By CELA on 12 Nov, 2018

Sarah Riddell returns to Amplify this week to share her understanding of the causes, signs and support actions for children who have experienced some form of trauma. As Sarah says, the first thing to accept is that this is a complex area, but her guide and suggestions will simplify your professional role and this article is an excellent starting point for QIP discussions or professional development plan.

Trauma is significant

Trauma has become a significant word in the early childhood profession, and for good reason.

We increasingly understand its impact on children’s early and later development, at various levels of severity, and that means we can advocate strongly for action.

So what might be stopping us?

For one thing:  it’s easy to become overwhelmed by the amount of research now available. The greater evidence base is welcome but can make it harder to know which approach to take to assess a child’s behaviour and development.

Alternatively, you may be confident in your analysis of a child’s development and the possible links to trauma, but remain unsure what to do next.

situations surrounding death, natural disaster, violence, neglect and abuse are known to be influencers of trauma in children

A simpler description

If you’re struggling with the concept of trauma in early childhood, start by accepting that it is in fact extremely complex and multidimensional. The result of experiencing an event that was immensely threatening or stressful can go on to affect a child in many different ways.

Most educators find their understanding comes more easily easier when they see trauma as a continuum – a range of impacts that can affect the child in different ways based on factors like the nature of the trauma, the age of the child, and the time that has passed.

Trauma affects everyone differently and there are different categories of trauma. These include:

  • Primary – where a situation immediately affected a child
  • Secondary – where a child was indirectly affected by trauma
  • Complex – where a child is repeatedly exposed to or experiences traumatic events or an event that is likely to go on to affect a child’s long term development and wellbeing
  • Developmental – relating to abuse or abandonment in a child’s first years of life
  • Transgenerational – where the trauma experienced is passed to future generations along the line 

Yet, even with these categories, it is important to remember that the trauma is not always an event itself, but rather the downstream effect the traumatic event can have on emotional, social, physical and psychological development.

The situations surrounding death, natural disaster, violence, neglect and abuse are known to be influencers of trauma in children. Remember that early childhood trauma is not restricted to these ‘classic’ events, and can occur in situations around family illness or injury, community violence, home relocation and geopolitical events like refugee status.

… the child’s brain more often reacts as though they are in imminent danger even when participating in the simplest of tasks or routines.

Trauma and the brain

Fight-or-flight is the brain’s response, both behaviourally and chemically, when we are believe we are threatened or under other forms of stress. To fully understand your role in supporting children from trauma backgrounds, you need some knowledge from a neurological (brain) sense about what has gone on.

The fight-flight response is built within us to protect us from danger. It is what tells our hand to lift away if we accidentally touch a hot stove. It is why you flinch and put your hands in front of your face when something is thrown at your head. It is why you run when something scary is chasing you.

When a traumatic event occurs, the brain turns on the fight flight response and with this, a chemical (stress hormone) is released (McLean, 2016).

Children who have experienced trauma become sensitive to this response and can exhibit negative, inappropriate or undesirable behaviours.

Put more simply, the child’s brain more often reacts as though they are in imminent danger even when participating in the simplest of tasks or routines. When this response is activated it can be difficult for children to self regulate, calm or settle because the brain has ‘released’ that stress chemical into their body and a physical reaction is underway.

Obvious ways trauma can affect children

Overexposure to this stress hormone has been shown to affect children’s cognitive, emotional and language development, among other areas. In the language of trauma support, these impacts present as ‘signs’ across age groups of children.

Some of these signs are more obvious, such as the ones described below.

Infants may:

  • have separation anxiety from key educator/s
  • have irregular sleep patterns or lack quality sleep
  • have trouble with feeding (breast or bottle)

Toddlers may:

  • be over-reactive to minor things (a big emotion)
  • be fussy with eating
  • Socially detach – spending much of their time playing alone

Preschoolers may:

  • have difficulty completing puzzles, writing experiences, or matching games
  • has barriers to expressive language (needs help articulating needs to children instead of using their hands to push for instance)
  • have increasing levels of anger or irritability

Unexpected ways trauma can affect children

Other ‘signs’ are less obvious and even quite unexpected.

You may see infants:

  • who are detached and un-phased being away from or leaving parent/caregiver (particularly infants)
  • who are easily startled
  • with regressions in holistic developmental domains

Toddlers who:

  • demonstrate aggressive or violent behaviour
  • experience overwhelming feelings of helplessness
  • have rigid play ideas – relying on the same interests and play spaces
  • have regressions in toileting
  • have physical complaints (sore head, belly aches, sore mouth)

Preschoolers who:

  • Demonstrate a sense of hyperactivity
  • Reflect poor peer relationships
  • Are unmotivated, fatigued, always tired
  • Explosive emotions (sadness, anger frustration)
  • Regressions in toileting

What to do when you are not sure

Often for educators the difficulty lies not within supporting the child as an individual, but supporting the child as part of a family unit and social citizen. We know – and probably see –  that their trauma affects the wellbeing of those around them.

This can be coupled with questions surrounding possible transgenerational influences, the ethics around engaging with families in this regard is difficult even for the most experienced educators.

See this Amplify article on difficult conversations

The important thing to reflect on in these situations is to ask ‘what is my role in supporting this child to get their needs met?’ This might mean referring the child and family to their GP and or to specialist psychologists via their local community health centre.

Depending on the circumstances of the trauma, families may benefit from accessing their local neighbourhood centre for child and family support services that fall beyond the scope of psychology.

If you have these contact numbers accessible all of the time, and ideally the name of someone within that support service, you can more easily facilitate the next step and help alleviate the family’s anxiety surrounding the trauma recovery process.

It is not uncommon for educators to ‘stumble’ upon a child’s or family’s experience with trauma unexpectedly.

For example, the information emerges when you begin a process for further assessment and support from occupational or speech therapists due to a child’s observed behaviour.  Or the trauma is revealed by being aware and alert to the signs under your professional educator’s responsibility as a mandatory reporter for child safety.

Where do I go for help?

We are fortunate to have KidsMatter as the Australian reference for supporting children’s mental health.

The resources on KidsMatter will reinforce for you the vital connection between a child who experienced trauma and their parents or carers, to help the child feel safe (KidsMatter, 2012b).

Additional support you can give includes talking to children about the traumatic event, providing predictable routines, tuning in to the child’s stress response and acting empathetically (KidsMatter, 2012a).

For early childhood educators this means reflecting on service practices to meet the needs of the children in your care.

Opportunities for reflection and action

An example for reflection on this practice could include investing time to develop your skills and knowledge in the circle of security, an attachment based theory to children’s emotional and relationship development.

A significant benefit of investing in the circle of security as a method for supporting children and families from trauma backgrounds is that it provides deeper learning opportunities for educators. Specifically, the approach will give you insight into the child’s behaviour and emotional responses which then give educators direction to translate into daily routines and practices.

The Australian Childhood Foundation also identifies attachment based relational resources as significant within their nine principles of supporting trauma-informed care and practice.

Moving forward

A recognised action guiding educators in the early years is to tackle the impact of trauma from the all angles within the service (Dwyer, O’Keefe, Scott & Wilson, 2012).

This could mean making a commitment in your Quality Improvement Plan to review service policy and practices from a trauma-informed perspective and make amendments where necessary to meet the emotional, attachment and relationship demands of all children within your education and care service.

Additionally, educational leaders can guide colleagues in a curriculum that adopts a trauma-informed perspective. Together, you can develop your understanding of how trauma affects all aspects of a child’s development, and what this means for educators in the room each day.


Additional reading

Meet the author

Sarah Riddell

My name is Sarah Riddell and I have worked within the early childhood profession for 12 years. In this time I have progressively attained my qualifications, from a trainee doing my Certificate III to my university degree in early childhood education. I have a dedication towards trauma informed care and practice within an early childhood context and with this passion I seek to advocate for the inclusion of all children. With this passion i like to drive innovative solutions in attempts to enhance the outcomes of children in my care. Additionally, empowering educators to develop toolkits of success that sees them feel more comfortable in supporting the developmental needs of their children. My number one goal in my career at the moment is to share my knowledge and bring value to those in the early childhood profession.

About CELA

Community Early Learning Australia is a not for profit organisation with a focus on amplifying the value of early learning for every child across Australia - representing our members and uniting our sector as a force for quality education and care.

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