In a recent conversation with a first-year teacher I was asked if the process of teaching became less complex with time. I considered my response carefully and suggested that whilst teaching will always be a busy profession with many demands on teachers’ time and energy, being a teacher simply requires you to maintain an unconditional positive regard for the children in your care. Your job as a teacher is to form strong working relationships with the children in your care and to see any errors that they make, be they emotional, social, physical or cognitive as your opportunity to teach.

I work with children who are disengaged either totally or partially from formal education. I have seen first hand the challenges faced by students with poor literacy skills who already see themselves as poor students, bad learners and in most cases, label themselves as bad people. This perception of themselves as bad and worthless is reinforced every time they find themselves in trouble. The challenges facing these children and those trying to reengage them can be significant.

It became clear to me when working with disengaged children that most of them had a background that included trauma. By trauma I refer to the definition provided by Bruce Perry;

         “A psychologically distressing event that is outside the range of usual human experience, often involving a sense of intense fear, terror and helplessness”

Trauma, particularly in the years from conception to three, when the brain is developing and growing so fast, results in the formation of maladapted thinking processes. Children who have been traumatised overuse the limbic system of their brain, (survival brain) rather than relying on their cortex (thinking brain).

For example, if a child has learnt that adults cannot be trusted and are sometimes dangerous, they will potentially see their fist day at school as a justifiably terrifying experience.

Increased stress levels activate their limbic system resulting in an inability to learn. They can only disassociate (freeze), run (flight) or fight. Once we have a negative experience that initiates a stress response we tend to avoid that situation occurring again if we can. So it is with these children and literacy.

I believe in Tasmania we have a growing number of children who are struggling with their literacy skills not because schools are not helping them but because their early experiences rob them of their potential. I also believe this number is higher than we think.

Effective intervention to help these vulnerable children regain some of their potential lost to trauma, requires trauma-informed practice, unconditional positive regard for the child, extraordinary patience and luck. We are asking the child to revisit what has been a particularly unpleasant experience for them because of their maladapted view of the world. Forming positive working relationships becomes essential as it provides the child with a chance to once again trust and to take the risk of failing and embarrassing themselves publicly.

            “I don’t know why you bother with me Steve. No one in our family can read, it’s like a magic trick we don’t know. I just can’t do it, I can’t make my brain see words” (Ben 13)

I was lucky enough to travel to the U.K. and the U.S.A. to study successful trauma recovery centres and two things became clear to me as significant elements of every successful program I saw.

Firstly, each centre was staffed with people who had been trained in the area of trauma recovery. They also were loud advocates encouraging local, state and national bodies to focus on early intervention as a long-term solution for the increasing number of children suffering intergenerational neglect or abuse. They saw the importance of identifying young vulnerable mothers and providing those mothers with the parenting skills absent from their own childhood experience.

Secondly, these organisations recognised the importance of a multidisciplinary approach when supporting these children. The most effective programs like Jasper Mountain in Oregon had excellent communications between and colocation of all support services, education, paediatrics, speech therapy, psychologists, social workers, youth workers and psychiatrists.

Early intervention is perhaps the only way we can break the intergenerational cycle of abuse, neglect and drug addiction that so negatively impact upon the child’s potential and leave the education system attempting to mitigate damage already done. Sometimes we have a win, it’s what keeps us going.

              “Hey Steve, does that sign say no skating when its wet?”

              “How did you know that Benny?”

              “Oh no, not another lecture from you on how good my reading is!” (Ben 15)

Steve Bentley worked as a primary school teacher for many years and now works in a high school setting with children who have disengaged from school and who have suffered trauma. Following a Churchill Fellowship in 2014, he has worked to raise awareness of the impacts trauma has on brain development, on behaviour resulting from trauma, and trauma recovery. Here he writes for the Communicating: The Heart of Literacy initiative – find more at chattermatters.com.au.

Something to think about: In terms of intergenerational cycles of abuse, neglect and drug use, when do we stop feeling sorry for the child and start requiring change in the adult?