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Why this, why now?

QUT's Dr Judith Howard explains the prevalence of Australian students suffering complex trauma and the impact this has on educators.
Little girl facing the wall crying
© QUT 2018

If you work in a school, or you support children or adolescents who attend school, you’ll be aware that some students who have experienced complex trauma can really struggle to behave safely and well during the school day. It is also clear that adults supporting these students can often struggle with managing these presenting behaviours.

Students can experience quite significant behavioural outbursts that can be difficult to predict and can be equally as difficult to remedy. Educators can invest significant amounts of their time and effort into building relationships to support these students, only to have them sabotage this in ways that can leave educators feeling hurt, ineffective, and confused. Behaviour management systems and strategies that work with most students tend to fall flat with these students, leading to increased frustration and, let’s be honest, an increased workload as further solutions are sought.

School leaders can get to the stage where they feel that they have no other option but to resort to suspension and exclusion, due to the complexity of the concerns and also the often unsafe and resource-intensive nature of the behaviours. It’s such a difficult predicament for people who have spent their careers focussing on meeting the educational needs of young people – to feel that the only response left to them is to implement punitive and excluding responses to those who have been harmed so unfairly.

The prevalence of students in our classrooms who have experienced complex trauma is concerning and needs to be recognised. The following data is from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.

AIHW Statistics: In Australia during 2015 and 2016, 1 in 33 children received child protection services, of which 70 percent were repeat clients. That’s about one students in every classroom or one class in a school of 1000 students. There are disproportionate numbers of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and those living remotely or in poverty.

© QUT 2018 Source: Australian Institute of Health and Welfare 2017. Child protection Australia 2015–16. Child Welfare series no. 66. Cat. no. CWS 60. Canberra: AIHW.

AIHW Statistics: In Australia during 2015 and 2016, one in 476 young people were under youth justice supervision: 84% under community supervision and 17% in youth detention. Over half of the young people in detention were Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islanders.

© QUT 2018 Source: Australian Institute of Health and Welfare 2017. Youth justice in Australia 2015–16. Bulletin 139. Cat. no. AUS 211. Canberra: AIHW.

AIHW Statistics: In Australia during 2015 and 2016, those young people receiving child protection services were 12 times more likely to be under youth justice supervision and vice-versa.

© QUT 2018 Source: Australian Institute of Health and Welfare 2017. Young people in child protection and under youth justice supervision 2015–16. Data linkage series no. 23. Cat. no. CSI 25. Canberra: AIHW.

Sadly, while many students who experience complex trauma are identified for support, some are not. So, these statistics can be considered a significant underestimate of the numbers of trauma-surviving students in our schools. For this reason, and because Australia ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1990, trauma-aware schooling is justified to enhance the educational and life outcomes of this very vulnerable group.

By providing information about the impacts of complex trauma on students and trauma-informed responses, students will be better supported and more likely to be successful in their schooling and educators will be empowered and more likely to enjoy their work – particularly when that work involves engaging with students from trauma histories.

I’ve used statistics from Australia to illustrate my point. If you’re based outside of Australia, I’d be very interested to hear the situation in your country or region. Please share your stories below.
© QUT 2018. All rights reserved. CRICOS No. 00213J
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Teaching Students Who Have Suffered Complex Trauma

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