For most children starting the school year will be an exciting time as they look forward to the new learning and meeting or making new friends. Some children and young people however, can struggle with change and transitions. This week, you will be getting your children ready for school or you child will already be in their first days of the school year. Be mindful that this may be extremely stressful for children and young people in care. It may be a new school for some, for others a different classroom or teacher.
Traumatised children are often in a heightened state of arousal; their brains and bodies scanning for danger and threat and primed to react with fear based responses. They have limited tools to use to calm themselves down or remain in a calm state and they may need your help to achieve this. Even small changes can trigger a threat-fear-survival response.
School and early childhood services should be a place where it is possible for traumatised children to build strong relationships. The teacher can play an important role in this if they understand the impact of developmental trauma. By understanding developmental trauma, they can provide a sensitive environment for the child to build relationships, social connections and acceptance, so that they can learn. The teacher will be able to understand the child’s difficulties with regulation, developmental delays and the difficulties the child may have with peer and adult relationships. It also needs to be recognised that teaching children with trauma can be enormously challenging for staff, other children and families, and the children themselves. Often schools and teachers are under-equipped to deal with the children and often feel torn between the needs of the child with trauma, and other children. However, providing a trauma sensitive environment will assist all children (Cole et al. 2005).
Plan ahead where possible so you can prepare the child before the first day back. Talk to them about what to expect at school. Visit the school and walk around while no one is there, so that your child becomes familiar with the environment. Find out what class your child will be in and the name of the teacher. You may be able to look in the window. Talk to your child about the routines of the day, including breaks and lunch. For some children this may be a new experience, as they may not have been to a school or may be starting school for the first time. For others they may have attended inconsistently. Their family may not have valued school, so the child may think that they do not have to go or that it is not that important to attend everyday.
It can also be unsettling for children who have been in your care for a while. They have been at home or on holiday with you. They may find it hard to separate from you now that they have to go back to school. For traumatised children and young people, a return to school is often not marked with excitement and joy as it is for most children. Instead, it can represent more change, bring more uncertainty and invoke more fear. They may not know anyone or be put into a class different from friends. The unfamiliar will be scary for them, so it is important to be calm and connected so that they feel safe. A little bit of information can help to transform apprehension into excitement. Do not try and convince your child that they should be excited, instead convey empathy for how the child is actually feeling (“I know it can be scary starting at a new school, I’d feel a bit that way too, but we’re going to make it as easy and fun as we can!”).
Involve your child in the preparation for school, selecting bags, books, lunchboxes. Familiarity and routines are important, as is a positive attitude to school. Together come up with some strategies or calming activities for when the child feels they are becoming unregulated. Extra planning for a smooth first day back can go a long way to laying the foundation for a great year ahead.
For those who have already started school and are still apprehensive, you could visit the school in the weekend with them and have the child show you around. Have some fun in the school playground. A meeting with the teacher is also a good idea, even if the school year has started.
Have an open and engaged approach to how and what your child is feeling. Be curious with them so that you can explore what to expect together.
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