planning, organising, and completing tasks
  • Difficulties with transitions, loss, and change
  • Outbursts of anger or distress in response to small events
  • Rule-breaking and defiant behaviours
  • Poor social connections and social skills
  • Shutting down/zoning out frequently
  • Poor academic progress
  • Restlessness, fidgeting, and poor concentration
  • Lying, stealing, or hoarding
  • Over-dependence on adults

Survival Mode in the Classroom

Children who have experienced trauma often spend more time in the lower parts of the brain, known as ‘survival mode.’ During survival, the lower brain disconnects from the higher brain areas, hindering their ability to reflect, understand, process information, or learn.

Strategies for Supporting Children in the Classroom

  • Create a Safe Classroom:
    • Ensure the classroom is predictable, organised, and has clearly stated and reasonable expectations. This predictability helps children navigate their school day with confidence and a sense of safety.
  • Provide Safe Spaces:
    • Offer a safe space within the classroom where children can regain emotional control and safety.
  • Co-Regulate:
    • Verbalise and model regulation strategies, such as deep breathing, pacing, and blowing bubbles, to help dysregulated children throughout the day.
  • Movement and Sensory Breaks:
    • Incorporate opportunities for movement, sensory, and play breaks to help children release stress and promote regulation.
  • Music and Dancing:
    • Use soothing, rhythmic music as a brainstem-calming activity. Allow individual students to listen to music privately using headphones if necessary.

The 3 R’s: Regulate, Relate, Reason

Dr. Bruce Perry’s 3 R’s provide a sequence of engagement to allow regulation and connection before attempting to reach the learning part of the brain. This technique can be utilised in the classroom to provide a relational response to challenging behaviours.

  1. Regulate:
    • Help children identify their feelings and provide validation and reassurance.
    • Be mindful of tone, volume, and body language when connecting with children, as they are often susceptible to non-verbal communication.
    • Create opportunities for confidential feelings check-ins instead of publicly displayed behaviour charts.
    • Acknowledge good decisions and choices.
  2. Relate:
    • Develop a calm and sensitive dialogue around concerning behaviours.
    • Ensure statements about consequences are clear, natural, and designed to repair any damage to relationships or property, rather than unrelated punishments.
    • When providing consequences, try giving something back instead of taking it away to avoid exacerbating children’s feelings of loss.
    • Utilise social stories to describe various situations, outline different perspectives, and offer simple choices for resolving problems in the future.

Conclusion

Understanding the impact of trauma on brain development and behaviour is crucial for effectively supporting children and young people in school. By creating safe, predictable environments and using strategies that promote regulation and connection, educators can help children navigate their emotions and experiences, fostering a positive and conducive learning atmosphere.