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The trauma challenge: How teachers experience students with complex trauma

Anne Southall

Corresponding Author

Anne Southall

La Trobe University, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia


Anne Southall, La Trobe Unvierstiy, Edwards St, Bendigo, VIC 3550, Australia.

Email: [email protected]

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First published: 20 October 2023


Research documenting the effects of trauma in early childhood describes the profound and long-term consequences of child abuse and neglect on the developing brain and the subsequent deficits in critical cognitive and social development. While educators have increasingly endeavoured to understand this impact and become more ‘trauma-informed’ in their classrooms, little is understood about the process or what it requires of the teacher. This study explores the experiences of six teachers in regional Victoria, Australia, who sought to apply their neuroscientific understandings in their classrooms, and identifies the many personal and professional challenges they confronted. Critical reflection was employed both to deeply explore their collective experiences and to support them in this complex work. Findings describe the nuanced and interpersonal nature of trauma-informed education and imply the need for critical reflection in teacher practice as an important element in the process.

Key points

  • The profound and long-term impact of early childhood trauma on a student's brain development and learning can present complex behavioural and academic challenges for their teachers.
  • Educators are required to become more responsive to their students from traumatised backgrounds, but little is understood of what this actually requires of them, both personally and professionally.
  • This study explores the experiences of six teachers in regional Victoria, Australia, as they apply their trauma-informed understandings for their traumatised students.
  • The findings reveal the nuanced, interpersonal nature of this work and highlight the need for structures to support educators in implementing the trauma-informed approach.


Children exposed to abuse and neglect during the critical period of early childhood experience a range of cognitive and affective manifestations that impede social and emotional development (Rogel et al., 2020; Spinazzola et al., 2021; Van Der Kolk, 2014) and impact on behaviour and learning (Grill, 2005; Howard, 2013). Over the last two decades, approaches to redress the impact of early childhood trauma have been researched in many fields, with a growing body of work emerging as recommendations for schools (Cole et al., 2013; Craig, 2015; Wolpow et al., 2009). The teacher plays a key role in the implementation of these approaches through the provision of social and emotional support and the development of a positive teacher–student relationship (Schore, 2010). While it is widely acknowledged that ‘as at risk levels increase, the challenge of building supportive school relationships becomes increasingly complex’ (Sanders et al., 2016, p. 120), little attention has been focused on the difficulties teachers experience in implementing the trauma-informed approach. ‘Managing the spill over of emotional stress and tension in their classrooms’ (Sanders et al., 2016, p. 120) while remaining a calming presence (Nealy-Oparah & Scruggs-Hussein, 2018) can be complex and challenging work.

Understanding the personal and professional challenges teachers experience when implementing their trauma-informed understanding is a first and critical step. This study explores the experiences of six teachers in regional Victoria, Australia, who sought to apply their trauma-informed understandings after a series of professional development sessions on trauma-informed education. Using a critically reflective process (Southall et al., 2021), these teachers reflected on their many personal and professional challenges as they sought to develop and implement a more trauma-informed practice. The themes arising from these reflections were analysed to identify the complexities inherent in this work and identify the gaps in our understanding of what may be required for the development of a trauma-sensitive learning community.

Literature review

It is important to clarify the working definition of trauma as it relates to trauma-informed practice. The notion of being trauma-informed, trauma-sensitive or trauma-aware is complex. Informed by trauma theory emerging from neuroscience (Perry, 1994; van der Kolk, 2014), developed in the health fields (Evans, 2014) and adapted for education (Cole et al., 2013), it usually refers to a working knowledge of the impact of early traumatic experience on brain development and attachment (Schore, 2005). Clear definitions of what constitutes a traumatic event and how it manifests are described in the diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) by the American Psychiatric Association (APA, 2013). However, many researchers in the field contest this definition (D'Andrea et al., 2012) and claim it does not include many of the symptoms and behaviours observed in traumatised children. van der Kolk et al. (2009) proposed three symptom clusters in addition to the defined symptoms of PTSD, including symptoms of emotional and physiological dysregulation/dissociation, problems with conduct and attention regulation, and difficulties with self-esteem regulation and in managing social connections (van der Kolk et al., 2009). This was termed developmental trauma disorder (DTD) or complex trauma, in acknowledgement of the impact of extreme fear during the period of early brain development. This group of researchers claim that even when a traumatic event does not result in clinical symptoms such as PTSD, it can have a serious impact across all major domains of functioning including cognition and learning, impacting on the ability to pay attention, retain information and interact positively (Avery et al., 2021).

The approaches surrounding trauma-informed schools, however, have largely drawn from other studies centred on adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) (Felitti et al., 1998). These experiences, including traumatic life events, may not fit the definition of trauma used by the APA and may not necessarily develop into trauma symptoms. While diagnosis and terminology remain contentious, the debate continues to inform the need for educators to recognise the profound and long-term impact of these early experiences on learning and relationships for their students. The terms PTSD, DTD, complex trauma and ACEs, and the behaviours that define them, are all used to characterise the needs and behaviours to which trauma-informed teachers are expected to respond (Gherardi et al., 2020).

Over the past two decades as trauma-informed education has evolved, it has generally been assumed that ‘understanding the experience of the abused and neglected child assists us to develop compassion, patience and empathy’ (Downey, 2007, p. 4) and ‘simply increasing awareness of the key principles of development and brain function would, over time, lead to innovations and improved outcomes’ (Perry, 2009, p. 253). However, there is a paucity of studies supporting the notion that by being ‘trauma-informed’ teachers will be able to design programmes or develop the attitudes which will take account of the complex individualised learning required to support a learner from a traumatic background. Despite this, trauma-informed approaches have focused heavily on raising awareness of trauma and its impact, without fully addressing the social context of trauma (Gherardi et al., 2021; White et al., 2019). For example, a systematic review of the impact of trauma-informed interventions in schools noted that very few of the studies focused on teachers, compared to those directly targeting children (Zakszeski et al., 2017). While teachers may understand what is required for implementing trauma-informed interventions, they may not know how to support trauma-exposed students (Mancini, 2020; Voith et al., 2020). The challenges posed by some students with higher needs often overwhelmed staff, overshadowed their success, and threatened their commitment to persevere (Gherardi et al., 2021). Anderson et al. (2015) noted that many teachers are not trained to manage their own stress, which can lead to feelings of powerlessness and hopelessness (Koenig et al., 2018).

As the field of trauma-informed care continues to grow, studies continue to emphasise the importance of understanding educators' difficulty in responding to their traumatised students in the classroom (Sonsteng-Person & Loomis, 2021). Commenting on the disconnect between understanding the impact of traumatic experience and what it means to implement trauma-informed education, Gherardi et al. (2021, p. 13) observed that ‘our work in schools brings into sharp focus the ways in which capacity (or lack of capacity) at the school, district, and community level can severely limit these efforts’. This gap between what teachers see as the most challenging aspects of their work and the emphasis on trauma-aware understandings is likely to undermine the successful implementation of trauma-sensitive interventions. While being trauma-informed is acknowledged as important, being responsive or ‘trauma-sensitive’ requires an enactment of the understandings. Practices are deemed trauma-sensitive if they promote healthy, caring and supportive interactions among students and educators (Parker et al., 2020). ‘Trauma sensitive schools aim to prevent re-injury or re-traumatisation by acknowledging trauma and its triggers and avoiding stigmatising and punishing students (Kezelman & Stavropoulos, 2012). ‘For traumatised students, the teachers they have, the relationships they build and the school culture that supports these students will ultimately determine whether they access developmentally detrimental, experiences through their school years' (Costa, 2017, p. 115).

Trauma-sensitive approaches designed for schools (Bloom, 2013; Cole et al., 2013; Wolpow et al., 2009) have sought to describe the practices and approaches that need to be adopted in the transition from trauma-informed to trauma-sensitive schools. However, complex and demanding work is needed in

shifting from traditional ideas to trauma-informed ideas, in the ways that educators interact and connect with students; develop relationships with students; understand and support students; consider and approach behaviour; think about children and young people developmentally; understand traumatised students' complexities; move from practises based on exclusion to practises based on inclusion; and from practises based on behaviour management to practises based on relational influence.

(Costa, 2017, p. 117)

Prioritising relationships: What is required?

Relationship-building is heavily emphasised throughout trauma-informed approaches designed for schools. Programmes highlight the ‘healing power of an adult who cares’ (Wolpow et al., 2009, p. 72) and identify the student–teacher relationship as a central means of providing healthy attachment bonds and unconditional care from non-parental adults (Alexander, 2020; Cole et al., 2005; Craig, 2008; Crosby, 2015; Wolpow et al., 2009). While this literature charges teachers with forming these healthy bonds, research exploring the student–teacher relationship (Hamre & Pianta, 2006) has consistently reported on the difficulty of developing a trusted relationship with a student who is avoidant and dysregulated. Nuanced responses that ‘involve understanding the child's familial, social, and community contexts’ (Hodas, 2006, p. 34) and the specific life circumstances of each child are required. The dysregulated emotions of children from backgrounds of abuse involve teachers in developing a high degree of self-awareness and sensitivity in order to observe, understand and respond effectively to these individual students' behaviours (McCreery, 2015; Sonsteng-Person & Loomis, 2021).

In trauma-sensitive approaches teachers are also encouraged not to mirror students' emotions or react to a student's challenging behaviour but maintain composure to avoid escalation and model healthy emotional regulation (Crosby, 2015). It is recommended that teachers attend to both the spoken message and the underlying motivation, finding patterns in behaviour, identifying triggers, and responding to signs of dysregulation. Differentiating responses to students is essential. Some students may need a ‘time out’, but others may need ‘time in’ since isolation could be a trigger linked with abandonment or neglect (Alexander, 2020). A deeply nuanced and well-considered response is required amidst the dynamic and often frenetic nature of classrooms and schools.

This personally and professionally demanding work, however, has had very little attention in the discourse so far, as acknowledged in recent reviews (Avery et al., 2021). ‘Although research has documented the power of trauma-informed approaches, little empirical attention has been given to investigating this approach from the perspective of those on the front lines working with trauma-impacted children – teachers’ (Wall, 2021, p. 121). Just what are the challenges experienced as teachers implement their trauma-informed understandings, and what do they see as their challenges in the transition to creating a trauma-sensitive classroom and school?

The interpersonal nature of trauma-sensitive teaching practice requires a teacher to understand the relationship dynamic they are involved in with a view to changing it. Critically reflective practice provides an opportunity for teachers to reflect on their relationships and experiences in ways that develop these deeper levels of understanding (Schon, 1983, p. 61). The reflexivity required fosters transformative learning to possibly influence future action (Gardner, 2014). Participating in group reflection, alongside their peers implementing trauma-informed practice, can enable teachers to benefit from the experience of others (Fook, 2016), and solve complex problems of practice (Edwards, 2009). The model put forward by Gardner (2014) defines two stages of critical reflection which explore the feelings, thoughts, values and assumptions that influence practice involving both deconstruction and reconstruction. Stage one explores how a particular experience is significant to the person, identifying hidden or ‘taken for granted’ theory or assumptions. Stage two explores how practices and actions need to change to fit how the person prefers to work in order to fit with fundamental values, and includes ideas about how to bring about change (Gardner, 2014, p. 55).


This study applies the Reflective Circle Education Model (Southall, 2020, 2022, 2023) to explore the challenges experienced by six teachers working with traumatised students in regional Victoria, Australia, as they implemented their trauma-informed understandings over one school year. The six reflective circles were recorded and analysed using thematic analysis (Braun et al., 2014) to answer the research question: what is the nature of the challenges experienced by teachers as they implement their trauma-informed understandings?

Teacher professional development

The year before the research commenced, the whole staff in the study school had attended a series of professional development sessions run by the Department of Human Services. These sessions included the impact of extreme fear on early brain development and an overview of attachment theory. The whole staff also attended a full school closure day on trauma and its impact during early childhood, facilitated by a Department of Education team of psychologists and social workers recruited to develop the capacity of schools to respond to their traumatised students. Several of the teachers had also undertaken their own research in this area through online courses and were leading discussions about changes to pedagogy at a whole-staff level. The teachers were then expected to implement their trauma-informed understandings for an individual student from a traumatised background. As all of the teachers were working in a specialised school setting, an individualised approach to implementation was preferred, as the students in this setting are all identified as tier 3 students requiring this level of support. The teachers were asked to focus on only one of their students for the purpose of this study.

Permission to conduct the research was granted through the La Trobe University Human Research Ethics Committee (No: E15-135) and the State Government Victoria Department of Education and Training prior to the research being conducted (DET No. 2015-002908).


The teachers were selected after a staff briefing outlining the research purpose and design. An expression of interest was invited, with 12 respondents replying. The six participants were selected considering the need to gain a gender balance and a range of both ages and teaching experience among the participant group (Gaventa & Cornwall, 2008). The selected group had an age range of between 24 and 62 years and a teaching experience range of between two and 40 years. Three of the six participants selected had special education qualifications, while the remaining three had a Bachelor of Education degree in primary education. Six 90-minute meetings were held throughout the year with the group of six teachers from a regional specialist school in Victoria, Australia. The students identified by the teachers in this study had enrolled with a confirmed diagnosis of PTSD; three students had also been identified by Department of Education psychologists as having reactive attachment disorder and oppositional defiant disorder. The six students chosen were all currently in out-of-home care and under the responsibility of Human Services, which had also identified them as traumatised by their early experiences. While the participant teachers had other students in their class with similar profiles, they were asked to choose one of their students to focus on, based on their lack of progress behaviourally or academically and the teacher's perceived need to change their current approach.


The school is a specialist school in regional Victoria, Australia. This is a segregated setting where the students between the age of five and 18 years need to meet the criteria for a mild intellectual disability (that is, Intelligence Quota (IQ) below 70). As the IQ score is the only criterion for entrance, students with a range of learning difficulties, social and emotional challenges, diagnoses and mental health conditions attend the school. The school had an enrolment of 261 students. The Department of Education (Victoria) identifies the level of social disadvantage in schools through the Student Family Occupation and Education (SFOE) categories. These categories are used to determine students who come from disadvantaged backgrounds and the social disadvantage loading relevant to them. The study school has a SFOE of 0.80, indicating an extremely high level of social and educational disadvantage.

Data collection

The meetings, called ‘reflective circles’, were designed using scripts based on Gardner's (2014) model of critical reflection. An online journal was completed by each participant prior to the reflective circle, which provided the framework for a critical analysis of their underlying assumptions and beliefs and contributed to the discussions. The transcribed discussions and the online journals, together with three individual teacher interviews held throughout the year, form the three datasets this research draws on for analysis.

Data analysis

The codes and themes in the process of thematic analysis arise from the data and map the content as it appears, rather than through pre-determined themes (Braun et al., 2014). The themes and codes were identified through focusing on the meaning of the text and sought to define what was common to the experiences of teachers of students with complex trauma and the meanings they were deriving from their experiences.

The NVivo program was chosen as the tool for data analysis, as it allows themes to be sorted and coded through an inductive process by highlighting and coding data and then naming an appropriate thematic heading. Data excerpts were interpreted and codes identified for the meaning that ‘lay beneath the semantic surface of the data’ (Braun et al., 2014, p. 60). This process provided the first interpretation of the data. The number of ‘sources’ (that is, the participants) and ‘references’ (the number of actual entries recorded in the NVivo program) became the common themes, with more than two sources (participants) and more than five references (text from transcripts) considered as common data. Those nodes with less than two sources and five references were then re-categorised using the same process as stage 1 and added to larger nodes. This meant that all content was included in the findings and larger themes were captured. These themes and the content of the nodes were considered and redescribed many times through discussions with the research team.

In the second stage, a more deductive process was employed to analyse the themes already derived from the text data and answer the research question. This was in order to further refine the themes and sub-headings consistent with the meaning of the text excerpt.

In the third stage, the content for each node was further labelled, with a gradually decreasing number of themes ‘aggregated together to form a major idea in the data base’ (Creswell, 2002, p. 251). The text was reduced through a process of labelling (nodes), eliminating nodes, then further collapsing and grouping the nodes into larger themes (Table 1).

TABLE 1. Summary of themes.
Findings Challenges for teachers
Trauma is experienced individually Complexity of understanding the impact of trauma for an individual student.
Complexity of interpreting the presenting behaviour for impact of trauma in specific contexts.
Complexity of designing individually appropriate responses.
Problem behaviours of students with CT are repetitive Manage the exhaustion it causes.
Deal with perceived feeling of being judged by peers and parents.
Manage apparent loss of personal efficacy.
Manage the constant rumination which ensues.
Problem behaviours of students with CT include aggression and avoidance To remain emotionally neutral in the face of strong personal reaction and emotion in order to build trust.
Define their own personal boundaries for their role.
Manage high levels of frustration, guilt, defeat and helplessness experienced.
Students with CT display controlling behaviours Understand the purpose of the controlling behaviour for the individual and respond in a way which promotes relationship and agency.


The analysis and subsequent findings provided insight into what is required of the teacher of a student with complex trauma. While this group of teachers had been provided with extensive professional development about the impact of early traumatic experiences on learning, it became evident that there remained many challenges which were not alleviated through understanding alone. For this group of teachers, understanding the effect of traumatic experience on brain development did not reduce the challenge the behaviours presented to them in the classroom context or necessarily suggest interventions that might ameliorate them.

The nature of the challenges and concerns that teachers acknowledged throughout the process of reflection constituted a series of dilemmas which were common for the group and were referred to throughout the year. Often a participant would share a similar experience with their own student and agreement was reached within the group that these behaviours were indeed very challenging and similar to those they were experiencing.

Theme 1: Trauma is experienced individually

The most common theme to arise describes the individual nature of the trauma response and the complexity of interpreting the impact of trauma manifesting in a specific student, in a specific context, at a specific time and place. This was consistently observed and articulated by participants throughout the year. In the first initial interview, P1 (participant 1) revealed the problem inherent in having a generalised understanding of the impact of trauma, very early in the study:

if you say he's got a trauma history or whatever, we don't know what that actually means and what it looks like and what that actually means directly for him in that current situation.

(P1, interview 1 February)

Understanding the impact of trauma in general provided the teachers with a framework to acknowledge the trauma driving the behaviour, but was not enough to understand what the individual impact might be for each student. This understanding became a central task for teacher reflection in order to inform their pedagogical responses. Discussions about their target student emphasised the need to identify the purpose behind the behaviour in order to respond appropriately in a given context. As one participant explained, this became largely a ‘trial and error’ process:

like say, an understanding of what is the purpose of his behaviour and what are the best interventions for that behaviour … and it's a trial and error process and it's something that just takes perseverance … one intervention might work one time, may be hopeless the next time. So you've got to have a little arsenal of these intervention strategies that might work well for him at a particular time.

(P2, interview 2 August)

This observation by a participant in session 5 demonstrates the diversity of these individually tailored interventions:

Because it seems that the problems for different kids are just entirely different. Your kid [pointing to another participant] is very into power, something else needs to happen for him. Possibly your kid [points to another participant] just doesn't need to be in a classroom all day. You know it's a long day. So maybe what we require of them is all is going to be different and all really thought through and negotiated with leadership and put into words and practice … It's really difficult to get a system that suits everybody.

(reflective circle, session 5, August)

The challenge inherent in finding the correct response or intervention for a specific student in a specific context became a task for each teacher's individual interpretation.

In order to respond effectively to the behaviour in a way that promoted a sense of calm and safety for the student, teachers required a complex understanding of the experiences and triggers driving the behaviour for each individual student in multiple contexts. ‘Reading’ the behaviour in this way became deeply reflective work, and the ‘trial and error’ process of interventions was the focus of the shared reflective discussions. For these teachers, interpreting the behaviour for each individual student was both challenging and time-consuming in its complexity.

Theme 2: Problem behaviours of students with complex trauma are repetitive

Irrespective of these deep levels of understanding of the motivation behind a behaviour, the repetitive nature of the behaviour presented a further challenge for these teachers. In spite of their individually tailored interventions, the problem behaviour often continued to occur.

This metaphor described by P3 in an online journal conveys this experience:

It's almost a bit like the bucket and the taps running and the bucket just keeps filling up and there is nothing to tap it or stop it you just give and give and give and give and it is still happening, happening and it just never stops … so exhausting.

(P3, online journal, July)

Often teachers referred to the ‘exhaustion’ experienced when working with their target student and it was a common theme in the reflective discussions.

The issue most frequently referred to by participants as a result of repetitive behaviour was the perceived judgement by their peers or other adults of their ability to ‘manage’ their target student or the appropriateness of the decisions they made when working with them. Five of the six participants cited this in their interview as an ongoing challenge and several reflective group discussions recorded dialogue about it:

Most of my big challenges, for myself are usually coming from dealing with other staff perceptions, of how I'm dealing with his behaviour. Because his behaviours are quite complex and I try and target one thing at a time, instead of trying to target everything, sometimes it seems like – or I feel like it feels like, we're looking like we're giving in to him, a lot of the time. And a lot of staff don't quite understand and you just don't have the time to kind of, go back and explain you know …

(P4, reflective circle, session 5, August)

The fear of judgement appeared to be associated with the apparent lack of consequence for the repeated behaviour; even though a teacher might be confident of a decision they made in relation to their student's behaviour, they still believed other teachers were thinking they ‘didn't do anything’.

The repetitive nature of the behaviour, and the lack of impact interventions appeared to have, led to a constant rumination about the behaviour. As one teacher put it:

‘with this particular student, I think about him all the time. And that's an issue in itself, that he is dominating a lot of my time and thinking’ (P2, interview 2, August).

Theme 3: Problem behaviours of students with complex trauma include aggression and avoidance

While they were not looking for punitive responses to their student's behaviour and were aware that the student's early trauma was driving it, teachers were still confronted by the behaviour and often upset by it. Aggression, a feature of behaviour dysregulation (Cook et al., 2005), produced a strong emotional response in these participants:

He [the student] was put into care because he was knocking Gran about physically [becomes upset] … sorry [tears] … it's just that … sorry but it's very upsetting … I get really upset about it.

(P4, reflective circle, session 4, July)

Some of the aggression described was of a sexual nature, displayed by one of the target students who was in early adolescence:

‘My student made comments about a female student, that he wants to f. u. c. k. her. And that he will, when he does it, he is going to make her bleed’ (P5, interview 2, August).

The challenge for this teacher, a young female, was to continue to engage positively with her student who was provoking high levels of disgust.

While this group of teachers showed deep levels of care for their nominated student, the effect of their student's behaviour on themselves or their other students was very upsetting for them. Even though on the surface they were able to remain emotionally neutral in the face of those behavioural challenges, managing these personal reactions internally appeared to further contribute to their feelings of exhaustion.

Other strong emotions identified were associated with the sense of responsibility they felt for their target student. This comment from one of the participants seemed to reflect a common experience:

‘I felt guilty for not being at work and I felt responsible for my student's behaviour’ (P5, reflective circle, session 3, June).

Teachers expressed a strong sense of personal responsibility for their student as the year progressed, and felt the pressure to come to work even if they were unwell, as they thought their target student would not cope with the change. This revealed a positioning in the way they saw their role. These teachers described a personal investment and sense of responsibility for their target student beyond what is normally required in the teaching role. Questions were often asked in the reflective circles about the tension between what seems to be required for their student to succeed and what the boundaries might be for them as a teacher. A typical question for discussion was:

I think you sometimes feel that you are merging into the parent role, like as a teacher … But should we have to get to that point as a teacher – where does our role end?

(P3, reflective circle, session 4, July)

Avoidance, another of the most frequent behaviour challenges referred to throughout the data, was also cited as contributing to feelings of exhaustion and frustration. It included both low-level refusal to participate, for example:

It's, when he's about to go out to sport with another teacher, and the class is outside on its own, like, outside of its own setting. He'll just refuse to participate, and he'll walk away. And it's trying to understand what's driving him to not want to participate, that's been the tricky part. It's sort of like a guessing game, as to what I can do to actually entice him back to join the group, or to have a go.

(P5, interview 1, February)

or classroom avoidance of particular activities or subjects:

‘he frequently says he's bored and becomes disengaged from the majority of activities’ (P3, reflective circle, session 2, May);

or higher-level behaviour challenges such as absconding:

‘It's the really big ones that come to a halt, he'll come and grab his bag and say “I'm leaving this school”, and he'll go to leave the school. That might be, maybe once or twice a week’ (P6, reflective circle, session 2, May).

Theme 4: Students with complex trauma display controlling behaviours

Frustration, the most common word in all the transcripts, was often associated with the student's perceived need for control. Each teacher participant described ‘controlling’ behaviour which both frustrated and concerned them, and identified it as extremely challenging in the classroom environment. A typical example of the behaviour was observed in one student:

Generally if you ask him to do anything – he likes to do things in his time. If I give him 2 pencils he wants 3. If I give him 4 pencils he wants 5. OK we need to do this colouring first ‘no I'm doing this one first’ … So there is this being in control … and that is a very common thing I guess that you do see in a lot of our students.’

(P1, reflective circle session 3 June)

While there were many examples of ‘controlling behaviour’, the motivation seemed to vary. For example, one teacher participant described their student as follows:

‘He likes to be in control of situations and know how something will start and end’ (P4, interview 1, February).

In this case the student appeared to be needing the security of predictability and the sense of safety it produced. In contrast, however, this description by another participant, also identified as the need for control, appeared to be motivated by the student's need to move quickly from one task to another and their preference for hands-on activity:

My student appears to NEED to be in control of every situation, whether it be academic or social setting. When it comes to his learning tasks, student K will either start the task (with assistance) and then become distracted by another object or person within 2 minutes, or he will outright refuse to attempt the task, often saying he NEEDS to play with the blocks or he NEEDS to do something else that is not the expected task.

(P2, online journal, June)

Other teachers identified the ‘controlling behaviour’ as attempts to get a need met:

‘My student seeks instant rewards and when these are denied he can become quite erratic and throw tantrums that include destroying property’ (P4, online journal, May).

These behaviours, described in one of the domains of impairment as ‘behaviour dysregulation’ (Cook et al., 2005), identifies difficulty understanding or complying with rules as being the result of controlling relationship dynamics. The challenge faced by teachers as a result of this behaviour dysregulation is characterised by this typical comment from a participant:

‘Simple tasks become incredibly difficult, time consuming and frustrating’ (P2, interview 1, February).

The frequency of the ‘controlling behaviour’ is also significant and contributes to the high levels of frustration and exhaustion experienced by teachers. Participants described the ‘massive amount’ of time spent in attempting to direct their target student to comply with instructions.

While teachers acknowledged the importance of a positive relationship with the student, the conflict involved in addressing inappropriate, unsafe or aggressive behaviour negatively affected their relationship and a variety of challenges ensued. This comment is typical of the ‘balance’ the teachers were trying to maintain:

It has been very difficult trying to balance the relationship between us, as the student needs care and nurture, but also boundaries. I was not able to be as caring and nurturing as he possibly needed that day and may have put that balance of the relationship out of sync.

(P1, reflective circle, session 2, May)

The need for control was also a behaviour that consistently disrupted classroom routines and rules and positioned the teacher between responding to their student's need for trust and a sense of agency, and the imperatives of school organisation and expectations. The discomfort they experienced in this position produced feelings of defeat or despair as they viewed the problem as unresolvable. It also evoked a sense of being judged by peers and parents as their student appeared to be flouting the rules. The teachers felt unable to make their student comply with school or classroom rules as the disciplinary processes the school and the classroom had established did not seem to be effective for their traumatised student and the teachers were needing an alternative approach. In their experience, any form of punishment or consequence appeared to exacerbate the behaviour.

The teachers' perceived lack of impact on behaviour management was also associated with a low sense of efficacy. Teachers believed they should have been able to alter the student's behaviour and viewed the lack of behavioural change as a lack of their own capabilities and evidence of their lack of professional expertise. This self-assessment produced high levels of frustration and hopelessness, as well as defensiveness, as teachers felt compelled to justify their actions to leaders, peers and parents.


It is evident that the behavioural manifestations of trauma are inherently challenging for teachers, impacting on them at both a professional and personal level. Strong emotions were expressed and many tears were shed throughout the data collection period, and even though they worked hard to implement a trauma-informed pedagogy, participants felt both powerless and exhausted from their efforts. The behaviours associated with an individual's response to their trauma required deep levels of understanding of the nature and impact for each student as it applied in their classroom context. This understanding was necessary in order to design specific and targeted interventions which might lessen the impact of the trauma over time. While the behaviours were clearly consistent with the literature identifying students with complex trauma (Cook et al., 2005), understanding this alone did not appear to reduce the low sense of efficacy these teachers experienced, nor did it address the emotional responses they were experiencing daily.

In presenting teachers with neuroscientific evidence on changes to the developing brain, it has been assumed that ‘simply increasing awareness of the key principles of development and brain function would, over time, lead to innovations and improved outcomes’ (Perry, 2009, p. 253). However, the findings from this study suggest the educational implications for traumatised students cannot be simply applied. While understanding the neuroscience and a traumatised student's need for safety, relationships and self-regulation provides a critical first step, there is still a great deal more required of the teacher. Being trauma-informed requires teachers not only to develop complex, individualised pedagogy (Becker-Blease, 2017) but also to manage significant personal and emotional responses (Luthar & Mendes, 2020).

While trauma training programmes can improve levels of expertise, they do not help teachers unpack the complexity of the motives behind their individual student's challenging behaviour or explore the multiple contexts impacting on their behaviour within the school. The nuanced view of the impact of early childhood trauma as it related to a specific student required deep levels of reflection by the teacher, group input, multiple perspectives and a trial-and-error process sustained over time. Reflective circles afforded teachers the support and dedicated time to explore both their individual and collective experiences, which led to a deeper understanding of themselves and their students (Fook & Gardner, 2012). The complexity of this trauma work appears to demand such a reflective approach, with the opportunity to articulate and process the deeply personal impact and interdependent relational dynamics of the classroom (Edwards, 2005).

Teachers in this study described a personal investment and sense of responsibility for their student beyond what is normally considered part of the teaching role. This has been observed in earlier studies where:

several teachers struggled with their role and wondered at what point their tasks as a teacher ended and at what point those of a social worker or psychologist started. They had the impression that teaching was moving away from teaching children academic skills toward playing a major role in children's social and emotional development.

(Alisic, 2012, p. 54)

This extended role often meant that teachers did not feel adequately competent about their abilities as they felt they were both under-resourced and under-trained, an observation that also features in similar studies (Luthar & Mendes, 2020). The feelings of inadequacy or lack of efficacy that ensue are problematic as they can often lead to burnout (Skaalvik & Skaalvik, 2010).

The reflective circles, however, were effective in enabling teachers to develop their knowledge over time through the trial-and-error approach they adopted when tailoring trauma-informed understandings for individual students. Teachers found that drawing on the range of perspectives and experience of their peers broadened their repertoire of responses, as well as fostering a collective acceptance of the uncertain and ongoing nature of the work. The lack of efficacy they initially experienced was diminished with the realisation that there were no generic strategies and that an ongoing investigative understanding for each student needed to be constantly trialled and modified. A report on Early Adopters of Trauma-Informed Care similarly concluded that the most successful approaches were those that provided staff with the ‘the freedom to innovate, learn from failures and revise approaches based on lessons learned’ (Dubay et al., 2018, p. viii). Teachers reported higher levels of efficacy when they realised that there were ‘five other people that knew how hard this work is and how hard I am trying’ (P3, interview 3, December).

While the challenges identified were common experiences for this group of teachers, it is nonetheless acknowledged that the deeply personal and ongoing exploration of experience for each of these individuals presents limitations for generalisations outside the research context. What can be concluded, however, is that for teachers to develop healthy student–teacher relationships, and be attuned to their own frustration levels in order to proactively regulate their own emotions (Nealy-Oparah & Scruggs-Hussein, 2018), processes to facilitate this need to be provided. The literature on critical reflection (Southall et al., 2021), as well as recommendations from trauma-informed approaches (Howard, 2019), including the delivery of trauma-informed professional development programmes (Herman & Witaker, 2020), can be applied in ways that enable and support teachers in this vital work. A first step, however, is to recognise the complexity and personal nature of the teacher's role in creating a trauma-informed pedagogy and acknowledge that without this support, ‘a significant and valuable resource for addressing the outcomes of complex trauma in students, is lost’ (Howard, 2019, p. 212).


This study has introduced the teacher's perspective into the trauma-informed discourse and identifies the significant personal and professional challenges they experience when working with children from traumatic backgrounds. It is clear that a great deal is still required of the teacher when responding to the neuroscientific understandings and navigating this complex interpersonal work. The personal and professional challenges identified require teachers to reflect critically on their own feelings and experiences, and trial ever-evolving approaches which respond to and engage with their individual student in the context of their classroom. With the current imperative for schools to become more trauma-sensitive, we need to open the way for a deeper discussion about how schools can provide reflective processes that support this complex interpersonal work.


Open access publishing facilitated by La Trobe University, as part of the Wiley - La Trobe University agreement via the Council of Australian University Librarians.


    The authors did not receive funding from any organisation to conduct this research study.


    The authors declare no conflict of interest.


    Permission to conduct the research was granted through the La Trobe University Human Research Ethics Committee (No: E15-135) and the State Government Victoria Department of Education and Training prior to the research being conducted (DET No. 2015-002908).