The latest news, views and reviews for Australia's child care industry. November 5, 2013
child care industry
Children and trauma
The role of early childhood educators
children and traumaSevere bushfires in NSW recently caused many people to lose their homes as well as the tragic loss of life. The eerie atmosphere created by the combination of fire, smoke, wind, ash and sun was impossible to avoid and undoubtedly prompted many children to ask their educators and/or parents what was happening.

Early childhood education and care providers often have a front line role in helping children understand the world around them and being able to talk about traumatic events such as natural disasters and why they happen is an important part of that role. Other events which can be traumatic for children including the death or illness of a close family member, a physical attack or maybe even an accident requiring hospitalisation.

The natural in built resilience of young children helps them deal with trauma to some extent but may not be sufficient for helping them fully understand and recover from the effects of a significant event. It's important to understand how trauma symptoms manifest in preschoolers and what you can do to help them cope.

How do young children react following trauma?
Children cope with trauma in different ways and a child's reaction to an event such as a natural disaster will vary greatly depending on their developmental level, previous life experiences, level of exposure to the trauma, parental reactions and subsequent changes in living situation.

While it's not always clear how young children will react there are a range of fairly typical responses which may include moderate to severe increases in distress immediately following an event which may reduce in time. Some children may experience immediate post traumatic stress symptoms which persist or intensify while others may seem okay at first and then develop stress symptoms later on.

Trauma responses to be aware of in young children include:
  • Reliving the trauma (e.g., traumatic play or drawing, nightmares, repeatedly talking about the event, become visibly distressed around reminders)
  • Avoiding reminders or appearing numb (e.g., refusal to be around anything associated with the event, withdrawal from family, teachers and friends, less interest in play, restricted exploratory behaviour)
  • Heightened arousal (e.g., disturbed sleep, more jumpy or easily startled by loud noises, difficulties concentrating)
  • Behavioural changes (e.g., increased irritability, extreme temper tantrums, fussiness, attention-seeking, aggressive behaviour)
  • Separation anxiety or excessive clinginess to primary caregiver or teachers (e.g., crying upon separation, insisting to be picked up, won't stay in room alone)
  • Regression in previously acquired developmental skills (e.g., loss of bowel control, talking like a baby, thumb-sucking)
  • Development of new fears that are unrelated to the trauma (e.g. the dark, monsters, animals)
  • Increased physical complaints (e.g., tummy aches, headaches)
  • Changes in appetite (e.g., fussy eating, no appetite)
  • Relationship difficulties with caregivers, siblings or peers.
An important factor to keep in mind is that children's responses to trauma vary considerably and change over time. Early childhood education and care providers are in an excellent position to observe and help children deal with the effects of trauma and can help in a variety of ways.

The suggestions below are recommendations made in Childhood Trauma Reactions: A Guide For Teachers From Preschool To Year 12 a publication by the Queensland Government.

Monitor symptoms over time
Being familiar with the types of reactions that young children can have is the first step in being able to help. Remaining vigilant and curious about changes in behaviour of any of the students in your classroom and knowing how to help a young person (and their family) get the assistance they need is also particularly important.

Maintain routines
Generally, most children respond well to structured environments, with clear goals, timelines and activities. Keeping familiar routines helps reduce unnecessary stress for the young person. Familiar routines and structure will help the young person to feel safe and maintain consistency in one area of their life. Although this may be of greater importance immediately following the traumatic event, it may also be particularly important to young people who are still experiencing difficulties some time later.

It is important to also make sure that young people are aware of upcoming events and classroom activities. This may involve setting an agenda at the beginning of the day, week, or month and reminding children of this.

Talk about the event
There is a common misconception that talking about an event can cause more problems, or cause the young person to develop distress reactions. Although it is important to consider how you talk to the young person who has experienced trauma (and what sort of reactions and coping strategies you model), talking about the traumatic event and the young person's feelings DOES NOT generally cause the child to develop problems.

This is particularly true for talking about the trauma months or even a year later. It is very unlikely that talking about the traumatic event at this later point would cause the young person to develop problems. In fact, if the young person does become distressed while talking about the trauma some time later, this is a sign that they may already be experiencing difficulties and may require additional assessment and assistance.

Tips for talking to children about trauma or natural disaster:
  • Some children will need to talk about the disaster, but it is important to place some rules around this to limit potential modelling of distress and inappropriate coping mechanisms. For example, immediately following such disasters, it may be useful to set dedicated periods for talking about the disaster (e.g. 10 minutes at the start of class). Without such limits talking about the disaster can easily become overwhelming and unhealthy for the entire class.
  • When discussing the disaster, it is important for the teacher to contain any conversations which encourage fear. It is important for teachers to remain calm and convey a clear message that the threat/danger is over, and that now the focus is on recovery and rebuilding lives.
  • It is good to schedule these sessions when you have plenty of support in the classroom.
  • While it is okay for ECTs to share some of their own experiences with the trauma, it is very important to maintain the 'teacher' role. Teachers should aim to model calmness when discussing stressful situations and model appropriate coping behaviours. If teachers have also experienced the traumatic situation and are traumatised, it is important to be thoughtful about how you talk to children and how you can convey calmness during the conversation.
  • Invite children to talk about how the disaster has impacted their family and in what ways things have changed for them. Be sure to focus on positive changes as well as the strengths and positive coping strategies the young person has demonstrated over this time.
  • For younger children, talking about the event may be difficult. Some children might respond better to drawing as a way of communicating. Ask children to draw pictures of their family and household then and now. Encourage them to look for the positive things that have changed, the strengths they have developed and how their family is planning to change or do fun things from here.
  • It is important to consider young people who have lost loved ones. Losing a loved one does not automatically mean that you should not talk to the child about the traumatic event. Talking can still be a useful exercise. It is however important to be aware of the young person's circumstances where possible to pre-empt and plan for emotional reactions. Remember, talking to youth about events and how it impacts them shows that you care and that someone is there to support them.
Set clear and firm limits/expectations of behaviour
During times of recovery, it is important for children to return to normal routines and functioning. As part of this, it is important that early childhood education and care providers do not change expectations relating to behaviour rather that they make adjustments where necessary to the way they deliver classroom activities. For example, if children are having some difficulty maintaining concentration, it may be necessary to change to 15 or 30 minute blocks and incorporate physical activity in between (e.g. stand up and shake it out) to stimulate attention and concentration.

Children respond well to clear boundaries and routines which involve firm and clear limits for behaviour and clearly stated (and implemented) consequences for misbehaviour. The emphasis should be on consistent and logical consequences, rather than punitive consequences.

Use a buddy system
Pairing children with other children to ensure they have emotional support person while in care may be a good strategy for younger children. Although the buddy system might be most useful immediately following the traumatic event it may still be beneficial over time. Some children have ongoing difficulties, some may not like to be alone, some may require ongoing emotional support and others may simply enjoy team environments.

Safe relaxation spaces
Consider allocating a safe space specifically for young people to use when they are experiencing difficulties and need time to calm themself. Placing some comforting children's books or quiet activities in this space will give children something else to focus on while they take some time out from the demands of their day.

Provide choices – regain control
Often, during the traumatic event, young people may feel a sense of powerlessness or loss of control. Traumatic events are usually beyond the control of the young children as are the consequences that follow. One strategy that might be useful for dealing with this is to provide children with choices or input into some activities. Giving children choices and involving them in decision making can help restore their feeling of control.

Anticipate difficult times and plan ahead
It is likely that children may re-live some of their symptoms, or experience some distress at important milestones. Anniversaries of the event, birthdays of lost family members, holiday times (Easter, Christmas, Mother's Day, Father's Day) can all be difficult for young children. During these times, it is possible that children might demonstrate an intensification of emotional difficulties and problem behaviours, or might even develop new behaviours or emotions that cause distress. Where possible, plan ahead and pre-empt these occasions and provide support where appropriate.

Prepare children for situations which may trigger reactions
Some children, although generally functioning well, might still be affected by sudden and significant events or triggers. It can be useful for carers to prepare children for any sudden events. For example, children may need to be warned about upcoming fire drills or sirens to be trialled or if carers are about to do anything sudden, like turning off all the lights, or make loud noises.

Focus on strengths and positives
For many families, there can be a long time following the trauma where the focus remains on the traumatic event, getting their lives back together and dealing with the problematic reactions that follow. As a result it can be very easy to focus on the negative things going on in a child's life, including problems managing emotions and behaviours. Often little attention is paid to the positive behaviours or coping strategies the young person is showing. Providing positive reinforcement (praise) for things the young person has done well not only makes the young person feel good about themselves, but also demonstrates to the young person what type of behaviours they should continue to engage in.

Acknowledging and reinforcing strengths, positive behaviours and coping strategies can be a particularly important and easy strategy for carers to practice and implement. This can be as simple as praising children when you notice a positive behaviour, or personal strength they have developed or demonstrated.

Help children build a support system
One of the most distressing outcomes following a natural disaster is the loss of community and it is important for children to build a strong support system. Sometimes it is important to make sure they have multiple support sources in care as well as home. Carers can help children identify who they can talk to about difficult situations and any problems they are having.

Further Reading
Childhood Trauma Reactions: A Guide For Teachers From Preschool To Year 12
a publication by the Queensland Government
© 2013 - All rights reserved®
Care For Kids Internet Services Pty Ltd
ABN 55 104 145 735
PO Box 543 Balmain NSW 2041
Connect Products & Services
Contact Us
CareforKids Social
Advertise with Us
Advanced listings
Daily News
Popular Articles