January 28, 2015

How to help young people navigate the new school year

This article was authored by Alexa Duke,
Senior Training Consultant
at the Australian Childhood Foundation

As the summer holidays draw to an end and many parents draw a collective sigh of relief and teachers wonder where the weeks have gone, the start of a new school year brings with it a whole range of emotions for our children and young people.

For some there is all the excitement of a new beginning: new school, new class, new friends, new teachers, new challenges and new opportunities.

There is the excitement of reconnecting: with friends, with teachers and with comfortable and familiar routines.

For some, school offers the one calm, predictable space in their chaotic world.

For others, the anticipation of the new school year is filled with worries that can be overwhelming and difficult.

For those for whom the beginning of the new school year is overlayed with the impact of complex trauma, it can be terrifying.

Complex trauma shapes every aspect of a child/young person’s life:

  • regulating the way they feel and react
  • knowing and describing their feelings
  • how they relate and connect with others connectedness
  • how they see themselves and their world
  • their ability to learn
  • how and what they remember.

As school starts again, what might teachers, parents and carers see in traumatised children

  • In the excitement of returning to school, where others are bubbling with stories of their holidays and new experiences, traumatised children and young people may be filled with feelings of unease that they cannot really describe or share.
  • The start of the school year brings with it many uncertainties: friends and trusted teachers may have left, routines changed and sometimes a brand new school. Traumatised children do not have a predicable template on which to build their emotional responses and they live in a heightened state of arousal. Subconscious triggers, such as a smell, a tone of voice or a visual reminder can escalate their arousal state beyond their window of tolerance in the uncertainty of new situations and groups. Often they cannot identify or name their feelings and they can be dominated by fear and anger.
  • Behaviours have underlying meanings – they are driven by feelings and needs. Traumatised children display behaviour that often makes sense in the context of their trauma. Their brains are primed to perceive threat, and so children often read danger, anger and sadness on the faces of others and in their tone of voice even when they are not there.
  • Traumatised children and young people find it more difficult to re-connect with their peers, particularly after a long holiday.
  • Traumatised children might enter school with little sense of safety and with their sense of trust violated. When a student is feeling ‘unsafe’ and powerless, then we might see:

– Aggressiveness

– Overactive stress responses

– Withdrawal

– Agitation

  • Tiredness due to lack of sleepFor those starting VCE (Year 11) when the demands of learning are much greater than the year before, traumatised young people may have problems focussing, completing tasks, planning for or anticipating future events. Some experience learning difficulties and problems with language development.

Because of the impact of trauma on learning and memory, traumatised children and young people may have trouble remembering their new classroom, the names of their new teachers and new peers, their timetable, new routines, weekly events and their academic achievement can be impaired. They might have trouble remembering what was covered in the lesson before and forget their homework. They can easily become overwhelmed when they need to remember so much new information and the pace of learning is so fast.

So how can teachers, parents and carers assist children and young people successfully navigate the start of the now school year? We’ve come up with 9 things you might try:

  1. Talk with the child/young person and prepare them for what is coming up next, what they can expect, who will be important in their new school year, reaffirm the key relationships in their lives. Create environments that are routine and predictable.
  2. Respond to the child/young person with the understanding that their past trauma will guide their present behaviour, cognition and emotions. Their behaviour that might be challenging to others, makes sense in the context of their trauma.
  3. Use language and actions to reinforce the importance of the relationship while communicating that the misbehaviour is not condoned.
  4. Talk to the child/young person about what they are thinking and what they are feeling. Trauma disrupts the connection between thoughts and feelings and when emotional responses occur, the child/young person is not able to make sense of what they are feeling. They may not know that their feelings are associated with all the unknowns of the beginning of a new school year.
  5. Set aside time to review with the child/young person what they have done in their day. Provide opportunities for them to creatively record their experiences and help them make sense of their experiences through linking events with them.
  6. Provide opportunities for the child/young person to share routine activities with peers. Role model and practice a range of social skills. Invite or initiate opportunities for the child/young person to connect with peers outside of school through sport or interest activities.
  7. Teach the child/young person strategies to calm down and stay positive. Teach them to breathe mindfully, download the ‘My Calm Beat’ App on their phone. In the school situation, provide safe areas or people for recess and lunchtime. Understand your own trigger points that generate stress/distress reactions to the child/young person’s behaviour.
  8. Your relationship with the child/young person is most important. Build that relationship on trust and make sure it is respectful, compassionate and sustained. Try to connect the child/young person with one or two adults in their new school environment with whom they feel safe.
  9. Celebrate with the child/young person every success in their day.

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