7 August 2019

Understanding childhood trauma, attachment, and the effect that it has on learning

While childhood for many is a blissful period of time, devoid of significant upset or suffering, for many others it is unfortunately marred with experiences of devastating trauma. While statistics accurately representing the true rates of childhood trauma are sparse due to under reporting, we know that in 2016 over 50,000 children and young people in England alone were subject to child protection plans due to neglect, sexual, physical or emotional abuse (DfE, 2016).

The effects of exposure to trauma are often lifelong (Anda et al, 2006), and particularly for children and young people who are still in the process of neurological development, traumatic experiences during childhood can have demonstrable effects in every area of a child’s life.



According to attachment theory, the relationship between a child and their caregiver is amongst the most significant throughout the lifespan (Bowlby, 1969). It is through this relationship that children develop the skills needed to successfully navigate through life, such as emotional self-regulation (Calkin & Leerkes, 2004), moral reasoning and empathy (Koschankska, 1995). As such, when that relationship becomes fractured whether due to exposure to trauma or parenting style, essential mental processes such as executive functioning (which supports cognitive skills such as attention, memory, impulse control and problem solving) are inadequately developed. The aforementioned skills are the same ones necessary for successful academic learning to take place. As such, many children and young people as a result of adverse life experiences are placed at a disadvantage in the classroom.


The Effect on Learning and Raising Awareness

Research indicates (O’Connor & Russell, 2004; Porche et al, 2011) that young people who have experienced trauma in childhood have lower educational attainment, as well as emotional difficulties which present as challenging behaviour in school.

The effects of trauma and attachment are perhaps not widely understood within the education sector, which is something we at Innovating Minds have been working towards tackling. Behaviours such as aggression, disengagement, impulsivity and lack of cooperation are frequently being misinterpreted by teaching staff as a conduct issue (Kennedy & Kennedy, 2004), as opposed to an emotional one which arises from trauma.

As such, raising the awareness and understanding of trauma related behaviours for school staff, as well as educating them on strategies which can be implemented to support their students is imperative. 


What Teachers Can Do

While we do not expect teachers to expand their roles so that they enter into the territory of therapists (you all work so hard already!), here are some suggestions which we hope will support you in teaching children and young people who have been exposed to trauma.

Develop small nurture groups- which encourage positive attachment relationships, as well as address a child’s academic, emotional, social and cognitive needs.

Remain aware of the child’s trauma - while the behaviours presented may feel extremely challenging to manage, try to remain aware that they are often a maladaptive response to their negative experiences.

Define clear expectations for behaviour and outline logical consequences - when those expectations are not met. Punitive approaches are generally ineffective and promote feelings of shame. Conversely, the introduction of consequences for behaviours which are inappropriate provide the child with the opportunity to reflect on their behaviours, examine the consequences of their choices and develop self-regulation skills.

Do not enable the re-enactment of trauma - as a coping strategy children will sometimes display behaviours designed to provoke a response which will enable them to re-enact their previous trauma. Remain aware of this, particularly during episodes where you feel your frustration escalating.

Be sensitive to trauma reminders - It is a difficult for teacher to be aware of every trauma reminder for each child in their class. However, try to be sensitive to potential trauma reminders such as anniversaries, contact with particular people, being called certain names, physical contact or even tone of voice. In instances where the reminder is inappropriate behaviour from another student, try to ensure that a logical consequence enforced is, as this will reduce the distress to the trauma exposed child.

Remember self-care - Hearing the sometimes horrific experiences that a young person has lived through can be extremely distressing. For that reason, it is particularly important for those in professions working closely with vulnerable children to practice self-care to avoid vicarious traumatisation. That may mean seeking support from family and friends, colleagues or a mental health professional. Further to this, simply recognising your own emotional triggers can provide you with the tools you may need to protect yourself when discussing particular areas of trauma with your students.




Anda, R. F., Felitti, V. J., Bremner, J. D., Walker, J. D., Whitfield, C. H., Perry, B. D., ... & Giles, W. H. (2006). The enduring effects of abuse and related adverse experiences in childhood. European archives of psychiatry and clinical neuroscience256(3), 174-186

Bowlby, J. (1969). Attachment and loss v. 3 (Vol. 1). Random House. Furman, W., & Buhrmester, D. (2009). Methods and measures: The network of relationships inventory: Behavioral systems version. International Journal of Behavioral Development33, 470-478

Calkins, S. D., & Leerkes, E. M. (2004). Early attachment processes and the development of emotional self-regulation. Handbook of self-regulation: Research, theory, and applications, 324-339

Department for Education. (2016). Characterisation of children in need in England, 2015-16. London Department for Education.

Geddes, H. (2006). Attachment in the classroom: The links between children's early experience, emotional well-being and performance in school. Worth Pub.

Kennedy, J. H., & Kennedy, C. E. (2004). Attachment theory: Implications for school psychology. Psychology in the Schools41(2), 247-259

Kochanska, G. (1995). Children's temperament, mothers' discipline, and security of attachment: Multiple pathways to emerging internalization. Child development66(3), 597-615

O’Connor, M. & Russell, A. (2004). Identifying the incidence of psychological trauma and post-trauma symptoms in children. Clackmannanshire: Clackmannashire Council Psychological Service

Porche, M. V., Fortuna, L. R., Lin, J., & Alegria, M. (2011). Childhood trauma and psychiatric disorders as correlates of school dropout in a national sample of young adults. Child development82(3), 982-998


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