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The impact of trauma on learning

At a recent EHSA (European School Heads Association) General Assembly meeting there was a hugely interesting and informative presentation from the Head of the Norwegian Centre for Crisis Psychology (Senter for Krisepsykologi).  It’s not clear what the audience expected as Unni Hjeltne took to the stage – perhaps an exploration of the response to and long-term impact of the 2011 school massacre on Utøya island but certainly not the wide-ranging catastrophe-focussed presentation that was of direct relevance for every school wherever they are.

While Unni’s presentation did focus on war zones, migration and natural disasters she highlighted the impact of all sorts of trauma on children and on their learning.   Unni reflected that when adults experience trauma they often have sick leave or special leave from work while children are often sent back to school and need support.  She made clear her view that schools played a hugely important role in offering some of that “psychological first aid”.  She talked about her centre’s investigation of the long term negative impact of the events on Utøya island on educational outcomes for survivors, siblings and those who were affected by it even though their exposure had been only through the media.

Their work examined the extent to which children (just as adults) can find it difficult to concentrate on other things following trauma and that this impact will be felt for different durations by different individuals.  For many, the trauma translates into behaviours that are not accepted in school.  Without knowing about the trauma – seeing only the behaviour – many schools further reinforce the disadvantage in learning.  The most common example, the example that is relevant to every school, was bereavement. 

In a helpful article “Grief in Children: Children’s responses to death” the Norwegian authors explore: the stages and ways in which children develop their understanding of death; how they seek to make sense of it; common phases of response to bereavement; and, ways in which children can be helped through these difficult times.    

While in no way a substitute for the full article (which you can access at:  http://eshacommunity.wikispaces.com/Crisis+psychology), here is an extract in which the author aims to summarise some guidelines for adults who are helping children deal with bereavement (not entirely school focussed):


Open and honest communication

•     give age-appropriate explanations

•     reduce confusion

•     don’t give abstract explanations

•     don’t explain death as “a voyage” or “sleep”

Give time for cognitive mastery

•     allow questions and conversations

•     accept short conversations

•     look at albums and photographs

•     let children visit the grave

•     accept children’s play

Make the loss real

•     let the child participate in rituals

•     do not hide your own feelings

•     keep reminders of the dead person present

Stimulate emotional coping

•     work for continuity in home, school, or play group

•     avoid unnecessary separations

•     talk with children about their anxiety about something happening to their parents or themselves

•     talk with children about eventual guilt feelings

The article then goes on to explain some of these elements in more depth.

The key point in sharing this with you through the pages of Head to Head is not to suggest that you or your teachers should take on the role of Educational Psychologists or counsellors, nor is it a suggestion that our schools are not sensitive to the emotional wellbeing of pupils who have suffered bereavement.  Rather it is a reminder to look behind the behaviours displayed by pupils to help them to return to learning effectively as soon as is possible for them.  The lessons shared by the Senter for Krisepsykologi in their presentation and on their website are relevant for all of us and will be especially so for schools who are receiving migrants displaced by war or civil unrest who may not only be dealing with a cultural transition but with the after effects of trauma we can scarcely imagine.

Link to resources in english available on the Senter for Krisepsykologi website:  https://krisepsyk.no/brochures

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