The pandemic has increased the economic, social and psychological pressures on children, writes Dr Catriona O'Toole, Department of Education
Whether resulting from poverty, discrimination, bereavement or trauma like abuse, neglect or violence, childhood adversity is common and the effects can be devastating.
Internationally, it is estimated that roughly 60% of children have exposure to some type of traumatic event and existing data within Ireland shows that trauma is a reality for far too many children.
The emergence of Covid-19 has increased the economic, social and psychological pressures on children. Ireland has reported increased cases of domestic violence and surges in alcohol misuse within family homes, all places children and young people at higher risk of exposure to violence, neglect and abuse.
Schools have a vital role in supporting children and young people through this time of crisis. Forthcoming research shows that the pandemic and resulting school closures have had an enormous impact on the wellbeing of students, teachers and the wider community.
Speaking to educators after the first lockdown, we found that they were deeply engaged and devoted to the students and families they worked with. They reported many challenges for students including isolation, worry, loneliness, self-harm and suicide.
Some had concerns that their students would be lured into criminal gangs. Many were very concerned for students living in challenging circumstances, including asylum seeking children living in Direct Provision and other marginalised groups.
It is clear from research that schools are more than just places offering intellectual stimulation. They are often a sanctuary and a lifeline for students, offering safety, predictability and routine. It is also evident, now more than ever, that schools need resources to be able to support traumatised children.
Anyone who has experienced a traumatic event knows that emotional trauma hurts. When we experience threat or danger, the body's stress response system kicks into action, initiating a complex cascade of biological changes, which enables us to run or fight for our lives (the fight or flight response) or causes the body to shut down (the freeze response).
But trauma doesn't end when the danger has passed. Unprocessed trauma is held in the body and experienced as viscerally painful, gut-wrenching physical sensations, distressing emotions, and vivid or fragmented sensory memories.
Trauma fills us with a deep sense of dread, shame, self-blame, sadness and despair. Following trauma, our relationships are often marked by disconnection and alienation.
Sometimes children manage to bury the painful memories, but they may still carry (faulty) core beliefs that they are inherently bad, unlovable or worthless. They may feel other people cannot be trusted, or that the world is a dangerous and hostile place.
In school, children who have experienced trauma may appear angry and disruptive, spaced-out and inattentive, confused and disengaged. These responses to trauma may seem bizarre or incomprehensible to those who do not understand how trauma and adversity impact mind, body and behaviour.
They often cause children to get into trouble, as staff misinterpret them as wilful defiance, a lack of respect or downright laziness. The reality is that these trauma responses are rooted in deep emotional pain.
In recent decades, we have advanced our understanding of trauma and of the conditions that foster healing and transformation. We know that the single most important factor in healing from trauma is having a good network of support. Traumatised children recover in the context of relationships with significant others in their communities – relationships characterised by safety, trust and reciprocity. Schools are vital in this regard.
Trauma-informed practice is a strengths-based approach based on knowledge and understanding of how trauma affects people's lives. It is centred on six core principles: safety, trustworthiness, choice, collaboration, empowerment, and respect for diversity.
In essence, being trauma-informed means being aware that the experience of trauma is a very real possibility; it is about creating environments that foster a felt sense of safety; understanding the effects of trauma on the whole person, recognising that challenging behaviours actually reflect courageous attempts to cope with trauma. Trauma-informed practice is about maximising a sense of agency by offering choices, collaborating and supporting, whilst being attuned and responsive to cultural, historical, and gender issues.
Understanding and responding to what happens when children are exposed to traumatic experiences is a basic requirement of a healthy school and society
There are a growing number of schools in Ireland and elsewhere that are progressing toward becoming trauma-informed. Teachers in these schools work collaboratively, making adjustments to school pedagogy, policies and practices. They seek to build school cultures marked by compassion and connection, where both students and adults feel safe and enjoy each other's company. Trauma-informed schools support students to regulate overwhelming feelings and emotions, and they adopt restorative and respectful approaches to school discipline.
Throughout Covid-19 lockdowns, teachers have worked hard finding new and imaginative ways of maintaining contact with students and families, including those most marginalised in society. Rather than go back to the way things were, we have the opportunity to 'build back better’. Understanding and adequately responding to what happens when children are exposed to traumatic experiences is a basic requirement of a healthy school and society. As schools reopen, educators will need resources to support students impacted by trauma, and to support each other, as part of broader educational equality endeavours.
Also Listen: RTÉ Brainstorm, how to deal with traumatic events with Ella McSweeney and guests Mark Maguire and Orla Muldoon