How educators can support trauma-surviving students

By Dr Judith Howard

In most classrooms in most schools, there are students who have suffered complex trauma who would benefit from a system-wide, trauma-informed approach to schooling.

It is not pleasant to think about a child’s experience of complex trauma. However, if we are involved in any way with the support and education of children and adolescents, it is important that we understand and respond well to the concerns that trauma-surviving students bring to the classroom.

Complex childhood trauma involves repeated traumatic experience such as emotional, physical or sexual abuse, significant neglect, or family violence and those who are the source of such harm are often the people who children depend on most for love, nurture and protection.

There is, however, a second aspect to complex childhood trauma and this involves the wide-ranging, long-term impact of this type of harm on child and adolescent development. It is this second aspect that needs to be acknowledged and addressed by the schooling system.

Research drawing from neuroscience is helping to explain why these students can exhibit such challenging behaviour at school and why traditional approaches to behaviour management tend not to work.

Even more importantly, this research is providing a different template of possibility for enhancing the educational and life outcomes of this vulnerable group of young people through more effective and more inclusive school practices that are far more likely to be supportive of both the students and those who are aiming to educate them.

There are now explanations for how and why these students can feel unsafe at school, why they can persistently sabotage relationships with educators and their peers, and why they can suffer bouts of significant emotional dysregulation.

There is now an understanding that the concerning behaviours of these young students are not simply learnt or purposefully chosen but rather can be due to maladaptive development and functioning of neural pathways in the brain during critical periods of development.

There is also a clear and hopeful message from neuroscience that the schooling years provide a window of opportunity to remedy harm done, due to the very plastic or changeable nature of the child or adolescent brain.

Without knowledge of the impact of complex trauma and without skill in trauma-informed approaches and responses, school educators simply do not have the tools that they need to work in an inclusive and effective way with these students.

Research shows that school suspension and exclusion can further detach these already relationally harmed young people from school relationships and from learning.  They can also impair the work of child and adolescent support agencies (including child protection, mental health, youth justice, etc.) which may already be working from trauma-informed frameworks.

Students can lose out-of-home care placements when reduced school attendance creates difficulties for care providers. Ultimately, if left unaddressed, the experience of complex childhood trauma can lead to these already vulnerable students experiencing further disruption in attachments and disengagement from their learning, both of which can lead to worrying educational and life outcomes.

There is much potential to undo harm done, when schools become safe and inclusive places for students and when educators understand the neuroscience of trauma and incorporate neuroscience-informed strategies and approaches in the classroom. However, it should not be the job of individual educators or individual schools to progress this work alone (although there are wonderful people and schools out there that are doing just this)!

If education systems want to see fewer behaviour concerns and enhanced learning outcomes from young trauma-surviving students, they must prioritise trauma-informed workforce training and support for all schools.


All schools and all educators need the tools to do this important work.

It is not pleasant to think about a child’s experience of complex trauma. However, if we are in the business of supporting and educating young people, we must acknowledge joint responsibility to address the outcomes of this harm.

The schooling system needs to collaborate with other child and adolescent support agencies and consider trauma-informed work in systemic planning, policy and budgets, so that all schools have access to information and support to work towards improving overall life outcomes for these very deserving young people.


QUT is contributing to this important work by organising the inaugural Trauma Aware Schooling Conference:

For further information, contact author Dr Judith Howard: