Educational trauma is not only experienced by children. I argue that numerous parents are traumatised by the same educational organisations when advocating for their child's rights to be acknowledged and supported.
Educational trauma refers to: 'The psychological distress and negative experiences that individuals may suffer as a result of their education.' I would add '…and as a result of advocating for those rights in educational organisations.'
It can encompass a range of traumatic events, experiences, and conditions within the educational setting that impact a person's well-being and academic outcomes.
As a former teacher, if someone had suggested that my classroom or school was adding to a negative situation or creating trauma for the children in my care, I would have been outraged, insulted, and in complete disbelief. Many educators today are likely to feel the same way. Remember, though, when we know better, we do better. Please open your mind to the possibility that this trauma is real, and it is our responsibility to acknowledge and change it.
Not all Departments of Education are created equal, and the one where I worked had a communication strategy to make it seem inclusive, supportive, and understanding on its website and other media. However, in practice, the reality was far different. Teachers believed the rhetoric that they were already following the department's stated policies on inclusion and creating supportive environments. Sadly, this was not the case, and the gap between stated policies and reality caused—and continues to cause—trauma for parents and students alike.
What causes psychological distress and negative experiences that individuals may suffer due to their educational experience?
Systemic organisations and perceptions include but are not limited to, bullying by peers and teachers, harassment, active and passive disability discrimination, high-stakes testing and academic pressure, and inadequate or unsupportive educational environments. Under-identification and misdiagnosis of Twice-Exceptional (2E) children may experience educational trauma due to under-identification or misdiagnosis of their exceptional abilities or disabilities.
Their strengths may mask their struggles, making it difficult for educators and professionals to recognise their unique needs.
- Unchallenging or insufficiently stimulating curriculum.
- The lack of sensory-friendly environments.
- The lack of individualised support and accommodations: providing individualised support plans, such as Individualised Education Programs (IEPs).
- Accommodations for the unique needs of students with autism and ADHD (attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder). This may include modified assignments, extended time for tasks, visual aids, and assistive technologies.
Educational trauma has profound effects on a person's educational attainment, motivation, and well-being. While it is felt by neurotypical individuals, educational trauma is more evident in those divergent individuals with ADHD, autism and co-occurring conditions such as dysgraphia, dyslexia, sensory disorders and anxiety, tics, social phobia, school refusal, PTSD, depression, panic disorders and Tourette's syndrome.
We must face the facts and acknowledge that some educational institutions are not meeting the needs of their students and families due to their organisational practices and beliefs. This might include IEP meetings, communication methods, behaviour management, segregation and exclusion practices, defined roles, confusion, and divergent interpretations of policies and blaming parents for their children's behaviour while at school. The misunderstanding is that no funding means no support and that medication is all that's required to 'fix' children's presentation at school. It could encompass a lack of familiarity with legislation and policies.
Schools and teachers rarely know enough (or anything at all...) about federal or state disability discrimination legislation or about their responsibilities and obligations with respect to implementing disability adjustments for students with disability in the classroom and for tests and exams. Too many schools in all three sectors (Public, Catholic and Independent) still initially allege to parents—and to me as the parent's advocate—that they have never heard of any kind of disability discrimination legislation, viz.:
- Federal Disability Discrimination Act 1992 ('DDA') (or perhaps one of its various state counterparts); and
- Federal Disability Standards for Education 2005 ('Standards') subordinate legislation made under the DDA, the provisions of which are enforceable (DDA, s. 32).
Then there is almost the unbelievable. For example, Dr Sally Robinson, Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Children and Young People, Southern Cross University, explained that in her research, students with a disability referred to the 'drip, drip, drip' of harm in their lives in contrast to the critical incidents parents report:
... when you speak to children and young people with disability about their experience of safety and harm at school, they say different things than their families say and that education professionals say. What they talk about is how chronic harm is in their lives.
They talk about the drip, drip, drip of things that happen... They talk about being insulted and ignored and minimised. They talk about how those things build up in their lives ...
They talked about things like people speaking badly to them, people making threats to them, the sort of cruel nicknames that people had for them, through to verbal abuse and physical abuse and incidents of harm. What their families talked about were critical incident-type harms, the things that eventually built to something that people came home with, or another person told them about, or a teacher reported home to.
This evidence broadly reflects the findings of the NSW Ombudsman's inquiry into behaviour management in schools. It found that restrictive practices were being used in ways inconsistent with and contrary to the intentions and guidelines for their use. Similarly, the report indicated that suspensions were being used as a general measure to reduce disruption to classrooms, despite there being no evidence to suggest that they would. The report indicated that, in fact, research shows suspensions may exacerbate challenging behaviours for students with disabilities.
Students may also have a presentation of traits that makes them more vulnerable to trauma. Traits such as perfectionism, self-criticism, and difficulty with emotional regulation and coping skills can be particular challenges for neurodivergent children. Educators often misinterpret these children as wilfully disobedient. 'Maladaptive behaviours', such as situations that exceed a neurodivergent child's ability to self-regulate and self-regulatory stimming, can lead to suspensions, punishments, and a lack of positive rewards. This exacerbates the stress and anxiety these children experience.
Educators often misinterpret neurodivergent children with traits such as perfectionism, self-criticism, and difficulty with emotional regulation and coping skills as wilfully disobedient.
For parents of neurodivergent children, the constant worry and stress of finding support for their children to engage in school is overwhelming. Occupational therapists, speech therapists, behaviour specialists, psychiatrists, and paediatricians all provide advice on how to help children progress towards becoming active, involved, and happy members of society. Yet that advice is rarely accepted and acted upon in schools, and this causes incomprehensible stress and anxiety to the parents.
The fear of misunderstanding—by other students, parents, and the wider community—only adds to the stress and anxiety of parents of neurodivergent children. In addition, the knowledge of the suspension-to-incarceration pipeline often makes parents feel inadequately prepared and supported and guilty for the position they find themselves in and raising their children.
For parents of neurodivergent children, the constant worry and stress of finding support for their children to engage in school is overwhelming.
The stress of behavioralism, particularly Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA), which attempts to make ADHD and autistic individuals more neurotypical, is considered by some to be an outdated approach. It can suppress these children's character, personality and coping mechanisms while sending a negative message that they are not "normal" or "enough". This creates yet more significant potential for mental health issues in the future, making early intervention and proper support an urgent need.
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