As I write this the planet is in the grasp of a global pandemic in which 28 million individuals have become ill and nearly one million have died. This event has changed the lives of nearly everyone in the world. By the time you read this it is my sincere hope that there are effective vaccines and ample quantities to address this catastrophe. I feel the pandemic has been able to put the focus of this book into perspective. As terrible and heartbreaking as the COVID 19 pandemic has been, the impact of trauma on the children of the world has been and continues to be much greater. However, unlike the pandemic crisis that headlines the news, children living with trauma is a hidden crisis that only catches the attention of media and world leaders periodically and that attention is sadly not sustained, and no vaccine will address this hidden crisis.
When I say that childhood trauma impacts our children far more than a viral pandemic, here are a few comparisons. The United States has 13 times the total population of Australia. The United States (US) leads the world in many areas, some we don’t like to discuss such as more incarcerated individuals than any other nation, and more child abuse than any country that has data. The US does have excellent child abuse data, so we know that every year in the US around 1,700 children die of child maltreatment. However, COVID 19 so far has resulted in 60 child deaths. Any child’s death is tragic, but a child in the US is 28 times more likely to die at the hands of parents and care providers than from the pandemic, and 10 times more likely to be a victim of child abuse than infected by the COVID 19 virus. Recent data has found 182 children in Australia died of maltreatment in a year. Compare that number to the child deaths in Australia from COVID 19 where no child death had been reported as I write this. Trauma often has an impact throughout the lifespan of the individual, unlike an illness in which many children recover from. You get the point, we call the pandemic a catastrophe, but child abuse and the resulting trauma and its impact on learning and the child’s future is a far greater catastrophe.
For every death by abuse and maltreatment there are millions of children who survive but pay the price of the lingering impacts of the trauma of childhood throughout their life span. Statistics are cold and impersonal, but every individual is a child deserving of love, of learning and a life of wonderful possibilities. All children deserve these things, but trauma reflects the primary reason children start their lives on the wrong track and often never recover.
We have known for nearly a quarter of a century that trauma impacts the lives and learning of children. A pivotal study from the 1990s called the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACES) brought the facts out in clear detail. Briefly stated, the more trauma a child experiences in early years the greater the likelihood of a life filled with poverty, substance abuse, mental health issues, smoking, obesity, under employment, medical disease and early death. This study reflects a direct link between early trauma and some of society’s most damaging dysfunctions. Seriously traumatised children start life by losing their carefree childhoods, have trouble managing emotions and behaviour, fail in school, fail in the world of work, fail in relationships and ultimately have untimely deaths due to physical illnesses brought on by a lifetime of toxic stress. Other than death, no pandemic can cause the lifelong problems caused by child maltreatment and trauma.
One of the outcomes of childhood trauma is failure in school. The serious impacts of childhood trauma in many ways are most obvious in educational settings. Trauma impacts the child’s brain in ways that make academic learning challenging. Trauma can rob the child of self-regulation, managing emotions such as anxiety and fear, and can impact the child’s ability to manage behaviour. This combination often results in poor attention and disruptive behaviour in the school setting. Even if these children can stay in their seat and not seriously act out, they may struggle with learning disabilities that are directly linked to trauma. When a child does poorly in academics and often poorly in peer relationships, the usual result is a lack of attendance and the eventual dropping out of school. Often “problem children” in our schools are actually survivors of early childhood trauma.
These children learn differently because of brain changes due to childhood trauma. They do not handle many experiences in a typical classroom well such as: competition, transitions, peer relationships, social skills, memory recall as well as attending to assignments and handling frustration. To learn an individual must fail many times before they master the task. Children with a history of trauma give up easily with something difficult or new and will eventually view school as a negative place to be avoided.
Although the conclusion all this information seems to lead to is certain failure, this need not be the case. If we can learn how the brain of a traumatised child functions, and we have done so, then we should be able to adjust our schools and our teaching to meet these children where they are. There are many efforts throughout the world that are searching for the best methods to help the millions of children who learn differently due to trauma. Some of the best new ideas are coming out of Australia. Unless we can face the challenge of successful instruction to children with a traumatic history, our schools will continue to have major problems with drop outs, underachievers, suspensions and expulsions and our educational systems may actually be causing further harm to the very children who deserve our best efforts to help them.
Before I comment on this book there is one more point that is critical to make. Trauma in childhood need not be a life-long sentence of loneliness and failure leading to an easy death as indicated in the ACES findings. We have ample research on resiliency that shows that past difficulties can not only be overcome with the right help, but past trauma can actually make the individual stronger. When children get the support, the encouragement, the understanding and the right environments to learn, we know that many will take advantage of the opportunity and may become more impressive adults because of what they have overcome. My own program in the United States has shown decades of success by the very children least likely to do well. It is from this experience that I have spoken out on behalf of the traumatised children who have no voice to say we can and we must do better to help these children succeed in school and develop an interest in lifelong learning.
I have followed some of the work done by Drs. Kay Ayre and Govind Krishnamoorthy over the years as well as the efforts of the University of Southern Queensland to bring trauma informed instruction into the classroom. When they asked me to write a foreword to this book I agreed for several reasons. Trauma Informed Behaviour Support: A Practical Guide to Developing Resilient Learners is well written and has a tight style of getting to the point. This book will not waste your time and will outline a wide variety of factors that you need to know in your school and in your classroom. From brain development to attachment to behavioural interventions and more, it is a one-stop source of information that can inform and provide you with tools that you can use.
This book is well researched with further resources provided in every chapter. It does not try to sell you a product but offers hundreds of practical tips that can help you help the children you are responsible to teach and help achieve academic growth and success. I particularly liked the links provided in the book to other resources such as audio and video recordings that add further practical advice and suggestions. In all the complexity that is involved in trauma and in learning, I love the bottom-line suggestions you will find in this book such as the three elements of success with traumatised children: 1. Hold high expectations, 2. Reward desirable behaviour and 3. Teach by modeling. I have spent a 50-year career highlighting these foundational approaches to helping children.
In addition to the above strengths, this book takes additional steps to go beyond the educational approach and puts a spotlight on the teacher/healer. I say healer because with traumatised children you will have to invest time healing the damage to their brain to make room for the learning that will bring them success in life, not only in academics but also in relationships. Chapter six is a gem in this book. It instructs you to not only put the focus on the learner but also to focus on yourself. I have spent a career following the Latin motto “Nemo dat quod non habit” or you cannot give to someone that which you do not possess yourself. If you want to teach a struggling child patience, resilience, self-regulation, and persistence despite the difficulties, then you must possess these qualities in your contact with the child you seek to help. Take it from my experience with some of the most challenging children in our system of care. It is amazing what we can accomplish when we refuse to give up on a child.
Additionally, this book takes one more critical step. If we want to impact the world of children who have experienced trauma then we must change not only ourselves and our classroom, but we must change our schools, our organisations, and our systems of care for children. We must all speak out for these children who have no voice to bring awareness of new educational and mental health approaches to children who will become tomorrow’s failed adults unless they receive our understanding and our help.
For whatever reason you have been attracted to this book, you have come to the right place. You may at times put it down and wonder if the challenge is too great, but trust me it is not. If you stay engaged with this book and with a child who has experienced trauma then you will learn new understandings, new ideas and new ways to reach the mind, the heart and the soul of young people who need our support and our love.
I often close my workshops by saying that our society has a mistaken sense of what a hero is. The heroes we too often give this label to are actors, musicians, successful athletes and celebrities in the news. However, the real heroes do their work quietly and often unnoticed. They seek only one goal and that is to help someone and change a person’s life for the better. I encourage you to expand the heroic work you already do and change the lives of children by instilling in one child at a time a love of learning. Your task is important. It is possible and furthermore it is essential. Thanks for being the hero you are!
With my best wishes,
Dave Ziegler, Ph.D.
Jasper Mountain, USA