A northern learning expert says high numbers of children in Tasmania experience complex trauma and more can be done to prevent them from falling through the education gaps.
University of Tasmania early childhood program director Elspeth Stephenson said the brains of children who experience trauma develop differently to those of other children.
According to Dr Stephenson, these children live in a fight or flight state of hyper-vigilance where survival instincts dominate over learning capacities, and cognitive, emotional and social functionings are impaired.
The trauma can be severe, but may also apply to children who live in homes where stress prevails and issues such as unemployment, poverty, mental health or substance abuse exist.
Dr Stephenson said she would like to see Tasmania become a trauma-informed state.
“There are high numbers of children in Tasmania who are experiencing complex trauma, but society does not have a strong understanding or general awareness of this enormous problem - what it is, what it means and the impact it has. Unless we get trauma informed care into policy we are not going to be able to help these children,” she said.
“Experience shows that if you work in a trauma informed way we can make a difference. The brain has plasticity, it can be re-moulded, we know that we can turn things around and change the trajectory.”
Complex developmental trauma (CDT) occurs when a very young child experiences traumatic events during childhood such as emotional abuse, neglect and physical and sexual abuse.
Dr Stephenson said statistics that show high levels of disadvantage in Tasmania demonstrate there would be children in every part of Tasmania who are experiencing complex trauma.
She explained that constant stress experienced by a developing child leads to unbalanced development in the brain.
The first part of the brain to develop is the “downstairs brain” which controls basic human functions such as the fight, flight or freeze responses, and the second part to develop is the “upstairs brain” which controls things such as memory, language, behaviour, motivation and emotional regulation.
Dr Stephenson said in a traumatised brain the wiring and chemistry gets skewed.
“The lower primitive part of the brain overdevelops because the baby is constantly in stress. No one comes to soothe them, they don't get fed, and so stress levels rise and the brain chemicals produced by the body change,” she said.
“If a child spends too much time being scared the survival response of fight, flight or freeze, which is processed by the downstairs brain, takes over. So you have the upstairs brain and downstairs brain now out of balance, the child can’t self-regulate, so they melt down.”
In the education context the impact of CDT on brain development presents many challenges for the children and teachers involved.
Dr Stephenson said these children cannot self-regulate, often feel unsafe and have trust issues, they develop sensory sensitivity, and need to feel in control.
“Feeling unsafe is the defining experience of any child who has experienced complex trauma so it is not enough for us to know they are safe, they need to feel safe and we make them safe by building strong relationships with them, by listening to them, and responding appropriately to their needs,” she said.
“If a teacher in a classroom has a child who is having a meltdown, instead of telling them off or giving them a consequence, they should be aware that this child doesn't have the neurological development to understand or listen to these consequences. If they (teachers) are aware of CDT they will respond differently.”
Dr Stephenson said the blood sugar levels of children with complex trauma drop regularly, leading to their need to eat every two hours.
“If the child misses breakfast they might be disregulated and their behaviours out of whack. If the teacher expects that child to wait until recess to eat, then they have lost,” she said.
“Children with trauma often have sensory needs and they might start banging or throwing things around. If the teacher expects that child to sit still, then they have lost. Being trauma informed is about understanding what these children need and being proactive where we can.”
Dr Stephenson understands that it is a difficult task for teachers who might have up to five children in a class of 30 with complex trauma.
“If they disregulate they need one on one care, and this is one of the challenges currently. Our system looks to the mainstream it doesn’t look to the individual, and that is where our children with trauma needs are going to fall through the gaps," she said.
Dr Stephenson stressed that teachers delivered professional care to the best level possible, and provided two examples of schools who had a special trauma informed teacher working to support other teachers in trauma informed care.
She said if education policy ignored the needs of these children, then they would continue to be disengaged with literacy, numeracy and other learnings.