Supporting Learning Following a Traumatic Event

A young child plays with a green toy car

In February 2009, the Black Saturday bushfires devastated the community of Strathewen in regional Victoria. Just over 200 people lived in this community. Twenty-seven lives were lost as a result of these fires. The phoenix metaphor seems hauntingly apt to this community, as their post-traumatic growth has seen them develop into world leaders in showing what children can do in and after disasters.

Their success is largely attributed to the primary school’s role in rebuilding after being burnt down. The staff at this school has explained that there were many complexities in returning to school and learning, and Michelle Roberts (psychologist and expert on child and adolescent trauma) speaks of learning communities’ desire to return to the business of learning after a community trauma. This article will discuss how traumatic events can influence a child’s ability to learn, and how we can help them to return to becoming enthusiastic learners.

ABC News: Strathewen Primary school shows the world what kids can do in disasters

What is a Traumatic Event?

A traumatic event is considered anything that is subjectively deemed too overwhelming (too painful or too frightening). A traumatic event or incident can include loss of life, loss of liberty, abuse, family violence, witnessing a violent or disastrous event, or the threat of any of these things occurring. It’s important to note that the threat itself can be just as traumatic as the incident. These perceptions of threat can be challenged by positive self-talk, which will be discussed in more detail later.

What is Trauma and Adversity?

What is Learning?

The scope of this article covers the learning skills of memory and attention. Learning will be looked at through the P.E.N. approach. P.E.N. refers to psychology, education and neuroscience, so this article will be taking an interdisciplinary approach to learning through the lenses of brain function, behaviour and educational applications.

Optimistically, we now know that the shape and structure of one’s brain can be changed. For more information, watch the clip below.

Smiling Mind: Mindfulness and how the brain works

Trauma & Learning

American teacher, researcher and psychiatrist, Judith Herman, talks of the paradoxes of trauma; people are too energetic, yet too tired, people remember too much, yet they can’t remember enough. Michelle Roberts explains that children who have been through a traumatic event experience the tension of being able to remember too much (about the traumatic event) and not being able to remember enough (about everyday life).

The teachers at Strathewen Primary School observed what they referred to as the ‘Swiss Cheese Effect’. Their students apparently learned and understood content one day, and seemed to have never encountered that subject the very next day. On my visits to early learning services in bushfire affected communities, I very rarely need to elaborate. The educators know exactly what I’m referring to and can offer many examples that they have seen since traumatic events such as the bushfires, the Coronavirus pandemic, or more personal traumas such as death and/or family violence.

These observations from the education sector, and this behavioral theory from psychology, are backed up by brain-based claims from the field of neuroscience. The hippocampus is considered the gateway between short-term and long-term memory. However, this very busy part of the brain also has a stake in emotion processing. Anecdotally, we know that emotions play a large part in memory. This is why we all know where we were when we heard that Steve Irwin had died, or how parents can describe the birth of their children with such detail. It is therefore unsurprising that children remember traumatic events so, or perhaps even too vividly. Furthermore, trauma can negatively affect the amygdala which works alongside the hippocampus to assist in long-term memory development. The amygdala is also responsible for looking out for danger. This can account for the apparently over energetic or frantic behaviour that many people experience after a traumatic event, often making sustained attention very difficult.

Emerging Minds: Strathewen community: A bushfire recovery story 10 years in the making

How to Improve Memory & Attention Following Trauma

These tips are beneficial for improving memory and attention in general, but may be especially useful when these skills have been impacted by trauma.

  • Stay optimistic and remember that the shape and structure of the brain can be changed by experience. Watch this clip to see how even the adult brain can change its shape and size to suit its owner (which explains how London taxi drivers have encyclopedic knowledge of London’s streets): London Taxi Drivers’ Brains
  • Be patient with children. They’re likely to want to keep talking about the traumatic event. This is their way of achieving temporal sequencing and beginning to master the narrative.
  • Remember that all behaviour is motivated. See more information of what children are really saying when they go into fight, flight or freeze mode: Beacon House: What We Say comic
  • Review new content daily: start each day with short recaps of key messages from the day, week, month before.
  • Limit instructions; try to provide as few at a time as possible and slowly build up to three instructions at a time.
  • When providing information to parents, don’t provide spoken and written words at the same time. If it’s an information night, don’t present a PowerPoint with text, or provide handouts with text while you’re speaking. The same part of the brain processes written and spoken words so attention is either divided or switching between the two mediums. Studies have found that memory is less accurate when people were provided with written and spoken words at the same time. However, spoken words and images or graphics appearing at the same can aid comprehension and memory in a process referred to as dual coding (as they activate different parts of the brain).
  • Acknowledge that it’s normal to be feeling a bit fuzzy and to be finding it hard to concentrate after a traumatic event.
  • Understand that repetitive play is all part of understanding the traumatic event, and monitor and scaffold the play if necessary (i.e. present solutions).
  • Movement is a popular regulation method for children and can also improve attention and focus.
  • Good sleep assists in sustained attention.
  • Foster a growth mindset by providing positive feedback -children will internalise the feedback with which we provide them, and this will become their self-talk when approaching a problem.
  • Model positive self-talk -i.e. “This is tricky at the moment, what could I do to make this easier? Who could I ask for help?”
  • Listen to children’s self-talk (which is a positive sign as it means they’re engaging in learning) and jump in to scaffold if it becomes negative or unhelpful.
  • Be a humble learner; the children are the experts of their own trauma.
  • Approach the children with hope; children don’t want to be blackmarked as ruined objects. Largely, children are surprisingly resilient.

A Quick Note on Emotions & Further Reading, Viewing & Listening

It is widely known that until kids feel safe and regulated; their learning will not be optimal. A calm and predictable environment will assist their readiness to learn. Some ideas and links to support emotional regulation can be found below.