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This content is taken from the Queensland University of Technology's online course, Teaching Students Who Have Suffered Complex Trauma. Join the course to learn more.

Skip to 0 minutes and 6 seconds This blue line could represent the life trajectory of anyone, because we all experience simple trauma at various times during our lives. When children and adolescents experience simple trauma events, they suffer, and for a time they dip developmentally, which is represented by the dips in the blue line. During this dip, they’re not achieving the developmental milestones that they might have been achieving, had the traumatic event not occurred. While they are suffering, the milestones that are being met by their peers are just beyond their reach. A child might be so emotionally dysregulated after grandma dies, for example, that he is unable to focus on his schoolwork, or engage in his usual sporting events, or pass his assessment tasks.

Skip to 0 minutes and 56 seconds An adolescent who has been involved in an accident could suffer a worrying impact on her studies, her self-confidence, or her connectedness with friends. However, because most students have a loving and supportive network of adults in their lives who recognise their suffering, and support them through recovery, these students tend to get back to where they need to be over time, and then continue achieving their developmental milestones once again. That is simple trauma. The red line is more representative of complex trauma, which is exposure to ongoing and repeated interpersonal traumatic experiences. With complex trauma – already very early in life – the red line is below the blue line.

Skip to 1 minute and 43 seconds This is because of the impact of what’s happening to these children and around these children. Because of what they’re experiencing, they are just not able to achieve the milestones that we would love for any child to achieve. You will also notice that there are more dips in the red line as these young people progress through life. This is because, due to the impact of complex trauma, these students tend to experience simple trauma events more often. They may be more often injured or sick, or suspended from school, for example.

Skip to 2 minutes and 16 seconds And because many of these children don’t have that predictable, dependable, supportive, network of adults to love and care for them, as they recover from their simple trauma experiences, they tend to not recover as well or as predictably as their peers on the blue line. So, for the students represented by the red line, their life trajectory can be jagged and worrying. We know that it’s just not possible for school educators to prevent all of the trauma events that students will experience in life, as much as we work towards this. We do certainly put in place processes to detect and report suspected harm, but preventing all harm is just beyond the capacities of schools.

Skip to 3 minutes and 0 seconds However, what we can achieve – through trauma-informed practice – is to lift that red line far closer to the blue line, so that the longer-term impact of complex trauma is addressed and minimised and so that by the time these young students finish high school, they are far more likely to be able to achieve all those lovely milestones we would wish for all our graduates.

The impact of trauma

It’s important for everyone working in or with schools to understand the impact of trauma on the functioning and wellbeing of their students.

This video will help to explain the impact of simple trauma (Type 1) and complex trauma (Type 2) – and the difference between the two.

Simple trauma

Simple trauma involves a time-limited, but awful, event that usually involves intense emotions and a period of suffering. Such events could involve:

  • the death of a loved one
  • being in a car accident
  • parents separating or divorcing.

I’m sure you can think of other events that your students, or even you or your loved ones, have experienced that fit the definition of simple trauma. It happens to us all!

Complex trauma

The National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN) provides a very helpful definition of complex trauma.

First, complex trauma involves early exposure to ongoing and repeated traumatic experience that includes factors such as physical, sexual, and/or emotional abuse, significant neglect, and/or violence.

  • This type of trauma is interpersonal. That means that the source of the child’s trauma is a person or persons who should be there to care for, nurture and protect them, but who are instead the source of their terror or harm.

Second, complex trauma involves the wide-ranging and long-term impact of this traumatic experience. This is so very important for people working in schools to understand.

  • This longer-term impact often becomes evident during the school years and can make working with these children and adolescents quite complex and challenging.
  • This is a particular concern for students who are receiving child protection services and who have experienced a number of unsuccessful out-of-home care placements in foster, kinship, or residential care.

Lifelong impact of complex trauma

Because they have far less chance of achieving the same developmental milestones as their peers, these students will be far less likely to:

  • graduate with a passing grade
  • go on to further study
  • find and keep a job
  • have a supportive and safe network of close friends
  • engage in a safe and caring intimate relationship
  • eventually parent in a safe and adaptive manner.

What can we do?

You’ve already started to help by taking this course. By becoming aware of the impact of trauma and implementing trauma-informed practices in schools, we will be able to help our students minimise the longer-term impact of complex trauma.

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This video is from the free online course:

Teaching Students Who Have Suffered Complex Trauma

Queensland University of Technology