Planning safe learning environments for children with trauma

We often say: ‘Our children are our future’, Emeritus Professor Judy Atkinson writes.

However, children learn from us as parents and as teachers. If children are surrounded by love and care, with opportunities for optional development, they grow up to be people with creativity, empathy, social skills and resiliency which enables them to contribute to the society in which they live.

Unfortunately many children grow up in situations where there is violence.

Adults who should be relied upon for nurturance, may actually be a source of terror. The use of the term ‘family violence’ refers to three forms of harm to children: witnessing domestic violence, being the direct victim of abuse, and being exposed to neglectful caretaking.

Children who witness or hear violence, experience violence. Their world is unsafe. A child’s early life can cause negative effects on cognitive, neurological, psychological development as well as attachment development, resulting in children experiencing developmental trauma.

By the age of three a child’s brain is 90% developed. They have already progressed through the developmental task of thinking for themselves, are capable of being assertive, and are beginning to separate from their carers. Teachers play an essential, in fact critical role in connecting children to programs which enable them to become competent learners advancing in the worlds in which they live.

In fact naming and responding to developmental trauma through an ‘educaring’ approach in early childhood settings, in partnership with carers, can help children heal from trauma.

We are the product of our childhoods. The health and creativity of a community is renewed each generation through its children.
Bruce Perry MD PhD

Behaviour is language

In 2011, Margaret Hayes, Principal of the Barwon Learning Centre, invited me to work with her to develop an educational program designed to respond to the needs of children sent to the centre by NSW Department of Education. This is a special school for children suspended or expelled from other schools in the region. The children’s needs would be the centre of our concern. We understood: children’s behaviour was language.

The needs of the teachers/teacher aides were assessed for professional development. The school was opened to parents and carers of the children as their complex trauma became apparent. We ran trauma specific professional development programs, while also running community based workshops for the carers of the children attending the school. The school introduced healing therapies in their curriculum called ‘educaring’: dance, art, music, theatre, body work and nature discovery.

Carers started to regularly visit the school. Children developed emotional literacy, on top of the improvement in literacy and numeracy in the first full year that the ‘educaring’ approach was run: under NAPLAN literacy and numeracy levels increased between 150% to 300%.

Success however was illustrated when teachers said: “We have the freedom to teach in the way that the children need”. “They are so excited about learning”. “They are not angry anymore”.

Children said: “I like music because I can feel the beat through my body”. “I like dance because I can tell different stories”. “I like body work because I feel calm and relaxed”. “I like theatre because I can be growly different characters”. “I like art because I can’t make mistakes”. “I like nature discovery because I can learn things when I am outside”.

The Barwon Learning Centre has developed an educational model which responds to the needs of children and their families who have experienced generational, complex, developmental trauma.

Professor Atkinson retired from professional life at the end of 2010 so she can focus on working across Australia and PNG in trauma informed and trauma specific educational and healing work. Professor Atkinson was the keynote speaker at this year’s IEUA NSW/ACT Branch Early Childhood Conference.