Being a trauma-sensitive therapist for school-age children

Mar 4, 2022 | Not-so-secret therapy diary

More than ever, it is crucial for health professionals to understand how trauma can impact school-aged children. Many children feel the effects of the pandemic and, with all that has happened in recent months, returning to school can be a traumatic experience. Not understanding the impact of trauma on behaviour, development, and learning can lead to miscommunication and frustration within the classroom. Children can appear to be either disengaging or not invested in their learning. However, regardless of the root cause of the trauma, the Grace Children’s Therapy team can see the value and benefit from gaining a deeper understanding of how trauma can affect relationships, development, and learning. Our team recently completed their certification in Trauma-Sensitive School-based practice. Within our practice, we aim to understand the trauma behind the behaviour, promote a culture of safety and compassion, and recognise the relationship’s role in the healing from traumatic experiences. 

When a child is experiencing developmental trauma, the cognitive brain is compromised, and their ability to learn is compromised. Trauma can directly impact their ability to learn new concepts, have conversations and build relationships. When this occurs, the therapist, teacher, or parent must shift the focus to prioritising relationships. The connection will gain tremendous benefit when the focus moves to help the child feel safe and comfortable. All behaviour will come from a level of communication, and curriculum cannot occur unless a feeling of safety is achieved because our instinct at a cognitive level is to put safety before learning naturally. 

So how does trauma present in children? Well, it can look and feel different for all children. Some children will have a decreased ability to think, and problem solve. They may experience exaggerated arousal and emotion to what would usually be considered a minor issue. Some children appear to be dissociated from others and seem to have tuned out or shut down. Regarding learning, trauma can directly impact a child’s capacity for memory and learning new content, and emotionally have difficulty with self-regulation. 

As occupational therapists, it is our role to help identify when a child may be experiencing some form of trauma and how we respond will be vital to helping the healing process and assisting the child in re-engaging and participating in a meaningful way. Our response to holding space and building relationships is sometimes the best solution or “tool” in their therapeutic recovery before we can work on anything else. Taking a trauma-sensitive approach requires the occupational therapist to step into the situation with kindness, understanding, and patience and work alongside parents and teachers to achieve the best outcome for the child.