How to address Trauma and Adversity in School 2022

We all face emotionally challenging trauma situations during our childhood, which is a normal part of growing up.

We all face emotionally challenging trauma situations during our childhood, which is a normal part of growing up.

However, some children grow up in environments and experiences that they are unable to cope with, which can be traumatic and may have a long-lasting effect on their development, learning, health and behaviour.  

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What happens in early childhood can matter for a lifetime. To successfully manage our society’s future, we must recognise problems and address them before they get worse. In early childhood, research on the biology of stress shows how major adversity, such as poverty, abuse, or neglect can weaken brain development and permanently set the body’s stress response system on high alert.  

Science also, shows that providing stable, responsive, nurturing relationships in the earliest years of life can prevent or even reverse the damaging effect of early life stress, with lifelong benefits for learning, behaviour and health. 


Forms of Attachment

“Attachment is a deep and enduring emotional bond that connects one person to another person across time and space.”  Bowlby 1969

John Bowlby, psychologist and psychoanalyst, proposed the attachment theory throughout the 1950s and 1960s and made notable contributions to the field of psychotherapy for his work on attachment.  

Attachment theory examines how the caregiver-child bond develops and its impact on consequential development. Although Bowlby did not dispute the possibility of children forming multiple bonds with different people, he still uploads the view that since it is the first connection established, the bond between the mother and baby is strongest of all. 

  • Secure Attachment 
    • The secure attachment style signifies a warm and loving bond between parent and child. The child feels loved and cared for and develops the ability to form healthy relationships with those around them.  
    • Children with secure attachment styles are active and demonstrate confidence in their interactions with others. 
    • Those who develop secure attachment styles in childhood are likely to carry this healthy way of bonding into adulthood and have no problem building long-term relationships without fear of abandonment.  
  • Anxious-Ambivalent Attachment 
    • Anxious-ambivalent children tend to distrust caregivers, and this insecurity often means that their environment is explored with trepidation rather than excitement.  
    • They constantly seek approval from their caregivers and continuously observe their surroundings for fear of being abandoned. 
    • Those who developed under the “anxious-ambivalent” attachment style, tend to carry what they have learned into adulthood and very often feel unloved by their partners whilst finding it difficult to express love and connection themselves.  
    • People who developed attachments under this style are usually emotionally dependent in adulthood. 
  • Avoidant Attachment 
    • Children who have developed the “avoidant” style have learned to accept that their emotional needs are likely to remain unmet and continue to grow up feeling unloved and insignificant.  
    • They often struggle with expressing their feelings and finding it hard to understand emotions – in adulthood; they tend to avoid intimate relationships. 
  • Disorganised Attachment 
    • Disorganised attachment is a combination of avoidant and anxious attachment, and children that fit into this group often display intense anger and rage. They may break toys and behave in other volatile ways – they also have a difficult relationship with caregivers. 
    • Children, developed under the “disorganised” attachment style, tend to avoid intimate relationships as adults and can very easily explode and have a difficult time controlling their emotions.  

Early experiences influence the developing brain

From the prenatal period through the first years of life, the brain undergoes its most rapid development and early experiences determine whether its architecture is sturdy or fragile. During early sensitive periods of development, the brain’s circuitry is most open to the influence of external experiences, for better or for worse.  

During these sensitive periods, healthy emotional and cognitive development is shaped by responsive, dependable interaction with adults, while chronic or extreme adversity can interrupt normal brain development. For example, children who were placed shortly after birth into orphanages with conditions of server neglect show dramatically decreased brain activity compared to children who were never institutionalised.  

Chronic stress can be toxic for developing brains

Learning to cope with adversity is an important part of healthy child development. When we are threatened, our bodies activate a variety of psychological responses, including increases in heart rate, blood pressure, and stress hormones such as cortisol. 

When young children are protected by supportive relationships with adults, they learn to cope with everyday challenges and their stress response systems returns to baseline. Scientists call this positive stress. Tolerable stress occurs when more serious difficulties, such as the loss of a loved one, a natural disaster or a frightening injury are buffered by caring adults who help their child adapt, which mitigates the potentially damaging effects of abnormal levels of stress and hormones. When strong, frequent or prolonged adverse experiences such as extreme poverty or repeated abuse are experienced without adult support, stress becomes toxic, and excessive cortisol disrupts developing brain circuits.  

Significant early adversity can lead to lifelong problems

Toxic stress experienced early in life and common precipitants of toxic stress – such as poverty, abuse or neglect, parental substance abuse or mental illness, and exposure to violencecan have a cumulative toll on an individuals physical and mental health.

The more adverse experiences in childhood, the greater the likelihood of developmental delays and other problems. Adults with more adverse experiences in early childhood are also more likely to have health problems, including alcoholism, depression, heart disease and diabetes.

Early intervention can prevent the consequences of early adversity

Research shows that later interventions are likely to be less successful – and in some cases and ineffective. For example, when the same children who experienced extreme neglect were placed in responsive foster care families before age two, their IQs increased more substantially and their brain activity and attachment relationships were more likely to become normal than if they were placed after the age of two.

While there is no “magic age” for intervention, it is clear that, in most cases, intervening as early as possible is significantly more effective than waiting.  

Stable, caring relationships are essential for healthy development

Children develop in an environment of relationships that begin in the home and include extended family members, early care and education providers and members of the community.

Studies show that toddlers who have a secure, trusting relationship with parents and non-parent caregivers experience minimal stress hormone activation when frightened by a strange event, and those who have insecure relationships experience a significant activation of the stress response system.

Numerous scientific studies support these conclusions, providing supportive, responsive relationships as early in life as possible can prevent or reverse the damaging effects of toxic stress. 

What to do when Emotions Explode

Sometimes it is hard to know when to communicate with someone when they are emotional or angry. Emotions explode poster can aid schools and parents with children who have angry feelings or outbursts and might help them open up to a conversation about their feelings. 

A Letter about how I'm Feeling

Some pupils may find it easier to write down their thoughts than actually talk about them so this resource is in a letter format to help children express their feelings and understand what may have triggered them. 

What to Look Out for in Pupils

This resource will help you spot distressing signs in a child’s behaviour and which factors in their life might be causing them. You may not be able to change the issues in a child’s life, but acknowledging why they might be feeling a certain way and finding ways to show you care is a good start for children who are struggling.  

Trauma Informed Guidance

Our guide on trauma-informed practice has six principles that we encourage schools to consider when their pupils return to school, as what is the best support for those who may be experiencing trauma.  

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